The first thing you notice about Susan Brandt is her look of peace, her serene expression and demeanor. Immediately you feel at ease around her as if you could tell her your life story. Her hair, now grey with a life spent on the streets assisting people in need, falls on her shoulders. Her smile gives away what must have been a pretty girl in days past, before life took few wrong turns. Every passerby is greeted with a warm “Hello” or a “How are you”. Upon departure every visitor receives a “Bless you” and warm wishes.
She was born in Ottawa, in the shadow of the peace tower with a picket sign in her cradle as she’s fond of saying. Raised by a single mother who had immigrated from war-torn Nazi Germany, life at home was hard from the start for Susan.
“I grew up in poverty. I grew up in a home where there was addiction and where there was violence. Back in those days the feeling was what happened in your house should be kept silent in your house. The message was clear: Don’t talk, trust, don’t feel,” says Brandt.
In the rebellious teenage years that followed Susan’s life started to take a downward tumble. Mistrustful of adults from an early age she was shuffled from place to place until finally landing with a rough crowd, where she is forced to do whatever it takes to survive.
“I can remember from about age eight on planning how I was going to save my own life. So by the time I was thirteen to fifteen I was running away from home, getting picked up by the police, reform schools, detention centers, and this kind of stuff. Until I met a group of people that seemed like a good surrogate family who were bikers with a group called Satan’s Choice.”
Satan’s Choice was a bike gang that used young women to hold weapons and drugs.
“You get old pretty fast. By the time I’m seventeen, I’m pretty old,” says Brandt. “I’m already attempting suicide and I’m spiraling out of control. I’m a junkie.”
Susan doesn’t feel as if her story is unique though. So many homeless feel as if they have little or no self worth. A pattern of abuse, neglect and sometimes violence leads to self-destructive behavior. Feelings of being ostracized by society makes one believe as if they don’t have any value. The most common request made by homeless during a census in Ottawa was for someone to talk to, a friend.
“My drug of choice back in the day was speed, amphetamines. They tell me the composition is a little different today. We didn’t smoke it, we injected it,” says Brandt.
She hadn’t hit bottom yet though. Drug use can kill you and they very nearly took Susan’s life. After a particularly big hit of speed one night she lost the use of her kidney and was in the hospital for a long time. From this point on she swore off synthetic drugs and went on the “marijuana maintenance plan” as she jokingly calls it. Many years passed before she actually became clean and sober.
“The denial of addiction can lead you right to the doorway of death,” says Brandt.
Now in her twenties Susan encountered a group of recovering addicts who reached out to her and got her off the streets. While living with this group of people she was instilled with a faith and spiritual love for God. This process of healing forced her to take look at her addiction and some of her life recovery issues.
From there Susan worked to become a nurse. She got her high school diploma and applied to nursing school. Time and time again she applied and was turned down. Six times she tried before she was accepted. Each time she was questioned as to how someone with her background could hope to manage in school, but she never quit trying.
“I just knew it was something I had to do,” says Brandt.
In 1975 Susan graduated as registered practical nurse and began working at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa. Even though she was successful and moved onto public health nursing , Susan wasn’t satisfied. The streets called her back but this time to help.
“I’ve never really gone very far from the streets,” says Brandt. “I felt a strong call from God to give back the gifts and skills I had learned to people who might not access this level of care. I really wanted to be the kind of person I wish I had met when I was on the streets.”
After leaving conventional nursing in the early 1980’s she started Ottawa Innercity Ministries with the assistance of a friend as a way of helping those living on the streets. OIM is a non-profit organization that provides holistic help to those in need. Susan had come full circle and now could help out people who might slip through the cracks as she once had. Her methods were different than many other institutions however; instead of the homeless coming to the shelter she walked the streets offering health care and hope. Going into abandoned buildings and under bridges she offered unique methods of care like washing the feet of the poor and using her skills as a pastor, counselor and nurse.
“In each of our drop-in centers we had an area where we washed feet. An area where we put the most comfortable rocking chairs and ambient music, it was called the spa. The foot conditions that the homeless have are atrocious, trench foot, neuropathy, and athletes’ foot. Since most shelters require that you stay outside everyday, you need your feet to walk on,” said Brandt.
Along the way she opened more drop-in centers, street health clinics and became a popular conference speaker. Even using her experience to speak to at risk high school students about addiction, trauma and staying off the streets.
Being homeless can be a horrific existence with appalling conditions. She relayed a story about a woman, who as a young girl had been passed among the patrons of her fathers bar and later ended up pregnant with her father’s child. The young women, now 30, died of AIDS but not before Susan performed the rite of marriage for her and her long time boyfriend. Another winter evening Susan encountered a seventeen year-old girl, eight months pregnant frozen to death in a snowbank.
“There is a lot of post-traumatic stress on the streets, a lot of people that have experienced incredibly horrific trauma and I think we often don’t want to consider that,” says Brandt. “We think “its your fault get a stiff upper lip, pull yourself together”. Fact is not everybody is born with a strong constitution. You ever wonder when you read in the newspaper about the only survivor of a house fire that killed an entire family, or you ever wonder about the one survivor of a car crash that killed everyone else. Well I meet some of those people on the streets. Not everybody is there because of bad decisions. Many are there because they have limited choices, and because our level of compassion as a society ebbs and wanes. One year it’s the year for hugging the homeless and the next year is the year for condemning them.”
In all of her years of service the thing that Susan found hardest to deal was the death toll. In one year as street chaplain she buried 68 street friends.
“One day I’d have Joe in the car with me, the next day I’d have his box of ashes there,” says Brandt.
In 2002 fortune shone on Susan once again when her good friend Dr. Pierre Allard from Corrections Services Canada offered her a scholarship to Queens University to study Restorative Justice. Two years later after graduating she traveled to South Africa where she worked with the poor in Africa, spoke at a justice conference and met Canadian Stephen Lewis. Lewis is known for his work through the UN dealing with AIDS in Africa, and so many dying of AIDS left a lasting impression on her even after her stay. In Swaziland after one presentation to nursing students where she was not allowed to mention HIV or AIDS in her speech due to official decree, a women walked up and quietly placed the red looped ribbon symbol into Susan’s hand.
“It’s really important for me to be a global citizen,” says Brandt, “It’s really important for me to not just be a part of my city, my province, my country, but to be a citizen of this world. I think the valuation of a nation depends on how they care for their poor.”
Susan’s accomplishments are many; internationally certified addiction counselor, an ordained member of the clergy, registered practical nurse [Ont.], and over 25 years of service in helping the homeless. Though for all of her work Susan says her proudest moment came last month when she picked up her 12 step medallion for being clean and sober for 30 years.
“Wonderful people have come along my way over the years, many, many angels. People who believed in me, people who were able to see I was more than just my behavior, people who were able to help me dream my dreams,” says Brandt.
“I’ve never stopped learning or growing, I’m always trying to better myself,” says Brandt.
Susan has a book that is soon to be published entitled “The Final Taboo: Mother Daughter Incestuous behavior”. She also operates a website at www.StreetLevelConsulting..ca an information rich site on poverty and homelessness in Canada. At present Brandt is actively working with the homeless community and with federal parolees in a number of capacities.