Ottawa Songwriter Reflects on Homelessness Caused by Domestic Abuse 

Sydney, a formerly Homeless youth and Musician

“At first, I didn’t know you were allowed to write songs that juxtaposed dark situations with the comedic side of life,” said Sydney, an Ottawa Songwriter who has experienced homelessness. “I find humor very powerful.”

When Sydney sings, people listen. The quirky, darkly humorous songstress has become a staple of local open mics at pubs and coffee shops all over Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Sydney wants to make an impression. And that’s precisely what she does every time she speaks.

“I am all about music. I am autistic. I have a relationship with God. I love boys. My purpose for living is human connection. I am in love with the universe, and if the music doesn’t work out or I get tired of it, I hope to go into astrophysics,” she said over coffee.

“If Brian May (of Queen) can do it, why can’t I?” she said with a chuckle before explaining her life philosophy. “The best part of being weird is feeling like I have this entire universe head-cannon that’s just my life. It’s so strange and unique, and I feel like I’m in a movie a lot of the time.”

For Sydney, the sky is the limit. But it hasn’t always been that way for her.

Not long ago, the pop-superstar-in-waiting wasn’t nearly as confident.

Lost in a whirlwind of challenging life choices, and unique international circumstances, Sydney wasn’t in any position to feel independent. One day she broke the cycle of abuse.

“I was all over the place,” she said. “First, I lived in Sacramento with my partner. A few months later, we moved to Berkeley, where he attended the University of California. I lived in Albany from September 2016 to March 2018.”

Married at just seventeen, the young woman admits she didn’t have much experience living away from family before finding herself tied to a challenging anchor in her husband.

“The only people I lived with before my marriage were my parents. Our family home was generally a safe place to be, but my mother’s alcoholism combined with teenage hormones and my mental health issues fostered a chaotic battleground at times,” Sydney said.

“When I first moved to California, I lived with my partner and his roommate. The roommate was uptight about cleanliness. That was when I learned how to do dishes, wipe counters, and clean up after myself because my mom always did that for me at home.”

“The next roommate we had was when we lived in Berkeley. He was quiet but not quite as clean. I got so stressed out about having to wash a pan to make grilled cheese one time that I cried,” she said. “After that, we lived with a man in a small house in Kensington, basically like the Hollywood Hills of Berkeley. He was nice, but I remember disassociating a lot during those times.”

Later that year, they made their way to Albany. It wasn’t long before mental health woes and relationship turmoil took a toll on her living situation.

“My housing stability was compromised because of domestic abuse,” she said. “We got married in July of 2016. I was a minor, so he had to take me across state lines to Nevada to have me get married outside of a courthouse so we didn’t have to appear before a judge. The only catch was that my parents had to send me my birth certificate and a signed document saying they consented to this marriage. They sent both.”

The marriage didn’t last long, as what began with tension became a battleground of physicality. Fights that started with antagonizing each other devolved into her larger husband pinning her down and smothering her with his bare hands until she managed to bang on the walls around her long enough for neighbors to call the cops. After his arrest, Sydney sought counseling support and began the next stage of her journey.

“I needed to start the divorce process, so I knew I couldn’t leave back to Canada until that had begun.”

Looking back on her first journey into homelessness, Sydney illustrates that it was both scary and, at times, liberating.

“I got lucky,” she said. “I got into one of the few free beds at a youth shelter. I am one of the lucky ones who got a nearly empty bedroom. There I had food, snacks, case workers, counselors, support, and people to talk to.” She had a fighting chance.

She now faced the challenge of aging out of their support.

“That first shelter only supported youth eighteen and under, and I was about to turn nineteen in a few weeks. They told me that I could take my chances there for the next couple weeks or check out a domestic violence shelter,” Sydney said.

“The problem was that once I went to that space, I was also giving up my bed because demand was so high. I took a leap of faith and ended up staying there for three months,” she continued. “I remember San Francisco was so beautiful.”

At just 19, Sydney was processing a unique life experience: abuse, divorce, homelessness, shelter beds, and traveling to new cities. She was a teenager at the tail-end of adolescence, still finding herself in the big city of San Francisco.

“I fell in love with that city,” she said. “I’d put my headphones on and listen to the songs that became the soundtrack to my freedom in the most beautiful city I’d ever seen.”

During this part of her journey, she realized how fortunate she was.

“There were women at that shelter with full families, running away from pimps and murderous boyfriends. I was told I’d be kicked out if I compromised the location. That made for a lot of awkward first dates,” she said.

Looking back on her challenging journey, Sydney has many stories illustrating important life lessons she learned.

“I remember this girl absolutely losing her mind because somebody used her shampoo. It was me,” she admitted. “I barely even remembered using it, but I remember it impacting me. We all need to remember that people in these situations are often desperate. Every drop counts! I had to learn that quickly.”

“One of my first nights at the first shelter, my case worker told me to keep watch of my phone charger not because these kids are bad people, they’re just desperate,” she said. “That single lesson itself taught me a lot about the human condition. I remember learning how to manage my time and not be late for an appointment because that could mean a delay in housing or resources.”

“You need to breathe impulse control and discipline in every single aspect of your life to survive,” she said.

She went to the Covenant House in Oakland when her three-month stay in San Francisco ended. “That’s when I started making friends and branching out more,” Sydney said. “After a few months, they told me I could transfer into their long-term program or leave. I briefly considered staying because of the music hubs.”

Ultimately, she decided to take the safer option of returning to Canada.

“Who knows where I would’ve ended if I had stayed.”

While her relationship with her parents remains complicated, she gives credit where she feels it is due. Rekindling a strained relationship with family, Sydney made the voyage home to Canada and into the loving arms of her sister.

“My sister swooped in to rescue me and told me that her friends were looking for a roommate in an apartment just a few doors down from hers. Once I got back, she told me she had trouble sleeping every night since I left for California.”

After staying at her sister’s place for a few months, she moved out on her own. Landing on her feet like the rockstar she is destined to be, Sydney said returning to Canada was the right decision. Still, parts of her former life weigh heavy on her mind.

“The domestic violence situation still haunts me, and I still have a lot of emotional processing to do. I realize many people may not be in this situation. But I was much freer and happier being homeless in shelters, having to sleep with my phone charger in my hand than in student housing at a prestigious university with an abusive person.”

“I’ve learned invaluable life lessons about independence, freedom, people, culture, community, and friendship. Homelessness is a universal threat and nightmare to most. Once you get thrown into that ocean, it quite literally sinks or swims,” she said. “The shelters had rules to follow, and my safety could be compromised at any moment. I needed to be on my best behavior at the worst point of my life. I learned to take responsibility for every mistake I made.”

When asked about moments of impact during her journey through homelessness, Sydney became wide-eyed with enthusiasm.

“One day outside of the Berkeley Public Library, I was sitting outside enjoying the sunshine when I saw two street people interact. I don’t remember what was said, but I saw that they were laughing and smiling about some joke, or story, or experience. They looked like they’d been homeless for quite a while, but I saw them smiling. When I saw that, I realized one important thing; happiness is not circumstance. If I could smile or laugh at least once each day, I’d call that a good life.”

“That memory is a reminder that I’m still alive and breathing, that I am in control. That I got this!”

After accomplishing her other dreams, Sydney’s final goal is to start a family. She believes her past experiences have given her the strength to make the most of her hopes and dreams.

“In retrospect, I am grateful to have gone through being homeless because I may not have the resiliency to cope with things as well as I do now. I’m not making my bed every morning,” she said, laughing, “but I’m doing my part.”

Leigh Bursey

Leigh Bursey


Leigh Bursey is a 35 year old resident of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada. Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, Leigh spent over twenty years in Ontario, where he was a three term former municipal councillor. Leigh is an International Best-Selling Author, an award-winning singer/songwriter and recording artist, actor, painter, and community organizer/policy advocate. Leigh is the co-founder of the Brockville Streetfriends and current lead for the Mount Pearl Streetfriends outreach networks. He is an International Chartered Housing Professional, a shelter worker, and a former provincial Housing Officer. Leigh is a board member for the Canadian Housing Renewal Association and the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, and the LivEx Scholars With Lived Experience through Making The Shift. Leigh is a newlywed and a first-time homeowner. Leigh has lived experience with homelessness.

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