The other night, my youngest daughter asked me while we were sharing a dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, “Do you miss the daily interaction with the clients at the shelter where you used to work?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I do.”
And then, yesterday, the universe delivered the message I needed to hear to see that it’s just my thinking that’s in the way of believing I am missing something that I’ve never lost. There are people everywhere to chat with, interact with and connect with. It’s my thinking that’s kept me from seeing it.
The message came in the form of two individuals, both former clients of the homeless shelter where I used to work. Both have been housed for some time now, one a year, the other just over two. One is a man in his mid 60s. The other an aboriginal man in his 30s. In both cases, had you asked me or any of the staff at the shelter a couple of years ago, “Will they ever be housed?” we probably would have answered that their addictions had too strong a hold and they were too far gone to be able to sustain housing. In fact, in the case of the aboriginal man, no one would have given him two years to live given his life style.
And we would have been wrong — in both cases.
Yesterday, both men taught me a lesson in humility and possibility. Both men opened my eyes to the narrow corridors of my thinking.
The older man had lived at the shelter 8 years, he told me when we encountered eachother walking down the street. One morning he woke up and realized he hated the way he was living. Hated what he was doing to his life and figured it was time to change course. “You know, the whole time I was there I worked and on weekends, I’d take my money and go stay at a hotel just to get away. I kept telling myself there was nothing I could do to change it and then, I woke up one day and realized I’d had enough.”
Sharing his mealtime with hundreds of people. Sleeping on a mat every night. “There was no privacy. No hope of anything different. “I had to make different choices. If I could afford to spend money on a hotel, maybe I could afford to get my own place.”
And so he did. He connected with an agency that works with long-term chronically homeless individuals and supports them in finding housing and transitioning out of homelessness. He’s been living independently for over a year now and in his words, “No way would I go back. It ain’t gonna happen.”
The aboriginal man was sitting on a bench that sits at the edge of the sidewalk near my office. As I walked towards my car at the end of the day he saw me walking towards him, lifted a hand in greeting, smiled a toothy grin and said, “Hey! I haven’t seen you in a long, long time. Where have you been?”
I stopped and smiled back and we chatted about changes, moving on, and, as he described it, ‘growing up’.
“I have trouble believing some days that this is my life now,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d live to see the day that I got out of that place.” And he paused and I could feel the quiet descend upon him as he looked into my eyes and said, “I’m happy now. I got my own place. Kept it for two years. Life’s good.”
He’s fallen once. “I don’t live downtown. I can’t,” he told me. “I get anywhere near that place [the shelter] and there are just too many temptations. Too many opportunities to fall back. The time I did, I was lucky. Nobody knew my address so my workers could help me get back on the straight and narrow and away from everything.” And he laughed. “Guess I’m like the alcoholic going into a bar. I can’t go back to where I was falling down all the time. It’s too easy to stay there.”
When I worked at the shelter it was hard to imagine some lives surviving the trauma of homelessness, addictions, abuse, self-harm. It was hard to imagine a man who spent 20 of 24 hours under the influence of alcohol or drugs finding his way home.
And yet, it’s possible. It happens. It is happening, every day in our city as people work together to find new and exciting ways to provide hope, possibility and life beyond homelessness to those who have lost their way and find themselves stuck in believing, being homeless is all there is to be.
There’s more and unless we’re willing to explore the possibility of more, we’ll never see that it’s our thinking that keeps us from seeing the potential for change and growth in every life, no matter their circumstances.
I met two men on the street this week who reminded me that nothing’s impossible, it just hasn’t happened yet.