I cried yesterday. I was driving down a road, listening to CBC and without any ceremony or warning, tears started flowing from my eyes. “Stop it!” the critter hissed. “Let me be,” my compassionate self replied.
I knew I was out of balance. I pulled over and breathed and reminded myself, “Sadness is here. I am not alone.” And, unlike the flood damage in our city, my tears dried leaving me refreshed.
Later, I was walking with two co-workers to grab a bite to eat when we passed a man who appeared to be in distress. I walked over to where he was leaning against a tree and asked him if we could help. “You don’t look like you’re feeling very well,” I said.
“I’m not,” he replied. “I feel all dizzy and weak.”
“How about we walk you over to that bench over there and see what we can do?”
And so, we walked to the bench and sat down. His name was Jeff. He’d been staying at the Drop-In when it was evacuated and rather than go up to the site of their emergency/emergency shelter, he chose to ‘sleep rough’. “I couldn’t take that chaos,” he said.
“Have you had much to eat?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “My stomach is too upset to eat,” he said. And he blamed it on the fish fillet burger he’d had the night before.
“How about we get you a juice?” and Wendy my co-worker ran into the restaurant in front of which we were sitting to grab one. His hands shook as he brought the juice to his mouth. His eyes were rheumy. His shoulders slumped. We sat and chatted and eventually he agreed to try some food. Wendy bought him a sandwich and he took it with the promise to eat it, later.
He refused to let us call for assistance and promised to sit on the bench until he felt well enough to walk again.
In the warm afternoon sunlight we sat and shared the moment. He told me about his four years living at the shelter. Of his sadness of what had happened in his life, his fear that he would never be able to get out. “I was so sick the first two years I was there,” he said. “It’s what forced me there in the first place. I got too sick to work and lost my place. I thought of going back to temping this spring but I just can’t seem to get myself together long enough to be able to do it.”
We sat quietly for a few moments. I asked again if we could call for help. Again he refused.
When we left him he was sitting in the afternoon sun, one of thousands of homeless in this city of flooded houses and streets and buildings. For Jeff, his homelessness will not end when the power is restored and the debris cleaned up. His homelessness will not be over when the garbage is carried out and homes are rebuilt.
There is no rebuilding of his home. No clearing out of debris from his life. He sits. A lone man on a bench lost in the underbelly of homelessness. A silent figure searching for a way back home and fearing he’ll never find it. He has lost all hope.
I cried yesterday morning and then again on my way home in the evening. I thought about Jeff and the hundreds of others who have no home to go back to. And I thought about the work we do at the Foundation where I work and what all the agencies do who are working so hard to get people back home to a place of their own. Like our Mayor who is working tirelessly to keep the people of our city safe and to instill hope that they will be able to go back home, the agencies providing housing first to homeless Calgarians keep hope and the dream of going home alive.
Jeff and so many others, have lost all hope of going home. They know they have a place to stay every night. They know, thanks to shelters like the DI and Alpha House and The Mustard Seed and Inn from the Cold, they know they can find a meal, a caring hand, a welcoming place. What they don’t know is, how to get back home. What they don’t know is how to find their way to a place of their own. Emergency shelter is an important step in keeping people safe, but it is not home. No matter how hard we want to believe it is. It is not home.
I met a man on the streets yesterday. He reminded me that no matter how lost we become, we must hold out hope and compassion and love and care for those who are struggling to find their way back home. Even when we cannot do anything more than give them a juice, a sandwich and a smile, we cannot give up hope that they will get back to the place where they belong — home.
It is like this city. As people muck out their basements and survey the damage, we must hold onto hope, even in those moments when they are feeling the despair of all that they have lost. We must hold out, hold onto, and be held by hope, love and compassion.
And in our holding onto hope, even when they feel lost, we restore the thing they want the most, the way back to a place to call their own.