It stormed last night. Thunder rumbled across the sky. Lightning bolts streaked through the night, searing the dark. The wind howled. The trees moaned and I lay in my bed, warm and dry, Ellie snoring on her mat at the foot of the bed and Marley curled up beside me.
I love storms. I love their fierce energy cascading from the sky, rippling across the earth. I love the wind and the rain and the trees bowing and the wind chime tinkling madly in the back yard. I love the sound of the rain pattering on the roof, the water splashing in puddles and dripping from the eaves.
And I love listening to the storm from inside the safety and warmth of my home.
I am grateful for the roof over my head. I am grateful we live on higher ground, that our foundation is secure, our roof strong. I am grateful for the stove light that glimmers in the dark from the kitchen, the candles ready just in case, the flashlight strategically placed on my bedside table – just in case.
I am grateful I can take precautions, just in case.
I have the resources, the resilience and the necessary strength to take care of myself, just in case.
There was a time…
I was thinking of those times yesterday as I listened to a group of co-workers talk about ‘harm reduction’ — the art of maximizing safety even when someone is engaged in unsafe and risky behaviours.
It’s part of Housing First which forms the foundation of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The first step in any housing first model is to get someone into housing, and provide them the prerequisite supports to enhance well-being.
The premise is, you can’t look at options, you can’t see possibilities, you can’t feel safe, when your life is one unstable step after another.
It’s true. You can’t.
Having worked in a shelter for almost six years, no matter how good the service, no matter how well-intentioned the supports, when homelessness sits heavily on your shoulders, believing in the possibility of change, knowing there’s hope for more is a constant battle of reality versus resignation. Life is just too hard, too heavy, too confusing to conceive of your capacity to change.
I know. When I was mired in the darkness of an abusive relationship, when my home was gone, my belongings stored precariously, my family ties shredded, I couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t believe there was anything I could do to make it different. It took everything I had to pretend everyday that I was coping with the uncertainty and trauma of what was happening in my life. How could I create change? How could I believe I had the capacity to change my path when I believed I was the one who had destroyed my life in the first place? How could I do anything differently when to do something different meant I was lost? How could I find courage in the fear driving me deeper and deeper into the dark?
I told myself I couldn’t. I told myself there was nothing else I could do. I told myself, this is all there is. This is where I belong. This is what I deserve. This fear, confusion, abuse. This constant uncertainty. This continuous instability would never change. It couldn’t. Because I didn’t deserve anything else. I was 100% responsible for what was happening in my life — and I was powerless to change it.
Homelessness begets helplessness. Losing everything leads to losing yourself. It opens the door to nothing but, more of the same. In the downward spiral of feeling helpless to stop the storm rumbling through your life, sweeping away everything you once held onto or believed would keep you safe, you stand exposed to the harsh and bitter winds of hopelessness. And in that place, even when the shelter provides a roof over your head, even when you know there are three meals to count on every day. Even when you have a bed to sleep in, a chair to sit on, a locker to store your meagre belongings in, others to talk to in a community of people with your shared experience, you never feel safe. you never feel at home, because in being given everything you need to survive, you still do not have the one thing that will lead you home — a place to call your own. A place where you can lock the door, make yourself a cup of tea, butter a slice of toast and dream.
When I was homeless and life stormed all around me, darkness was my companion. In the dark, I could pretend I couldn’t see what was happening. In the dark, I didn’t dream of the storm ending, because dreams always lead to awakening to the nightmare that was my life and I didn’t believe I’d ever awaken from the horror of what was happening. In my disbelief I held onto the dark where fear kept me still and held me fast in the hopelessness of its embrace.
It stormed last night and I awoke to thunder rumbling across the sky. In its passing I am left with the gift of today, the beauty of this place where I am grateful for the roof above my head. This place, where I know that to end homelessness we must first find a place to call home. A place where the nightmare of homelessness ends and dreams begin again.