On Friday, Alexis, my eldest daughter, and I had coffee with a dear friend from the shelter where I used to work.
I first met MC when I started an art program at the shelter. Everyday I’d see him painting at his table in the Day Area on the 2nd floor. I’d ask him if he’d like to come up to the studio space on the 6th floor and he’d demur. “Not today. I’m not ready.”
One day I asked how he’d know when he was ready. He didn’t have an answer so I asked him, “What if you decide to make today the day you’re ready?” And he did.
Working in the art program I was always in awe of his amazing talent. Not just a gifted visual artist, MC is a carpenter, a writer, a poet and a musician.
MC also makes me think. He once wrote for a play he was performing in, “I am a father, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend. I am an artist, a carpenter, a writer, a musician. I laugh. I cry. I bleed. I feel. Which of these is diminished because I am homeless?”
On Friday, we sat and shared stories of the past many months since last we visited. He shared the music he was writing, his hopes and dreams of ‘moving on’.
For MC, homelessness hit over 20 years ago. The break-up of a marriage, the loss of connection with his only child, alcohol, all of these took their toll until he was no longer able to function in the world of theatre where he used to work. The shelter became his home. His ballast. His refuge.
But a shelter is not a home. It is designed to be a community space where those experiencing homelessness can find safe refuge. For a short time. Not forever.
Yet, there are those who will die in the shelter. There are those who will never ‘get out’. Not because they don’t want to. Working at a shelter I never met anyone who said, I want to die here, though I did meet many who were afraid to leave. Afraid that ‘out there’ would only lead them back. Afraid that ‘out there’ was too scary, unstable, unwelcoming and unkind.
For them, staying in the shelter became the safest and most familiar option. Their fear of leaving overwhelmed their capacity to dream, to see beyond the shelter doors the possibility of life beyond what they knew as the reality of their life today.
Shelters are filled with people whose lives are limited not by homelessness, but rather, by the belief they never will, or can’t, or don’t deserve to find their way back home.
Which is why it is so important that we must all hold the space, and the dream, of ending homelessness. It is not an easy task. In fact, there are those who would say it is impossible, to end homelessness. You can’t do it if you don’t first end all the things that contribute to someone becoming homeless, they say. Like addiction, abuse, violence, divorce, loss, poverty. If those things continue to plague our society how can you end homelessness?
Because even though those thing plague our society, not everyone impacted by them ends up homeless. In fact, of those who do suffer from addictions, abuse, violence, divorce, loss, poverty only a small percentage end up on the streets. So, why not take the ending up on the street option out of the mix? Why not remove one outcome that creates so much pain and suffering?
Yes, we need emergency shelter beds — as a temporary stop-over for those who suffer the loss of housing. But emergency shelter should never become permanent placement. it should never become our de facto solution for those who have no place to call home.
When someone enters homelessness they need supports to help them see and believe and know, there is a way out. Too long in an emergency situation creates lasting trauma and stress. Knowing there is support, help, and a path out is vital to keeping the one thing alive everyone who becomes homeless needs — hope. Hope that they will not stay stuck forever in the nomads land of homelessness. Hope they won’t die in a shelter because, no matter which way you cut it, a shelter is not a home. It is a stepping stone on the way back to that place we all want to be, home.
At home, we can find the stability we need to rebuild our lives. At home, we can find the courage to do the things we need to do to take care of ourselves. At home, pride, peace, joy live with us because, at home, we find our selves.
Everyone wins when homelessness ends. Everyone.