I witnessed the beauty and wonder of the grace of the human spirit yesterday. It was amazing.
Two years ago, a remarkable young woman at The Calgary Homeless Foundation, Meaghan Bell, created a Client Advisory Committee as a forum for people with lived experience of homelessness to provide feedback and insight into CHF’s policies, practices and programs. Yesterday, along with Meaghan and co-worker, Nicole Jackson, five members of the Committee gave a noon-hour presentation on their recent findings from a Community Consultation they held to gather community feedback on the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness to date.
It is easy for the ‘experts’ to gather around a boardroom table to discuss best practices and research in ending homelessness. The intent is laudable. The actions admirable. But, do they work? What is their impact on those for whom they are being designed to serve? The Advisory Committee is the critical client voice that measures the ‘on the street’ impact of the work.
In the community consultations, there was much evidence that the focus on moving people from shelter to housing was imperative. It isn’t that shelters don’t do the job they are designed to do. They do admirable work in a very stressful environment. For people experiencing homelessness, however, getting stuck, feeling lost, experiencing confusion, isolation, marginalization and depression are real and debilitating factors in their lives. Through the inherently unstable and chaotic nature of emergency shelter, these aspects of homelessness are exacerbated. In addition, given that within the shelter system there isn’t a standard of care that all shelters must adhere to, people experience different levels of care at each shelter and sometimes from staff member to staff member.
Not knowing ‘the rules’, inconsistencies in level of care, feeling voiceless and powerless, were common responses to the question, “What’s not working?”
Of the five members of the committee who came to present, one is still living in shelter, with another individual in transitional housing waiting for a placement in permanent housing. Two of the individuals found housing through their own efforts with one being housed through CHF programming. However, one individual’s program was ending which means he is again working with an agency to secure new housing. The other is a senior who is currently on a waitlist for affordable housing so that she does not need to spend 60% of her income on housing, an aspect of life she claims is not uncommon for seniors living in poverty.
Throughout their presentation, the group was articulate, organized and passionate. Most of them have worked with the Committee for a year or more and care deeply about their peers whom they represent. This was poignantly apparent when one of the presenters talked about some of the responses attendees at the Community Consultation had written on the sheets that asked the question, “Who are you?”
“They answered, mother, father, artist, carpenter, kind, hard-working, and then one person wrote, ‘I am a human being’,” one presenter commented, obviously distressed by the answer. “Why does anyone have to write that they are a human being? Aren’t we all?”
“Several people wrote that,” another presenter chimed in.
We all share a desire to be heard, to be seen, to be known. Within homelessness however, there is often a feeling of being dehumanized, stripping each person of the one thing we all share, our human condition.
It is a sad reality of homelessness. The very condition that we all share, the one irrefutable truth about each of us, is what people feel they lose in this place called homeless.
I was in awe yesterday. At the end of their presentation, each presenter shared a bit of their ‘story’ and what they are most passionate about. It was inspiring, enlightening and humbling.
No matter the condition of their lives, each individual is working with the committee to give back, to make a difference, to make life better for others. They didn’t rant and rave about the injustice of the homeless condition, they didn’t strike out against government and agencies and their fellow man. They spoke up for dignity, human caring, the right of every individual to be treated with respect, consideration and fairness.
And in their voices, I was moved to tears. In their courage, I was humbled.
I wasn’t alone.
One of my co-workers, a man who has come from the corporate sector to assist in building our housing portfolio stated at the end that meeting them, listening to their presentation and hearing their stories had changed him. “You have helped make me become better at my job, and be a better human being,” he said.
We all have a story. We all have wounds we carry close to our hearts, hurts and pains we harbour beneath our skin. We are all the same kind of different in our being human.
Yesterday, I witnessed five remarkable human beings stand in the light. Through their sharing, they illuminated the path so that others could see their way to the heart of ending homelessness.
I am grateful.