In the course of the This is Where I Belong project unveiling Monday, Bill, an individual who is currently living the realities of homelessness, shared his story with a Global TV reporter. Listening to Bill’s account of the realities of his life, hearing his dreams of a future where art has become the foundation of his life, I was moved by his willingness to be honest, open and vulnerable. I was moved by his joy in finding himself surrounded by a group of people willing to work alongside him as he explored his human condition, his art and the condition of being homeless.
Homelessness is not a cake walk and it definitely isn’t a walk in the park without fear.
There is constant fear in homelessness.
Fear of what to do next walks beside fear of what might happen to you next. And while shelter life creates a community in and of itself, it is a community based on the shared experience of ‘lack’. Lack of stability. Lack of safe housing. Lack of money, social connections outside the homeless circle. Lack of everything, including for many, a sense of lack of purpose in life — though the act of trying to make it day-to-day, to stay alive could be considered a purpose in and of itself, it does not fulfill on our greater need to feel like we are contributing to the improvement of our own lives and the lives of our families. For an understanding of the fear that stalks individuals in homelessness, check out this 2007 report I co-authored on a survey of clients at The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre and their experiences of crime — Mean Streets. Safe Streets.
Homelessness is harsh and when we try to explain it away with platitudes such as ‘he chooses to be homeless’ or ‘well if she’s not going to quit [name of addiction] then she deserves what she gets’, we are sentencing people to a life of crime — not necessarily crimes that they commit, but, as the Mean Streets. Safe Streets. shows, crimes that will be committed against them.
Sometime ago a man I was working with on another project told me about his plans of going ‘undercover’ in a shelter. I really want to understand, he told me.
Don’t do it, I cautioned.
In his late 40s, he believed he had it all covered. I can handle myself in any situation, he said.
Shelter life isn’t ‘any situation’, I told him. It is a way of life, a way of living that none of us are equipped to live up to — even those who find themselves in its circumstances.
Well, I was only thinking of doing it for a week max, he said. I’m sure I’ll be okay.
I understand the need for experiential learning. Years ago in an effort to understand what happens when a woman goes ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with a john, as the police sergeant I was working with described it, I chose to stand out on the street dressed as a prostitute.
It is not something I recommend to anyone.
Just like living in a shelter.
It is not something I recommend to anyone.
It’s not that those who operate shelters are not doing good work. They are. They do amazing work. They are caring. Compassionate. Thoughtful in what they do.
And it’s not that shelters aren’t filled with good people. They are. There are beautiful, caring, loving people living and working in shelters.
It’s just that, by its very nature, homelessness is chaotic. It is unstable. It tears away an individual’s sense of self. It rips apart a person’s belief in their capacity to make a difference in their life, and the world. It destroys their belief in their right to have more, do more, speak up more, be more. It undermines their attempts to change circumstances, to change direction, to change anything.
I watched Bill’s interview and felt hopeful. While Bill almost breaks down in the video, Bill is hopeful. He has a dream. A vision. A path to change his life. His dream is unfolding because of his belief that he is more than the label ‘homeless’. Working with Linda Hawke, the President and facilitator of the amazing team at This is My City, the art society that mounted the This is Where I Belong project, Bill has found himself in a community of people focused on creating better through the act of creating art together.
This is My City does not measure progress by the past, nor do they limit their thinking of what one person is capable of by the circumstances of where they are living. They see possibility in every person. Find value in every stroke of paint, whisper of poetry, thread of needle that is shared, regardless of what side of the street the person lives on.
And in the act of standing together in creative expression, This is My City and all the artists involved, create a world of difference. A world where possibilities open up and limited thinking falls away beneath the stroke of every picture they paint, whether it is through words, photography, sewing, — it is through their creative expressions that lives change and people find themselves again beyond the label of homeless.
Thank you Linda Hawke and all the artists involved in this project, and in every project that is created to make a difference in our world. You rock!
And thank you Bill for having the courage to share your story with such grace.
If the video from Global TV does not appear below, click HERE to see Bill’s interview.
Robson Fletcher wrote an article Monday on the art/community event in Metro Calgary, HERE.