We planted flowers yesterday. We raked the lawn, tidied the hedges, swept the walk and laughed and joked and connected as a team and a community.
We were at one of the buildings owned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation to help out with spring cleaning. It was fun and fulfilling and, it was a break from ‘the office’.
And when we finished, we went to a local pub for a late lunch and laughed and joked and shared in the harmony of having spent some time outside working together.
A year ago, this was a problem location. The neighbours were up in arms. A group of citizens were banding together calling for the shutting down of the Foundation’s housing first programs in their neighbourhood.
We had meetings and talks and emails and phone calls. We worked together; the agency that manages the programming in the building and works with the tenants, all of whom have long-term lived experience of homelessness; the police who respond to calls and were concerned by the high level of calls from the building. We worked with the community, the businesses in the area and the Alderman’s office to find a path to common ground, to that place where the label ‘homeless’ doesn’t equal ‘criminal’, undesirable or any host of other names we throw at people whose lives we do not understand and whose condition often scares us.
This was our second year of planting flowers and gardening at the building. No one came out to help last year. No one came out to chat.
Yesterday, one of the tenants came out and helped us garden.
Yesterday, a woman sat on the front steps and shared snippets of her journey.
Yesterday, a woman chatted from her balcony and told us how pretty the flowers looked. Another man chatted from his balcony and eventually came down to chat some more and have his picture taken.
And as I was leaving, another man called out to me from behind his screen door. “Didn’t you use to work at a shelter?” he asked.
“I did,” I told him.
“I remember you,” he said. And then he shared what it was like to be housed. To have a home. To have a place to call his own. “It’s hard,” he said. “I don’t always remember how to be here.” and then, he laughed. A shy, quiet laugh. There was no nervousness in his laugh. No trying to hide some unnamed discomfort. It was an honest commentary on his situation. “It sure is better than living in a shelter and on the streets,” he added.
Later, at lunch, I chatted with the restaurant manager with whom the managing agency from the building and I had met last spring to talk about his concerns about the building and its tenants. “It’s been quiet since we met,” he said. “The agency has done a fantastic job of dealing with our issues.”
It is always the challenge of this work. Our perceptions. Our fears. Our misconceptions interfere with seeing there is a path to common ground. There is a way to live together in harmony. It may not be ‘normal’, but it can be better than living on separate sides of the equation, fighting each other for our right to stand our ground.
We say, not in my backyard, in the hopes that by declaring our sacred ground, we will not have to step across the line to see the view from someone else’s perspective. We hope that by holding onto our fears, we will not have to drop our guard to acknowledge that we each have a right to find our way home, no matter our condition.
To find common ground, we must let down our guard.
Yesterday, I worked alongside my team on the ground around a building that houses formerly homeless Calgarians.
It was a good day for community building.