There was a time in the homeless sector when it was believed that emergency shelter was the only response to help someone in homelessness. No matter how long they stayed in the shelter, or living on the streets, someone had to ‘do the work’, like getting sober, getting on meds, or any other of the 5,342 things we thought they needed to do to make their lives ‘right’, before they could be housed.
And then, along came Housing First. A radically simple and effective approach to supporting people out of homelessness.
One such housing first initiative here in Calgary is, The Madison. The 16 suite apartment building which is owned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation, the Madison provides 24/7 on-site support and housing for 15 formerly homeless veterans.
Three years ago, when I began the Christmas at The Madison project, the intent was to raise money to provide gifts and a dinner at Christmas for the men living at the Madison. It was my way of giving back, and involving my family and friends in the act of giving.
I grew up in a military household. My father was in the RAF and then the RCAF and for most of my formative years, we lived on military bases in Canada and Europe. My father was a proud, and silent, man. He never spoke of the war years. He never spoke of his losses, his regrets, his sorrows. He soldiered through everything, including the heart attack that took his life almost 20 years ago.
My father taught me many things. One of them was the value of a good meal and when he passed away, I wanted to find a way to honour him, to say thank you for the love, the generosity, the many lessons on how to live life fully and completely.
The Madison has become such an opportunity.
Like my father, the men living at the Madison have all served their country. Silently. Proudly. Stoically.
And, like my father, they carry with them memories of the things that have happened, the things they’ve done, the losses they’ve felt and sometimes never known how to express or make sense of.
My father was never homeless, at least not in his adulthood. But, there was a time when he was rootless, lost, alone and feeling abandoned. He never spoke much about those years, about being sent all by himself at nine years of age from London, England to a Catholic boarding school in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. The Atlantic Ocean and three-quarters of a continent lay between him and home, and he was heartsick. He ran away as a young teen to Montreal, Quebec and worked in a bakery and when war broke out, he lied about his age and joined the RAF.
From then on, his life was a silent story. A book that only he could read, if he ever dared to open the pages.
Giving back to The Madison is my way of giving back to my father. Of making amends for the harsh words I flung at him through my growing years, for the lack of compassion and understanding I never held out to him in his living years.
This year, giving back to The Madison is also a reminder of another very important lesson my father taught me.
For me, I feel like the Christmas at The Madison Benefit Concert is all about the little concert that could. Now entering its fourth year, I am excited to take each next step in its possibilities as it grows into its own strength.
Like the men living at The Madison.
Three years ago, a horde of volunteers accompanied me as we decorated and baked and cooked and served up Christmas dinner with all the fixin’s, including gifts for each of the residents.
Last year, we’d scaled back the size of the crowd so that we didn’t overwhelm the community the men had created at the Madison.
This year, that community of men, along with their team from Alpha House, want to celebrate Christmas of their own making.
It kind of feels like a miracle to me. To evolve from a building of singular men who had only two things in common, they were all veterans and they were all homeless, to a community that wants to create a special day for themselves, is incredible and inspiring and very, very heart-warming.
My father taught me long ago that helping people is very different than supporting them until they can help themselves. People fall in life, he’d say. It is inevitable. Sometimes, they need help to get back up. Never should we become their arms and legs, their hearts and voices. We can’t live someone else’s life, he told me. That’s their job. Just as it’s yours to live yours being and doing the best you can.
This year, the men living at The Madison are doing the best they can to create a Christmas of their own making.
I feel inspired. Giving is receiving and I am grateful for all that I have received.