“I don’t give to panhandlers,” she tells me. “I just walk right by.”
I am listening intently. She is there to find out more about affordable housing for formerly homeless citizens and I am there to hear her views.
“Nobody listens to what I have to say,” she tells me. “So why should I bother to share my thoughts?”
“Your voice matters,” I tell her. “And if you don’t share it, we won’t hear it.”
She looks at me with suspicion. Yeah. Right, her quizzical look seems to say.
She goes on to tell me about last summer when she went downtown for a Stampede Breakfast and afterwards, as she walked towards Rope Square, a big outdoor performance space that pops up during Stampede in the City Centre, she walked past a man who asked her if she could spare some change so he could buy a cup of coffee.
“You know they’ve got free pancakes and sausages a couple of blocks away,” she told him. “Why don’t you go get in line?”
The man apparently laughed at her suggestion he go line up and replied. “I’m not going to line up for breakfast!”
She was shocked. “Imagine him not being willing to go and line up for food yet he’s willing to beg for money,” she told me indignantly.
“Was he visibly homeless?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “He was quite dirty and kind of smelly too.”
“I wonder if his reluctance to line up had more to do with his experience of how people on the street treat him,” I commented. “Perhaps he’s been abused so often by passers-by he doesn’t want to risk what people will say to him if he stands in line.”
“Oh my,” she replied. “I hadn’t looked at it that way. I wonder if he was more afraid than lazy.” She paused and seemed to get lost in her thoughts for a few moments before adding, “It’s horrible what we do to each other isn’t it?”
Yes it is, I replied.
Last night I attended a community Open House to talk about a new affordable housing project the Foundation I work for is looking to build. My job was to answer questions, to listen, to encourage people to fill out the comment forms as they left the room.
It was also to hold space for each person in attendance to give voice to their feedback, their concerns, their opinions. Without judgement. Without pushing back into their opinions. Without trying to change their minds but rather, to create common ground in which every voice was heard.
A group of women I approached to ask if I could answer their questions told me they had none. They hated the idea and didn’t want to talk about it.
Another man told me I was lying, no matter what I said in response to his questions, he wanted to hold fast to his belief he was right.
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can block our vision, shut down our capacity to hear, close off our minds.
As I said to one man, “We all fear change. This is a community that is experiencing great change on every level. Fear is a natural response.”
“I’m afraid these people will come here and destroy everything,” he replied.
“Is everything the way you like it now?” I asked.
His response was fast and vehement. “Oh no! This community is a mess. It’s not like it used to be.”
His ‘used to be’ was over 50 years ago when he and his bride moved into the house they still live in today. “There were kids everywhere,” he said. “We knew everyone on our street. Today, I barely know my next door neighbour.”
It is hard to accept change when what we are yearning for is a past that no longer exists. It is hard to see the future when all we see is the loss of what we once had that gave us a sense of belonging in our community.
For the people who took the time to share their views last night, whether they were for or against the project, there was a common thread throughout the conversation. ‘Our community has changed.’
As I stood and watched the people milling about, the small groups gathering, some of them eyeing those of us from the Foundation with suspicion, angrily talking amongst themselves, while others smiled and talked about the possibilities of the project, I was reminded of Ghandi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
For those who came out to speak against the project, they are being the change they want to see in the world. They are working hard to protect what they have so that they can continue to feel like they belong in their community.
For those who were in favour of the project, they too are intent on creating the change they want to see in the world.
They are all part of community. That powerful place of connection and belonging, no matter what side of the street they walk.