“They call me General.”
I am standing on the pavement in the parking lot beside the homeless shelter where I work.
It is the last Saturday morning of Stampede and the Kinsmen Club of Stampede City are serving up their annual pancake breakfast for guests of the shelter, and anyone who wants to drop by.
There’s no long line-up of blue-jean wearing, cowboy hat toting folk snaking around the block.
This breakfast attracts a different kind of folk. These are the people who live on the margins. The one’s who don’t tote designer bags and jeans but carry instead a less desirable label. Homeless.
Like the man in front of me.
Chiselled jaw. Hollowed out cheekbones. Dark-almost-black piercing eyes. He stands straight. Tall. Proud.
He tells me of his life. Of growing up on a Reserve and Residential School. Of spending the last four months out of prison, the longest stretch he’s ever managed to stay on the outside, he says.
It’s the booze, he tells me. As long as I don’t drink, I don’t get in trouble.
He got the name General in prison. It’s more a mark of his position. Or at least the one he once held, in a gang.
Gangs aren’t good, he mutters. I’m glad to see there aren’t any here this morning.
He tells me of losing too many friends. Of dodging too many bullets.
It sounds horrific, I say.
It is, he replies.
And then he shrugs. But what can you do? It’s about survival.
I look around at the fifty or so people seated at the tables lining the pavement.
They are all trying to survive. Trying to find their way.
And I watch the children play. They are running amongst the tables. Chasing each other. Laughing. Being kids.
It is concerning when children and adult single’s experiencing homeless mix together.
Too many drugs. Too many harsh realities edging up against a child’s developing mind, body, spirit.
This morning is calm. Everyone is enjoying the sunshine. The breakfast. The feeling of community.
Sometimes, this parking lot beside the shelter isn’t so peaceful.
Drug deals. Drug doses. Overdoses.
We are in the Beltline area of the city. Our family shelter bracketed by two emergency adult single shelters.
Their guests are also welcome at this breakfast. As are people from the community, though not many from outside the homeless community come.
There’s the limo driver who drives into the parking lot, parks his car at the far edge and walks over for breakfast.
There’s the guy in his souped up flashy blue vehicle who parks in the laneway and unfolds his muscled body out of the driver’s seat. I wonder if he’s just come back from the gym and is looking to load up on pancakes, eggs and sausage.
And the guy who walks his bike into the parking lot, a big black dog lumbering along behind him.
One of the Kinsmen tells me how this is his favourite breakfast of Stampede.
Everyone is so grateful, he says. They all say thank you. They are all so appreciative.
I look around at the gathered crowd. At the man with whom I’m speaking.
Humble. Proud. Wanting to find a better way to get through this life.
Like all of us, they are trying to make sense of their world.
Their struggles are great. It’s not just about making ends meet. They struggle to put an end to the past that haunts them, their keeps them stranded on the margins, struggling to find another way through this world that isn’t marked by poverty, lack and the hopelessness that seeps in with every breath.
There are no gangs this Saturday morning. I am grateful.
Not just for the children’s sake. For all of us.