Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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Dream INN Big! Gala — WOW Mateys!

Beaumont didn’t need an eye patch — he already has one!

We laughed. We talked. We gawked and admired one another’s costumes.

We ate good food. Shared a sip of grog or two and sampled tasty chocolate concoctions that soothed the cravings.

And we laughed some more.

Saturday night was the 5th annual Dream Inn Big! Gala for Inn from the Cold, the family resource centre I work for which includes a 24/7 emergency family shelter.

Almost 500 people, (297 adults and 175 children under 12 – the majority dressed up as pirates) ate and talked and listened to speeches and bid on silent auction items and raffles and all in all had a spectacularly great time! The children (including the adults who were children at heart) had fun playing games and making gooey gobby goop and finding their pirate names and sailing down the slide of a giant bouncy castle while wandering the rooms of the TELUS SPARK Science Centre. It was organized chaos with lots of Ahoy Mateys and time to walk the plank and shiver me timbers!

And when it was all over, we went home, our bellies full and our hearts fuller.

And when it was all over, a team of community volunteers, staff volunteers and staff dismantled the decorations, took down the decor and hauled evidence of the Gala away.

We raised over $217k on Saturday night.

Gratitude. Thankfulness. Humbleness. They fill our hearts and minds.

It’s still not enough though.

We have to do better.

Because when it was all over on Saturday night, the Inn emergency shelter was still full. In fact, on Saturday night we had to activate our emergency overflow shelter at Knox Inn to provide shelter for 8 children and their parents.

As an organization, we believe we can create a community where no child or family is homeless.

We believe that aside from a housing crisis, we can create the powerful and strong network of services and supports necessary to ensure every family has access to the right resources at the right time to prevent their falling into homelessness. And should a housing crisis arise, we believe we can quickly and compassionately provide the right supports to ensure homelessness does not become a long-term or recurring event in their lives.

We believe we can do it.

And that’s why events like Saturday night are so important. Not only do we raise much needed funds to support us in our vision, we also raise awareness and shift perceptions and increase support for our mission of helping children and their families in homelessness achieve independence.

Because, no matter where someone slept that night, the need to ensure we have the right family-serving system of care for vulnerable children and families is vital.

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, putting on an event like the Dream Inn Big! Gala takes a whole community of committed staff and volunteers and generous sponsors

Since I joined the Inn team at the end of May, Gala has been a big part of the Communications, Volunteer Resources and Resource Development teams’ focus. They have lived and breathed and dreamed it into reality. Add to their roster the other staff who chipped in where ever needed, who came to volunteer on the night of the event to help set-up, oversee the evening’s numerous activities and tear down, the Dream Inn Big! Gala’s success is because of their commitment and heartfelt passion to ensure no detail was missed and every guest had a magical evening complete with pirate mayhem and laughter!

It worked. Thanks to staff, countless volunteers, sponsors and all those who came out, the evening is one I won’t soon forget, and neither will our guests.

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In the morning when a homeless child wakes up, the scary dream is still too real.

What is reality when you’re homeless?

What does it feel  like to not have a home?

The reality of homelessness is, you do not have the resources to have a place to call your own. It means all your belongings, everything you own is lost, or in storage, waiting, hoping that soon, very soon, you will be able to open the boxes, unwrap the furniture and place them all where they belong in that place you call home.

While the reality of what homelessness means may be similar for all, the feeling is very different for each person.

It can feel scary. Lost. Frightening.

It cal feel like the world is unsafe, uninviting, unwelcoming.

It can feel desperate. Confusing. Unbelievably hard.

It can feel hopeless.

For a child, whose world view is seen through the lens of the experiences of their family, being homeless can be all those things and more. Because as a child, understanding is limited to the experience of your parents, the circle around you. And in family homelessness, where the adults are also feeling lost and scared and hopeless, the child feels the confusion and fear of not understanding what is happening to their parents, their world.

Why are they angry? Tense. Unusually abrupt, inpatient, tired all the time, cranky, and always there?

When we live at home, we do things that are part of our daily life without really thinking about the things we do.

We get up, make coffee, tea, breakfast. We let the dog out. Cat in. Wake the family. Get the children ready for school Make lunches.

The rituals of a daily life routine.

In homelessness, the children still get up to go to school. They still grab a bag of lunch and climb onto the school bus each morning and return every afternoon.

The difference is, they are doing this in the noise and chaos of a communal system. They are eating breakfast someone else prepared with 60 other children and their parents. They are waiting in a crowded lobby with 60 other children and their parents.

Perhaps, there was a new family who arrived last night. They don’t know anyone, and no one knows them.

Those children are even more frightened, more afraid because it is all new to them. The fear is maybe not yet so deep. The uncertainty not yet settled in because they’re still trying to figure out their new world order. And their parents are still trying to put on a good face for them. But it is scary none the less because they have figured out the fundamental difference in their world — they are not at home, or whatever the place was they called home yesterday.

They do know that this place is busy, crowded, noisy. And no matter how badly they want to quiet down the noise, to break away from the chaos, there is nowhere to go.

They are living in a homeless shelter.

What does that mean?

For some, the word ‘homeless’ is that word used to describe that old guy on the street who is sitting leaning up against a wall, head nodding forward as he dozes, an upturned cap on his lap, hopeful for a few coins to be dropped into it.

For some, homeless means the youth you saw on the C-train platform playing her guitar in exchange for coins dropped into the empty guitar case. You knew she was homeless because she had a sign your big brother read to you: “Please help. Homeless. Hungry. Playing for change.” Your brother called her a loser that day. Are you a loser now?

Homeless is that word that once was shorter and now, because you have to tack on the extra four letters, means your life is less than what it used to be.

And you wonder, how long will you be less a home? How long will you live this way?

To a child, now feels like forever. Will this homelessness last forever?

And you hope it doesn’t. Because more than anything, you miss having a bed to crawl into in the room you shared with your sister where, when the lights went out, you whispered in the dark, sharing secrets and stories of your day, safe in the knowledge your older siblings slept in the room next door and your parents were in the big room down the hall where you could patter to in your bare feet if a scary dream woke you in the night.

In this place, you share a bunk with your sister on top of the bunk where your parents sleep. In the rooms on either sound of you, you can hear the sounds of strangers.

And in the morning when you get up, the scary dream of being homeless will still be real.

____________________

Photo by Ilya Yakover on Unsplash


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There is tragedy, there is hope, in homelessness

On Tuesday evening we held the 20th Anniversary Annual General Meeting for Inn from the Cold, where I work.

It is important to celebrate all the good work that has happened over the past twenty years. It is good to mark the anniversary, yet, it can be hard sometimes to consciously align the good deeds done with the fact, we need an Inn, no matter how sweet, to save children and families from homelessness.

Last week, as we geared up for the AGM, we passed a marker that is tragic in its enormity, yet hopeful in its presence.

Last week, we registered the 70,000th person into the city’s homeless database (HMIS) which has only been up and running for the past five years. The person who became the 70,000th entry was a 7 year old boy who entered the Inn with his mother and family.

It is tragic that it was a child who took our community across the threshold of 70,000 people having experienced homelessness over the past five years. In that same week, just before the 70,000th entry, a one day old baby received their number from the database too.

Sometimes, it is beyond my comprehension how we can  have children experiencing homelessness on our streets.

Sometimes, it boggles my mind that a child needs a number to represent their homelessness.

The tragedy lies in their being homeless. The hope begins in their finding their way home through accessing our services.

It’s about more than the numbers.

Yes, 70,000 is a big number. And yes, a one day old child having a number in a system that tracks homelessness seems, on the surface, to be incomprehensible.

What difference do those numbers make?

The fact we can actually track who is entering the system of care is remarkable. Ten years ago, before Calgary launched its Plan to End Homelessness on January 28, 2018, we had no idea who was accessing the services of the 100+ agencies providing homeless supports in our city. Now we do.

Ten years ago, people went from agency to agency, asking for supports, help, information. They told their story again and again, sometimes adding trauma to an already traumatic journey in the continuous re-telling of the poverty and tragedy in their lives.

Ten years ago, agencies were so busy just serving the people coming to their doors, they didn’t have time to think about a coordinated response. They only had time to figure out their next response; person by person, family by family.

Today, there’s one entry point, a common entry form and a coordinated system that tracks people and the resources they access so that there’s only one telling of their story to put them on their journey to the place where they belong, home.

Today, the homeless-serving system of care is just that — a system. It’s coordinated. Planned. Collaborative. It’s focused on the bigger picture of ending homelessness as a pressing social issue, while taking care of the day to day needs of those whose lives have been impacted by the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness.

Today, we recognize there is a problem and are working together, not just as a city but as a province and a nation, to find solutions that honour the dignity and humanity of everyone and that make real and lasting difference in the lives of vulnerable children, families and individuals, and our communities.

A 7 year old boy and one day old child got a number from HMIS last week.

The hope is — they never ever have to use that number again as they move beyond the trauma of homelessness into the place where they belong, HOME.

___________________________________

To mark our 20th anniversary, we created a video that speaks to the courage of those who first set up Community Inns in Church basements 20 years ago, and to the evolution of hope, dignity, respect and possibility to create the Inn as it is today.

Thank you to the amazing Comms and Event teams at the Inn and Paul Long of Paul Long and Associates for your creative brilliance. Thank you Andrea and the team at Six Degrees Music Studio for sharing your gifts and talents. We invite you to share in our story and to share it with your social networks. Thank you.

 


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When we don’t take action, children’s lives are at stake.

I felt my heart break yesterday.

It took just a glimpse of baby clothes hanging from a rail. A box of infant diapers in a box and I felt the piercing melancholy of sadness and sorrow sear my heart.

It happened at work.

I was giving a tour of one of the the emergency shelter floors at Inn from the Cold. One of the amazing frontline shelter staff had just finished telling the visitors about the shelter floors, when he shared the story of a mother who had given birth the day before. “She’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.

Staff had prepared a welcome home package for her and her infant.

But a shelter is not a home, my heart whispered. A shelter is not home.

I walked our visitors through the shelter area and when I came to the cubicle where this woman will return to with her baby, I paused. And that’s when I felt my heart break.

Hanging from the railing of one of the bunkbeds in her cubicle was a baby sleeper. It looked so sweet and innocent. So precious and full of possibility.

And she is returning with this precious being to a family emergency shelter.

I wondered if she was afraid. Scared. Worried that she was bringing this child into such an uncertain future.

Yes, she knows we are doing our utmost to ensure she and her children are connected to the right resources to be able to move beyond the shelter quickly. And yes, she knows, just as we know, this housing crisis she is experiencing is only a temporary space in her journey. But she must feel fear and anxiety. She still must feel lost and frightened, worried for her child and the future.

I lay in bed this morning thinking about this mother and her infant. Beside me, my loving husband slept peacefully. Between us, Marley the Great Cat lay stretched out snoring. And on the floor at the end of the bed, Beaumont the Sheepadoodle slept soundly. Outside the open window, darkness was turning gently to light, distant traffic hummed as the city awoke.

I lay safely enveloped in my bed, breathing deeply into my ‘love bubble’ as I like to think of my early morning laying awake before I get up time.

And a tear trickled silently down my face.

What of this woman and her child?

What of the other three women who gave birth last week?

What are they feeling?

I felt anger rising within me.

We at the community level do everything we can to ease the burden of homelessness on each family’s life. We work hard to ensure we have the right resources, right supports, right people in place to help each family as they enter our doors. We do not want anyone to become trapped in homelessness and do whatever it takes to support them on the journey home.

The average length of stay at the shelter is thirty-five days. It’s not a long time, but in the eyes of a child, it can feel like forever. In the arms of a mother holding her newborn child, it can feel like a life sentence.

National plans are made and provincial plans follow and still the money does not flow. Land is set aside, architectural designs are created and still communities lobby against the housing that will end the crisis in so many lives. Agencies on the ground wait for the green light to get building, to get moving people out of homelessness back home and still, there is not enough of the right housing with the right supports to move them into.

Pundits talk about big picture planning and taking the long view of how best to alleviate the crisis in affordable housing in Canada while children and families keep knocking at the door of the shelter hoping it will open. Hoping a way home will appear.

We do not, cannot, turn a family away.

There are lives at stake. Fragile minds in development.

To turn children away is to risk the very future of our country.

So we do what we can. And it is not enough.

We must stop talking about the crisis in affordable housing and get building. We must stop talking about the need for guaranteed income as if it’s a drag on the economic report card of our country and see it through the lens of giving vulnerable families the stability they need to build brighter futures for their children.

We must stop looking at the agencies doing the heavy lifting at the front lines as the ‘last resort’ and see them as the only resort families have when facing a housing crisis — not because that’s what they planned for — but rather, because we as a country, as a society, have not planned well for this future we are living today where social and economic inequities keep people trapped in poverty.

The children and families who come to our door didn’t plan on being at the shelter.

But we, the society and community in which they lived, sure did plan on having the shelter there to catch them.

Let’s stop looking at how to catch people when they fall and start building the system of care that takes care of people so they don’t fall.

Namaste.

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Worthy cause. Hopeless case. What’s the difference?

Some time ago, as we entered the city on a drive back from the mountains, we stopped at an intersection waiting for a red light to turn green. On the cement divider between east and west traffic a young woman stood, hat in hand, looking for handouts. She smiled. She waved. She greeted people with shouts of, “Hey! It’s all for a good cause.” And, people complied. They rolled down their windows and tossed their coins into the bright orange cap she extended towards them. The light turned green and everyone continued on their way feeling good about themselves. They’d supported a good cause.

And they had. It was a worthy cause. Parked on the grassy corner of the intersection, the big blue and orange organization’s van was plastered with banners encouraging people to Give to the Cause. Volunteers leaped up and down, cheering, waving at the passing cars, encouraging those at red lights to open their wallets and support the panhandlers walking beside them. Drivers honked their horns. Waved. Called out cheers. It was a lively intersection filled with purpose — and a cause.

On another corner, a homeless man walked between the waiting cars at the red light, a handmade cardboard sign held up against his chest. “Please help. Homeless. Hungry. God Bless.” The drivers stared steadfastly forward, watching the light, wishing it would turn faster so that they could get away from this sign of decay in our society. No one rolled down their window. No one smiled at the scruffy-looking, dark haired, bearded man as he shuffled along the roadway, asking for help.

On one corner, a worthy cause. On the other? A hopeless case? Undeserving drug-addict breaking the law?

One deserves our support. What about the other?

Yes, the funds raised to support research into finding cures for horrible diseases are important. But what about their tactics? By mimicking the methods used by vulnerable individuals, are they not legitimizing the very tactic we deplore? The one police hand out tickets for to deter the unacceptable practice of panhandling?

Someone empties their car ashtray on the street and drives on, leaving behind their garbage. We don’t give a lot of thought to their passing by other than to possibly mutter under our breath, “some people’s children” — or words to that effect. We sweep away the garbage and continue on with our day.

A  person experiencing homelessness leaves their garbage on the sidewalk and disappears from our sight. We gather up all signs of their passing by and sweep away their unsightly mess. We’ve got a lot to say about what they’ve done. A lot of names to call them. But hey! What can we do? They’re just the homeless, good-for-nothing, lazy drug addict. They’ve made choices. It’s all their fault. Why can’t they get a job or at least clean up their own garbage?

Watching two different scenarios on the street unfold I found evidence of the thin line that divides us. We’re all human beings. We’re all under stress. We’re all capable of magnificence. We’re all worthy of a chance to make a difference — and we are all guilty of labelling difference-making both positive and negative.

Sometimes, what we do is not that different. It’s just the label we attach to our efforts that legitimizes what side of the street we’re on. Good cause. Hopeless case. It’s all in our perceptions.


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Family homelessness is not a family issue.

A family arrives at Inn from the Cold, the family emergency shelter where I work. A mother. Father. Three, four, maybe five children ranging in age from 4 to 12.

Life so many, they have come from ‘the reserve’. One of over 3,100 tracts of land set aside by treaty with the Government of Canada. A place that was designed to give Indigenous people ‘security of place’ in this land they once roamed freely. long before ‘First Contact’ with the white man.

The reserve is not an easy place to live. Vestiges of colonialism, inter-generational trauma, lack of housing, lack of safe drinking water, high rates of school drop-outs, drug use and suicides all paint an uncertain future for children.

This family came to the city months ago to find work, a home, and that better future they so desperately want. After wearing out their welcome on the couches and in the basements of family and friends they have come here, to the only place they can think of where they might just find a way out of despair, poverty, homelessness.

The Inn is not a home, but it is shelter. Safety. Refuge. It is a place where they can catch their breath, get help, find support to plug into the resources they need to move beyond housing crisis to a home. To step beyond instability to stability so their children can go to school, grow up and live the future they deserve.

Like so many who come to our city seeking a better future, they were not prepared for the realities and challenges of life and the cost of living here. They were not prepared for the discrimination, the racism, the hostility they found festering at the edges of our society or the lack of understanding of what it means to be Indigenous in our country.

We hold so many untruths about Indigenous people and culture. Like believing every Indigenous person gets thousands of dollars a year for doing nothing. Or that they’re all lazy and just looking for a free hand out. Or all drunks and unwilling to get sober.

It is hard to walk down the street with your head held proud when racial slurs are slung at you like nuclear fallout; just because of your heritage.

It is hard to get a job when you are judged first by the colour of your skin, not your credentials.

It is hard to find housing when the welcome mat is swept away because your skin is not white.

And it’s hard to see a better future for your children when the road you travel is strewn with man-made obstacles blocking your progress. It takes superhuman strength to throw the obstacles to the side of the road, a superhuman strength few of us possess, let alone a family searching for a better future.

Of the 1,000+ families the Inn will serve in a year, 60% are Indigenous, 25% new Canadians.

This is not a family issue, or an Indigenous issues, or an immigrant issue. It is a societal issue caused by our human practices.

Regardless of the colour of their skin, or the land of their birth, family homelessness isn’t about a mother and father and their children losing a home. It’s about society losing its way.

To build better futures we must start today to clear the road of the obstacles that prevent some members of our society from experiencing the same benefits, the same opportunities, the same freedoms we do.

And it begins with letting go of our beliefs of who ‘those people’ are and seeing them instead as fellow citizens who have not had the same opportunities as we do, even though they deserve them.

It means looking through eyes of caring and compassion, seeing the burden of the past not as a judgement of somebody’s worth today, but as a reflection of what happens when we believe ‘those people’ are not equal and because of their differences, must be put in their place.

The families who come to the Inn do not come because life is easy and they just want a free ride. They come because life has been hard and they have run out of options.

When the only road to a better future leads through that place called, ‘homeless’, a mother and father will do anything to help their children get there. And sometimes that means carrying a label that doesn’t sit well on your psyche or your skin, but is all you can carry to the Inn, ‘Homeless’.


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Where hope burns eternal for all humankind

Robert the Magician gets lots of oohs & aaahs! and How did he do that?

At the family emergency shelter where I work, 25% of the families we serve are new immigrants to Canada. For many of those families, the past was filled with uncertainty, turmoil, fear of death by starvation, violence, or war.

On Friday night, along with my amazing friend Wendy C., I acted as Host for the monthly birthday party we hold for the children at the shelter. Thanks to the generosity of the Children’s Hospital Aid Society who cover the cost of the parties and volunteers who come in to put the party on, the event is a fun-filled hour and half of birthday party games, cake, and ice cream supplied by Fiasco Gelatto.

On Friday night, as I watched the guests and volunteers intermingle, play games, eat cake and laugh at the antics of a magician who came in to entertain them, I was struck by how much alike we are, in-spite of our differences in skin tone, height, colour of hair, faith, place of birth, and a host of other visible differences within the human form.

Everyone loves birthday cake!

We are more alike than different.

We all want to celebrate the birth of our children. We all want to create happy memories for them. A world where they will grow up to be strong and free.

And, like parents the world over, we all like to remind our children to say please and thank you. To not make a mess. To ‘use our manners’.

We adults spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what makes us different than them. In some cases, we frame it in language of ‘better than’, more deserving, more entitled.

Yet, when we scratch beneath the surface of the human body, we are more alike than different. When we dig into what motivates us, what drives us in the world, we share so much in common. And, when we stretch beyond the circumstances of our birthplace, we find ourselves on the common ground of our sharing this human condition where ever we are, no matter where we go.

On Friday night, as I served up cake and passed out little tubs of ice cream, I wasn’t serving homeless children and their families. I was part of the joy and hope a child’s birthday brings into the world. I was part of creating a memory for children whose family circumstances have brought them to a place they wish, for so many reasons, they’d never had to visit, but while they are there, are determined to make as safe and caring and memorable for their children as they can.

It may not have been the perfect place, but for those mothers and fathers for whom the shelter is currently their safe respite, it was the place where their children will remember how much fun, laughter and cake they got to enjoy!

I witnessed humanity on Friday night. It had many skin tones. Many sizes. Many beliefs. And like humanity the world over, the thing that brought us all together was the celebration of a child’s birthday. In that celebration, hope burns eternal for all humankind.