Category Archives: Homelessness

SPENT: Can you beat poverty?

I took The Challenge. I clicked on SPENT, an online simulation of living life in the poverty zone.

Poverty sucks.

There’s no way to win at life, get ahead, to make the ‘ethical’ choice when the decisions you have to make always come back down to — will I have enough money to pay the rent, buy food to feed my children, pay their school fees, pay insurance, utilities and get to my minimum wage job on time.

At one point in the game, while driving my children to school, I hit an icy patch and my car slid into a parked car causing damage. I had a choice. Stop. Try to find the owner. Leave a note. Get the kids to school and be late for work (which would cost me precious money). OR. Leave the scene and hope no one saw me. Except my kids of course. They were watching from the back seat. Tracking every move I took. Learning from every decision I made.

Sure, in my non-poverty defined real life, I wouldn’t drive away. I would be accountable.

But in my real life, I have more than $326 left in the bank to take me to the end of the month 20 long days away. I earn more than $9.00 an hour.

In my real life, I have resources, resilience, possibilities.

In SPENT, I lasted 11 days before I hit bottom. And even then, if my life had been circumscribed by longterm exposure to poverty, I may not have chosen to pay for my kids field trip because that $15 made a difference between milk and bread on the table for the week, or not. And maybe I would have bought a new shirt for work when I spilt bleach on it while helping the dishwasher. At least then I wouldn’t have lost a day’s pay because my boss sent me home for ‘bad attitude’. And maybe…

That’s the challenge of poverty. “Maybe tomorrow will be better” is never an option. The decisions today are between one hard rock place and losing it all. There’s no soft landing, no cushion. There’s only rock bottom, every day.

In the game, when I spent out, I didn’t worry about what happened to my kids when we didn’t have a roof over our heads. Or all my stuff, at least the stuff I was able to salvage when I lost my home and had to move to a rental apartment. It was just a game.

But what about in real life? What really happens?

Yup. Poverty Sucks.

It sucks the life, hope, possibility out of daily living turning it into a daily grind against hard rock places that will not give you a break.

What about you? Can you beat poverty?

 

We’re all on this journey of life together.

I have stopped by my old hairdressers to buy the shampoo I love. They recently moved and this is my first time at their new Beltline area location.

As I am about to pay, I ask the young woman at the desk how she likes the new location.

“We love it,” she replies enthusiastically. “Except for all the hobos and street people everywhere. They’re awful.” And she goes on to talk about how annoyed she is by ‘their’ presence.

I take a breath. For a moment I consider not buying my products. Or, buying and leaving without saying anything.

Silence in the face of ignorance is not my strong suit.

“Just as a piece of information,” I say to her as calmly and kindly as I can. “Hobo is a really derogatory term. The individuals you are referencing are human beings, like you and me, who have fallen on really hard times. You may want to consider using the phrase ‘individuals experiencing homelessness’. It’s less offensive.”

She looks at me. Squirms a little and pastes on a smile. “Oh well, you know, it’s just a word,” she said.

“Yes. And words have power. Did you know there’s an apartment building across the street that provides housing…”

And before I can finish my sentence she chimes in. “Oh yes. It’s a halfway house.”

I take another breath. “Actually, it’s not. It’s Permanent Supportive Housing for individuals exiting homelessness. In this case, the building supports veterans who were experiencing homelessness before moving into the building. That building is their permanent home. They live there as residents of this community. Halfway houses are generally for individuals existing the justice system in preparation of their moving on to their own housing.”

“Oh. Well there’s always lots of activity over there.” She says it in a way that makes me grit my teeth as though I’ve just heard nails scraping along a blackboard.

I breathe deeply and remind myself that ignorance is not a crime. It comes from a lack of understanding.

“I’m sure there is. It can be a struggle to leave the homeless identity behind. After years of service to your country, and then years of struggling on the street it’s hard to believe people care or that you’ve actually got a home of your own.” I take another breath and ask, “Have you gone over to meet the staff and residents?”

She looks at me with wide eyes. “Of course not!”

I smile at her and say, “It’s one way to get a better understanding of what’s going on,” I tell her. I know I probably sound a little condescending. I don’t mean to but I can feel my blood coursing through my veins. I am vibrating at a little too high a frequency.

I work on calming my racing mind. On changing my tone and position.

“I worked in the homeless sector for a lot of years,” I tell her. “Connecting and getting to know your neighbours is a great way to build a community.”

She packs up my products into a paper bag and hands it to me. “Well you have a nice day,” she says.

“I will,” I reply. “I hope you do too.”

And I leave.

And inside I feel sad and angry. Upset and dissatisfied.

For fifteen years I worked to shift perceptions of homelessness in our city. And here was a young woman, probably early 20s, who still carried the bias and misconceptions that existed when I first started working in the homeless serving sector.

We cannot know the answers unless we’re willing to ask the questions.

And we cannot ask the questions unless we hear the truth of where our judgements mislead us.

For that young woman, she may never ask another question about homelessness. Hopefully, if nothing else, she will stop spreading misinformation.

Then again, the story she shares may be about the nasty old lady who walked in and was all uppity and judgemental about her use of the word ‘hobo’ who then had to give her a lecture on homelessness..

And I breathe.

We are all just struggling to make sense of our world.

We are all on this human journey together, sharing life on this round ball circling the sun. Sometimes, we walk in darkness. Sometimes, we travel in the light. Wherever we walk on this planet earth, may we step lightly, treating one another with loving kindness, dignity and respect. May we seek first to understand before casting judgement on our companions who like us, sometimes struggle on this journey called life.

And in my heart I say a prayer for both of us.

Bless her.
Forgive me.
Bless me.
Forgive her.

Namaste.

 

Not in my backyard?

Photo by Thomas Le on Unsplash

Let’s be clear. Homelessness does not belong in our backyards. It does not belong on our streets. It actually doesn’t belong in our society.

Homelessness doesn’t create better communities.

Not having people experiencing homelessness does.

The challenge is, when we think of homelessness, we see the person as the ‘homeless entity’ and don’t see the social issues beneath the stereotypes that keep us believing that speaking out against the person who is experiencing homelessness is actually making a difference.

That’s not how homelessness ends.

Homelessness ends when we as a society take better care of those who do not have the same privilege or same opportunities as we do to create better in their lives.

Homelessness ends when we stop targeting people and start addressing social issues that continue to create the very thing we don’t want on our streets or in our backyards, homelessness.

Because here’s the deal. Someone experiencing homelessness doesn’t want to be in your backyard. They don’t want to be on our streets. Being belittled and demeaned, ignored and shamed is not fun.

Years ago I got stuck in New York City because when I tried to fly out, the attendant noticed I’d entered on an expired passport. Yup. It was a surprise to me too but somehow, my expired passport had passed through two scanners and four different sets of hands as I exited Canada. And nobody noticed.

“Sorry, I can’t let you go home,” the attendant informed me as I tried to check into my flight. “You’ll have to go to the Canadian Consulate and get an extension so you can fly home tomorrow.”

Needless to say, I was the first person in line when the Consulate opened. Except. It didn’t matter. They didn’t give extensions and as my valid passport wasn’t lost (it was at home in Calgary), they couldn’t issue me a new one.

For 24 hours I waited for my passport to arrive. And while I waited I aimlessly wandered the streets of NYC. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything but wait for my passport and hope it got there without incident.

I eventually made it home but not without feeling traumatized by the whole incident. Yes, it was my mistake that lead to my being stuck in New York but there were a whole bunch of contributors to the saga of my not being able to make it home as planned.

Now, imagine if you made a mistake and the penalty was losing your home. Maybe you lost your job and didn’t have any savings. Maybe your spouse left you and cleaned out your bank account. Maybe, in the process, you got to feeling so badly about yourself and your life, you turned to substances to numb your pain. Believe me, I drank a fair amount of wine while I waited for my passport to arrive if only to quell my fears, no matter how unrealistic, that I’d never make it home.

See, people aren’t homeless because they aren’t willing to change, or to address their mistakes, or let go of the substances that are helping them cope. They’re homeless because the resources they need to create change in their lives are not easily/readily available. Like the Consulate office that didn’t provide passport extensions, doors keep closing in their face, and despair keeps rising with every ‘no’. Eventually, the despair outweighs their hope and they sink listlessly to the ground, letting go of any hope they’ll make it out of the darkness that is homelessness. Getting up again becomes harder and harder until one day, up is no longer an option. Staying down just hurts less.

And that’s the challenge. The longer someone remains in homelessness, the greater the impact on their resiliency, health and mental well-being. Not only must they face the challenges of finding their way home, they must deal with the mental and health issues that have arisen because of long-term exposure to the toxic stress and trauma of homelessness.

Homelessness hurts. People. Families. Communities. Society.

Let’s stop blaming the people and start doing the things that ensure people don’t fall through the cracks because there are lots of exists leading away from the danger of homelessness before they fall.

Let’s stop blaming and shaming the people. Let’s start looking at our systems and how we can make them better so they open doors, not close them.

Let’s ensure our social services are deep enough and rich enough to give those with limited options enough supports so that if they do fall into a hole, they have enough resources to climb out before they get trapped in homelessness.

Let’s speak up to create a more fair and equitable society where those on the margins don’t get locked out of possibility for a better life simply because they never had the coin to pay the entrance fee to a better future in the first place.

 

 

When we fear what we do not know…

Recently, in Calgary, we’ve had an ongoing debate around a Supervised Consumption Site, both a fixed address and proposed mobile facility. As part of the debate, the phrase most used to describe its necessity is ‘harm reduction’.

To those not accustomed to working in the areas of addictions or homelessness, harm reduction can be a scary thought. Partially because unless you do work in this field, you don’t really understand it (even those who work in it sometimes struggle with it), and secondly, because it immediately suggests there is harm to someone, we just don’t know who and being naturally egotistical humans, we fear what we do not understand and assume it is us at risk of the harm.

Harm reduction is about lessening opportunities for self-harm by creating safe practices and spaces for those engaged in drug use. Someone with an addiction is going to use. That’s what addictions do. They steal ‘common sense’ and override our entire beings with this burning desire to have the thing we desire, even when we know it’s not good for us. We don’t really think about the dying part. We think about the relieving ‘the itch’ by using the thing that gives us relief.

But, we say, they choose to be addicts, why can’t they take care of themselves? Or as one person commented on a news article online, Why can’t we just let them all die?

I don’t know about you but people dying on my watch, when I have the capacity to make a difference, even if it’s only by accepting a Supervised Consumption site in my area is better than being complicit in someone dying of a drug overdose anywhere.

On average, 2 people die of opioid poisoning in Alberta every day with Calgary experiencing the highest number of overdoses in the province.

This is a complex issue. Lives are being lost. And we are afraid. The challenge is, I’m not sure we know what it is we fear.

Do we fear encountering someone on a high on the street?

Do we fear someone dying in front of us?

Do we fear we won’t know what to do if we encounter someone overdosing?

Do we fear the unknown?

All of these are real fears.

Are they real enough for us to take action by learning more, by carrying a Naloxone kit for example, or by volunteering at an organization that works with people with addictions or who are experiencing homelessness?

Or, do we just complain, criticize and condemn those who are doing their best, even when we don’t understand what they’re doing or why, to keep fellow human beings alive.

There is a narrative in our society about addictions that is not healthy.

Addiction is a choice.

People should just stop.

If they’re going to use,  it’s not my job to save them.

There’s nothing I can do.

Actually, there’s lots each of us can do. We can become advocates for kindness, compassion, acceptance of our fellow human beings, in all their many facets, in all the expressions of our shared human condition.

Ultimately, by creating a kinder more forgiving and tolerant world, we create opportunities for everyone to live free of labels, free to experience what it means to be human in a world that does not judge or find others lacking simply because they’re different than us. A world that sees our differences as vital parts of the fascinating and beautiful mosaic that is our human condition.

In such a world, anything and everything is possible.

______________________________________________

Please note:  This post is not to create a debate on supervised consumption sites or addictions or the opioid crisis. My words are my effort to understand better what it means for me, and what I can do, create, change.

If my words stir something in you, please do share your thoughts. Your thoughts will help me understand more, create common ground, increase the field upon which we share understanding.

Please be respectful. Kind. I reserve the right to delete comments that denigrate or belittle human beings.

Every voice has value.

Awhile ago, I had coffee with a dear friend, He is one of my oldest friends here in this city. I needed his guidance on something and he gladly offered up his time.

As we sat and talked and laughed and shared our hopes and dreams and challenges I was struck by how much we have both been ‘made different’ through this friendship.

My friend is pragmatic. He can always serve up a pretty bleak perspective on life and the economy, on government’s and social movements that states, ‘we are all going to hell in a handbasket’. In his pragmatic approach I have learned to listen deeply to the underlying message. To not take words at face value but to ask questions, dive in to gain understanding. I have learned to make space for someone else’s point of view. There is always something to be learned, gained, understood. Through this friendship, I have learned to let go of criticism, and the need to change the other to my point of view and open up to learning and growing on the common ground of respect for one another.

I am less pragmatic, taking a more Pollyanna approach to life and living. I want him to see the goodness in all mankind, the possibility of ‘better’, the imperative of kindness and letting people be their experiences while ensuring no one dies on our streets. His response has generally been, “Then let them experience cleaning up, getting a job, getting on with life. It’s not a free-ride.”

When I worked at a single’s homeless shelter, I struggled to convince him to see the world of homelessness through my eyes. And he resisted my insistence he was wrong to view the world his way. Go figure. Over time, I quit insisting he see it my way  – by admitting the errors of his way –  and moved into a place where his way had equal voice. And in that shift, everything shifted. We were both made different. We both let go of our intransigent views and opened up to the possibilities of another way — another way that lead to the building of common ground for the mutual benefit of all. Where once the line was drawn and we could not cross the barriers of our convictions, the light has filtered in, creating softness in those places where once only hard rock theories abounded.

To make a difference in the world I must let go of my insistence that my way is the only way. There are a thousand paths to get to the place we want to be. Every path matters.

To make a difference in the world I must stop judging where others are at and find the common ground of where we all live in a world where everyone has value and every point of view creates a world we can live in without fear.

The Courage to Fly

Sometime ago, I attended a workshop at a hotel downtown. When I arrived, I wasn’t sure where to go and approached a waitress I saw setting up a table in the lobby restaurant. As I approached, she looked at me, smiled and said, “Louise. How wonderful to see you.”

“Hi!” I replied, glancing at her name tag. “Claire*. I know I know you but I can’t remember from where.”

She smiled. Glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot. “From the shelter,” she said. “I was a client there years ago.”

My eyes widened in wonder. “Wow! I wouldn’t have recognized you. You look fabulous,” I told her.

And she did. Her once gaunt face had filled out. Her eyes sparkled. Claire, when I knew her many years ago at the shelter was a crack addict. While there, she drifted in and out of sobriety, in and out of rehab with never a stint of sobriety lasting longer than a couple of weeks.

When high, she flitted like a butterfly, laughing and joking with everyone.

When coming down, she drifted through the room like a wounded sparrow, dragging a broken wing, fluttering feebly, fearful it would never fly again.

When sober, she volunteered. Helped out where ever she could, constantly staying busy in the hope she would not succumb to the call of the drugs eating at her peace of mind. “I want to be sober,” she told me often. “I really want it, but I’m too scared to let go of the drugs.”

She’s been clean and sober for several years.

“I’m loving it,” she told me. “Love being sober. Love getting to know me again,” she laughed. “I was too afraid to do that before.” She glanced upwards, pointed above. “It’s a miracle. I’d be dead by now if He hadn’t found me lying in the dirt and picked me up. I am so grateful for His Love.”

Claire’s sobriety was hard work. Rehab. Fall. Rehab. Fall. Until one day, there was no more falling. No more rehab.

“There were so many people who made a difference on my journey,” she said. “I say thank you every day.”

We chatted for a bit. My eyes welled up several times as she told me about her journey, her letting go and surrendering to Love.

As we said good-bye, she gave me a hug. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for being so kind. You always treated everyone with respect. It meant a lot. You reminded me of what was possible even when I was high and running scared.”

I wanted to brush off her compliment. To slip away and let it slide off me.

I chose not to. I chose instead to let her words lift me up and to give her my appreciation for sharing her story with me.

“Thank you,” I said. “Your words mean a lot to me. Seeing you has reminded me to never let go of hope. To always believe in the beauty of the human spirit. I’m so glad you are alive.”

There are no accidents even though running into Claire felt like one at the time.

In Claire’s story I was reminded of the magnificence of the human spirit when it soars free of limiting thoughts and behaviours that tie us to the belief we do not deserve Love. Chatting with Claire reminded that we are all at times like a bird with a broken wing, desperately trying to take flight. It is only when we do the hard work of letting go and falling into Love, that we set ourselves free.

In Love’s embrace, we are safe in our humanity. In Love, even broken wings find the courage to fly.

Namaste.

* not her real name

No one is meant to be alone. Especially in the end.

I told your story yesterday old friend. I told your story and shared your voice with strangers. Just like you wanted. Just like you knew I would those days when you shared stories of your life on the road and laughed and teased and flirted.

Remember? You said you wanted to be remembered. Oh. Not for the word you carried that named you. Oh no. Never that harsh and judgmental label – homeless. It didn’t sit well with you. Call me anything but that, you said.

And then you laughed. Because I’m not, you know. I’ve got a home. Here. And your rheumy eyes glistened and I saw the longing for home shining.

I told them of your brother. Of your reuniting. Of the missing years that had no need of filling in. Of the tears and the joy. And finally, I told these strangers who had never met you, but wished they had, of your brother’s hand holding yours in those final moments. Of your passing over filled with grace in the love of a brother who never forgot you and never gave up on finding you before it was too late.

You blessed my world my friend. You blessed me with your laughter and your words and your insistence you would fight this. You would win. You would beat it. Not even life can beat me down you said. And it didn’t. At least not life itself. You were so full of it. So completely engaged in it. And then, you were gone.

In the end, you won. In the beauty and the tragedy of your life, you found the thing you most sought. That thing we all yearn for. That place we all want to be. Held forever in the arms of Love.

Yesterday I told your story and I smiled and laughed and remembered you just the way you wanted to be remembered. Determined. Feisty. Laughing and just a little bit naughty.

Tell them about the man I was, you said. Tell them about the man with dreams and big ideas and an eye for the ladies.

You winked when you said that. You always winked when you flirted.

Tell them about the man who could lift bales of hay with one hand and change a flat tire in three minutes flat. Don’t tell them about the skin and bones, the skeleton rattling around a small cubicle room where all I own fits into a 2×6 foot locker. Leave the ending out, would you?

Remember me for the man I was. The man who did it his way. The one who told himself he never needed anyone and found out, in the end, he was grateful to be wrong. Make sure they know that, you said. Make sure they know. No one is meant to be alone. Especially in the end.

I told your story yesterday old friend and you were remembered and eyes glistened and hearts drew near and warmed their hands in the glow of your closeness and I knew, you were there. Laughing. Caring. Sharing your stories and your funny jokes and not so delicate ones too.

You are not forgotten my friend.

It is cold and frosty outside today. Inside, my world is warm and toasty. Beaumont sleeps on the chaise behind me. My beloved lays in our bed. The furnace hums. The river flows past, its ripples glistening in the light that shines from the bridge above. The bridge that connects two sides of the river flowing past.

The world outside my window is wintry white as once the screen lay flat and white before me. Until your memory filled it.

____________________________________________________________

I ran into an old work colleague yesterday. We laughed and chatted and talked about people we knew. Those who are still with us. Those who are gone.

“It’s good to remember the good of that place,” my colleague said. “That way we let go of what we do not need to carry.”

Wise words, I thought. And I remembered a man who once stayed at that place. His name was Terry. He is gone but the lesson he taught remains.

In remembering, I searched for something I’d written of him a year after he passed.

No one is meant to be alone., he said. Especially in the end.

The air is frigid outside my window. Arctic air encompasses the city.

There are those who are outside in this cold, struggling to survive.

If you are in Calgary and see someone in distress, please call the DOAP team — 403-998-7388

If you are in another city, please check with your local shelters if there’s a number you can call, or call 9-1-1