Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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Racism in My Canada? Yes. It’s true.

I speak three languages. No longer fluently. But I still can understand French and German and speak it to be understood if the subject is relatively simple and about daily matters.

I once took a course in speaking Mandarin. Another in Japanese. And one in Spanish.

What I’ve never done is considered taking a course in learning how to speak  Cree. Or Blackfoot. Or any of the other 60 distinct Indigenous languages of Canada.

And that’s what I find so disappointing — and at the same time possible — for myself. I can change that fact. I can choose to learn another language — and this time, I can choose to learn a language that will not only give me another way to understand my neighbours, but will give me an opportunity to play my part in Reconciliation.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned working the homeless-serving sector for the past 12 years, it’s that there is a lot of Reconciliation needed if we are to make a dent in the racism Canada’s Indigenous Peoples face everyday at the hands, and words, and actions, of non-Indigenous Canadians.

We are a country with a Big Problem.

And it’s not ‘Those Indians’, as someone called Indigenous Peoples at a dinner party awhile back, who’ve got the problem (though their lives are tragically impacted by it every day in every way and have been for generations).

It’s OUR problem. It’s Our Racism. Our intolerance. Our desire to pretend we don’t have a National crisis where infant mortality is higher for some than others. Where certain peoples are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest and life expectancy shortened by at least 10 years.

The problem is, we don’t want to face the fact, it’s OUR problem. We like to say,  “Look at us! We’re not as bad as the US and the way they treat African Americans. No. We’re better than that.”

No. We’re Not.

Better than that.

Just a quick glance at the chart to the left from a recent article in MacLean’s Magazine, “Canada’s Race Problem? It’s even worse than America’s.” shows just how serious the issue is in Canada.

The challenge?  As the article goes on to explain, “our Fergusons are hidden deep in the bush, accessible only by chartered float plane: 49 per cent of First Nations members live on remote reserves.”

I am having trouble reconciling that view of Canada with My Canada. The land of tolerance, equality, inclusivity.

But then, every day at work in a family homeless shelter, I struggle to align My Canada with the lives of the families I see coming to the shelter. They are 60% Indigenous. 25% new Canadians/immigrants.

They come with their hopes and dreams of building better lives for their children. They come fleeing the violence they’ve experienced on Reserves, Reserves we, the settlers, created and forced them to live on. They come fleeing hopelessness, desperate to create opportunity for their children so that they do not have to carry the burdens of poverty, racism, discrimination.

And what do they find in the city?

The very things they fled.

What’s their Canada look like?

It sure isn’t the same as mine.

So rather than expect someone else for whom trust has been broken again and again to step towards me, I think it’s time I took a step towards Reconciliation.

And one way to do that is to learn a language that will help me understand better what their Canada looks like.

Because one thing I know for sure… their Canada does not treat them the same way My Canada treats me. And that’s something I want to help change.

 

 

 


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What do you do when staring discrimination in the face?

It is a clear case of ‘profiling’. Of targeting a group of people based on knowing where they come from.

It stinks.

Last week, shelter staff organized an outing for the families staying at Inn from the Cold’s emergency family shelter. A company has generously donated funds for field trips on school PD Days, so for this particular school-free day, the staff decided to take the families bowling.

They contacted the bowling alley weeks in advance. Reserved 7 lanes for 2 hours and on Friday morning, the families climbed onto buses and set off for their adventure.

The children were excited. The parents grateful for an outing where they could spend time having fun with their kids.

It did not go well.

When staff told me how the families had been treated I was saddened. I was angry. I was disappointed.

My feelings are nothing compared to what the children and parents must have felt. Though when one mother explained it away with, “We’re used to this treatment,” I realized there is one emotion many of the families felt that because of my privileged position doesn’t resonate within me.  “Resigned.”

I am not Indigenous. I am not a visible ethnic minority. I am not staying at a homeless shelter. I am not trapped in poverty.

For the families on the outing, all of this is true. This is their reality, as is the discrimination they face everyday, every where.

Discrimination. It’s what people do when confronted with ‘others’ who are different than their view of the world.

The 2 hour bowling fest was chopped in half by staff at the bowling hall. No explanation. Just a curt, “You can have one hour and then we’ll see if we give you a second.” When staff reminded the manager that they’d reserved a full two hours and would gladly pay up front, there was no change in attitude. The families would have to prove themselves worthy of being granted the second hour.

At the end of the first hour the shelter staff and guests were told they had to leave. They had been deemed unworthy. There was no recourse.

They handed in their shoes and the families left, only to have to wait an hour in the stairwell for the buses to arrive.

Throughout the one hour of bowling, the bowling alley staff stood at the edge of the area where the families were bowling and stared. Continuously. They rolled their eyes. Made snide comments about ‘those people’ and even went so far as to banish two young children from the lanes when they sent two balls down the alley. As one staff member exclaimed, “My son goes to birthday parties at that bowling alley. He and his friends are always doing silly things. They don’t have their bowling shoes taken off their feet and their privileges rescinded. If there’s an issue, management talks to the parents who talk to their kids. They work it out.”

That didn’t happen on Friday.

Respect. Consideration. Thoughtfulness. Kindness. Acceptance. Courtesy. Customer service.

None of those were present.

What was present? Discrimination. Racism. Mistreatment. Rudeness. Intolerance. Judgement.

And a host of human affects that do not reflect well on those employing them as a means to shame and shun people who are already marginalized and excluded from societal norms and considerations.

I wonder if the bowling alley staff have any idea how shameful their behaviour was? I’m pretty sure they don’t.

Because that’s the thing about discrimination and intolerance. Blinded by our beliefs, we don’t know we’re acting under its influence. We are simply acting out from an internal script that makes it okay to do what we believe is necessary to protect our perceived right to be judge and jury of others. And that includes believing we have the right to be who we are and act how we do, even if it means trampling upon the rights of others to be who they are.

Under the cloud of discrimination and intolerance, we don’t assess our beliefs. We express them. No matter who gets hurt.

I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave and make hate and injustice go away.

I know I don’t.

Instead, I must use the tools I have available to create better.

Shaming the staff at the bowling alley will not make them more tolerant, less discriminatory.

Inviting them into a conversation where compassion for our differing opinions and points of view is present will create space for understanding to begin. Perhaps neither side will change their positions, but in the process, we will have connected as human beings in search of common ground.

And from that place, anything is possible.

 

 

 


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From the Archives

This post originally appear, January 24, 2012.  Thank you FB Memories for reminding me.

______________________________________________________________

I was there when he took his last breath. I held his hand and waited in anticipation of an exhalation that never came. And in that one final breath in, the life-force left his body and James A. Bannerman was gone.

James was a client of the homeless shelter where I worked. Just after joining the team, I started an art program. One day, a box of throw-away cameras arrived in my office and I gave them to clients with the request they take pictures of their world. James was one of the ones who agreed to participate. From then on, a camera was never far from his sights. Whenever he wandered the streets of Calgary doing what he did everyday, picking up bottles along the riverbank, he would take photos. “Bottle pickings my civic duty,” he used to tell me when I’d pass him as I walked into work in the mornings. “I’m helping keep the city clean.”

Photography became his way of life.

That little box of a camera became a conduit for him to express the light and darkness of the city all around him. He became indefatigable in his ‘picture-taking’ as he liked to call it.  Homeless for over 15 years when he received that first camera, picture-taking became his passion and, he laughed, maybe even his retirement plan. He became so immersed in his art that eventually, he saved up enough money from his odd jobs and bottle collecting to buy himself a digital camera, and then a laptop. And his picture-taking became an insatiable desire to express his awe of the world around him. Whenever we held art shows James would always turn up. A man of view words, he struggled to connect through words to those who passed his booth. He didn’t need words to speak. His photos spoke for him and to the hearts of those who purchased his work and gave it a home.

And then, cancer came and within months he was gone.

But not his photography. Not his view of the world  he inhabited that he captured tirelessly where ever he went throughout our city. He didn’t take photos of people. He only took photos of buildings and bridges and water flowing in the river and frozen footprints in ice and the patterns of a manhole cover and an image of a street through the broken glass of a bus shelter.

James A. Bannerman had an eye for beauty and next week, on the day that would have been his fifty-fourth birthday James A. Bannerman’s first solo exhibit will open.

Yesterday, I met with the curator of the exhibit from The New Gallery (TNG) and two individuals who are part of hosting this year’s inaugural, This is My City Festival to finalize the selection of photos that will appear in the exhibit. As we sorted through Jame’s photos, looking for just the right one’s to include in the Plus 15 TNG Window Gallery that will be their home for the next two months, I shared stories of James and his indefatigable spirit and felt connected once again to this man who touched my heart in so many ways.

James would be pleased. His photos are out of retirement.

This is a difference worth making. This is a difference I have held in my heart since I sat and held Jame’s hand and listened to the last intake of his breath rattling through his lungs in the early morning hours of December 8, 2009. This is a dream I’ve breathed life into throughout the intervening days, a dream other’s have joined with me in bringing to light.

I am happy and I am grateful.

Namaste.

 

 


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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.

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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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