Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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Can you let go of fear?

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Some time ago, I was working with a group of formerly homeless individuals to create a video about their experiences of being housed and the difference having a home made in their lives.

One of the participants, I’ll call her ‘Gladys’, when asked, “What did you fear most when you were homeless,” replied without hesitation. “Dying on the streets.”

Someone else responded with, “I’ll die and no one will find me for days.”

Another, “No one will know I’m gone.”

Gladys is living in an apartment now. In her new way of being she is supported by people who understand her fears, and who believe that with compassionate care, she can thrive in community.

Her thriving will not look like yours or mine. It will be different. But then, mine is different than yours and yours is different than someone else’s. It is our differences that create the vibrancy of our communities. It is our diversity that builds strength into the intersections of our lives.

There is possibility in our differences. There is connection.

In my life, I have done many things and learned many lessons. Some, I’d like to keep. Some I can live without. What I’ve learned most though is that all things make a difference. It’s up to me to determine what kind of difference I want to make through my experiences. And while the past is a good teacher, it can also be a lodestone.

It all depends on what I do with my experiences.

My experiences make me who I am today, but my past does not define me. I do.

When our experiences lead us to believe the past is a closed loop of repetition, repeating again and again what happened then, we close off possibility of better.

When we use our experiences of the past with the intent to inform our actions for the better today, we can create better, we can make a difference and make our world a loving kind of different place for everyone.

There are people living on our streets today, and in our emergency shelters, who have given up on believing there is another way. They live with the constant fear that dying on the streets will become their future.

In the streets they walk everyday, they have lost sight of possibility. They have lost hope for a new way of being present in the world.

There are people living in our communities today, who have given up on believing there is another way. They live with the constant fear that without high fences, without holding on to what they have, they will be unsafe in their homes and in their community.

In the streets they walk everyday, they have lost sight of possibility. They have lost hope for a new way of being present in the world.

To be present in this world in new and loving ways, we must see this world in new and loving ways.

When I see it through eyes of fear, I know fear.

When I breathe into possibility, when I open myself up to allowing possibility for another way to arise, my world becomes a reflection of what I want to create more of in the world around me.

We all know fear. We have all been touched by change and its constant hammering away at the walls of our comfort zones demanding we learn to stretch and find new moves to take us away from where we are into that place where anything is possible. To do that, we must let go of holding onto to what we know and free ourselves to let go of what we fear.

Just as Gladys is learning to let go of her fear she will die on the streets, the possibility exists for each of us to let go of our fear the future will be a repetition of the past. In letting go, we set ourselves free to create the kind of world our children will be free to live in without fearing the past will never end.

To find a new way of being present in the world today, we must we let go of believing the past is the only door we can walk through to get to a better future.

____________________________

Photo by Ev on Unsplash


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Is Housing a Right?

I spoke at GlobalFest Human Rights Forum, an annual one week forum on Human Rights issues presented by UNA Canada, Calgary Branch.

It was the kick-off event. The subject matter for the evening was, Shelter.

One of the questions everyone was asked to consider was, Is housing a right?

Harvey Voogd, one of the presenters, spoke of how Medicaid was once not part of our Canadian landscape. How it wasn’t universally available. And now it is. Now, we don’t even question its necessity in the lives of all Canadians.

That’s the future I see for housing, he said.

I hope he’s right.

Imagine that future.

A future where every Canadian has access to safe, secure and affordable housing that meets their cultural, spiritual, physical and everyday needs.

Housing that is not insecure.

What an amazing future that would be.

I think about what we see today at the shelter where I work and in shelters across this country. Housing insecurity, like food insecurity, income insecurity, is debilitating. The energy needed to chase after resources to keep your family housed is exhausting.

For families in housing insecurity, getting ahead doesn’t mean going back to school or starting your own business, or getting a promotion.

It means juggling priorities like food on the table and school supplies for your kids with the need to keep a roof over their head.

It means having to decide between sending your child to school with a lunch, or having dinner on the table for when they come home.

It means not insuring your possessions to be able to afford bus fare for the month or gas in your car to get to your job on the other side of the city where public transit doesn’t run, or takes two hours each way to get there.

It means having to rely on neighbours and family for childcare and after school-care or perhaps leaving your children at home alone because you’re on the bus trying to get to, or from, a job that just pays enough to cover the rent.

Housing insecurity does not come with peace of mind or breathing room in your bank account in case of an emergency.

It does not include room to send your child to a tutoring program to help strengthen their math or language skills in school.

And it definitely doesn’t come with room to take them to the Zoo or a movie or the Science Centre where you can spend time together, learning and growing and laughing and playing being a family.

Housing insecurity is a constant struggle to make distant ends of a stretched thin bottomline expand to meet monthly commitments that never seem to be completely balanced.

Housing insecurity makes life hard. It makes it difficult to dream and believe you can make your dreams come true.

Housing insecurity is something parents try desperately to hide from their children. But when housing insecurity turns into homelessness, there is no more hiding. No more trying to pretend it’s not happening.

For children, the reality of housing insecurity turned into the loss of the home they knew can be terrifying. Horrific.

For children, housing insecurity that brings them to a family emergency shelter is not a ‘holiday’ or a camping trip as some parents desperately try to sell the notion of being in shelter to their children. It is a complete disruption of their daily lives, their sense of belonging, their need for security.

Housing is a right.

And every child needs it. Deserves it. Must have it to be able to learn and grow and develop their minds so that when they grow up, housing insecurity isn’t a part of their journey.

One day, I hope we get to a future where the right of every child to a safe home is a reality.

Namaste.

___________________________________________

There are five more events scheduled for GlobalFest Human Rights Forum.  Click HERE for info.


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How the Plan to End Homelessness is failing children.

Launched in 2008, Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness focused on providing housing to stop the year over year growth the city had been experiencing in homelessness since 1992 when the first Homeless Point-in-Time Count was held.

Since 2008, almost 10,000 people have been housed with approximately 80% of those retaining their housing or experiencing a successful exit from homelessness.

The majority were adults, not children.

The Plan focused on adult single homelessness. Initially on the high acuity, high chronicity individuals who needed wrap-around intensive supports in housing. As the architects of the Plan began to realize that there were a large number of low-acuity but chronically homelessness individuals trapped in shelter, they shifted to housing for that demographic.

There was no plan for children and families.

Still isn’t.

And that’s who the Plan has failed. The children.

On Friday, I had to meet with the shelter management team of the family emergency shelter where I work to talk about what actions we could take over the long weekend to create safety for everyone. Staff and families.

With over 40 families in a shelter designed to accommodate 27, and no staff available over the long weekend to be able to open our satellite emergency shelter, we had to do something.

We went through the list of families. Talked about ideas, who we could call, what programs we might be able to access to find relief, at least for the weekend.

I called the domestic violence shelters. They were full.

We called everyone we could think of, asking for help. For ideas on how we could weather this long weekend and provide the families we’re sheltering, and our staff, safety. There was no help.

Desperate for solutions, we had to tell the single pregnant moms unaccompanied by children, and the couples who were pregnant but without children, that they had to leave. They could go to the single adult shelters who have room, their numbers are down. Not ideal, particularly when you’re pregnant, but we had to create safety for the children.

We had to tell the single pregnant mom without accompanying children who called that we had no room. She would have to find an alternative.

It was extremely hard on staff. As one staff told me, I can’t recall a time when we’ve ever sent families away.

But they understood. We had to keep the children safe. Over-crowding, particularly with families already in crisis, is not good for anyone.

The recent Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness showed a continued steady decline in adult single homelessness.

Family homelessness, they found, wasn’t growing.

It isn’t falling either, and, while on April 11th, when the Count was conducted there were only 27 families in the shelter, it has steadily been climbing since May to reach a recent high of 44 families, or a total of 155 individuals, in shelter.  We are doing more with less, and it is the children who will suffer.

Where is the Plan to end child and family homelessness?

Where is the focus on the children who will one day grow up to be adults? Without interventions now, without addressing the trauma and toxic stress they are facing in their everyday young lives, the research is clear. They are more likely to grow up to become homeless.

It was a tough day Friday. I am acting ED and Director Programs. As I told the staff when we met, I trust your decisions. First and foremost, we must create safety for the children.

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Please Note:  These are my personal reflections, opinions and questions. They are not a statement of the agency for whom I work.

Perhaps some of my frustration, and fear, comes from the call I received late Friday night. A single mother with a 3-year old child seeking shelter. She phoned the media line posted on our website and got me. I have nowhere to go, she said. Can I come there?

I gave her the phone number of the main shelter. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we were full. I’m sure the staff won’t either because no matter what, they will always find room for the children.

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Children and homelessness: When hugs are not just hugs

The world is misty this morning when I awaken.

An hour later, the mist rises and the world around me becomes visible.

Yet for that moment in time, it appeared to be gone. Vanished.

Like life. We travel along and suddenly encounter an unknown, a situation that doesn’t make sense, a darkness we’ve never known before.

We struggle to make sense of it. To grasp it’s meaning. To get through it.

We feel like there is no up or down. That everything is turned inside out.

That what we knew no longer is true. That who we are no longer fits.

And then, one morning we awaken and the world is right side up again.

We see the sun. Smell the flowers. Hear the sounds. And we are at peace again. Relaxed. Content with our place in this world.

Experiencing homelessness is like being in the mist. There is no sense of relief in site. No up or down. Just the great abyss of loss and despair that envelops you in its massive all-encompassing fog of hopelessness.

The fog of homelessness does not rise as quickly and effortlessly as the mist this morning.

It has staying power. Tenacity.

For children, that fog can change their entire lives. It can close off pathways to resiliency and well-being, leaving them stranded on islands of cognitive disabilities, poor impulse control, susceptible to drugs, abuse and more. It can circumvent clear-sightedness with its constant blocking of the view outside. The view beyond a family emergency shelter’s doors. The view beyond this place called homeless.

At the family emergency shelter where I work, children walk through our doors everyday. Confused. Angry. Lost, they follow their parents to this place they don’t understand, unsure of how to respond to the loss of the world as they knew it in this new world they do not know.

It is challenging. Hard. Confusing.

Supporting children through a familial experience of homelessness is vital. They need to be taught tools that build their resiliency. Tools that help them positively cope with their feelings. Tools that help them interact in a communal setting in ways that create less stress, less turmoil.

Last week, as I stood in the dining room helping staff manage dinner, a young boy came up to me and without a word gave me a big hug.

I was surprised, a little uncomfortable but in the moment thought, “How sweet.”

Later, in talking to one of our fmily support workers she was telling me of the challenges this young boy faces with understanding appropriate and inappropriate touching.

He doesn’t understand personal boundaries, she told me. Part of what we are attempting to do is to teach him what it means to have personal space and how to respect our own, and others. We need to help him understand boundaries so that he doesn’t randomly go up and hug strangers and find himself in unsafe situations.

It was like a fog lifted.

I understood.

When that young boy had hugged me, my surprise was based on my discomfort that a child I do not know would just walk up and hug me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I wasn’t sure what the hug was all about but because I have a worldview that sees children through the lens of, “They do the sweetest things and hugs are sooo cute,” I saw his hug as ‘sweet’.

Framed in the context that he does not know or understand the use of personal boundaries or the need to ask permission to hug first, I can see that my lens was fogged up with my misunderstanding. Because of my frame, I saw him as expressing how grateful he was for the dinner he just had, or for having a place like the shelter to come to, or just that he was friendly.

In actuality, his hug was an expression of his lack of understanding of boundaries, and a deep need for attention and affection, which he will strive to get wherever he can, even from strangers.

And therein lies the challenge. To support this young boy in his early childhood development, teaching him healthy boundaries, and how to be safe in this world, is more affirming than accepting inappropriate hugs.

In the fog of my lack of understanding of the situation, I didn’t know how to respond in ways that would best support him in his development.

Out of the fog I understand the importance of stepping back from my worldview to see into the heart of what so many of the children we see at the shelter experience — a world of chaos, crisis, stress and turmoil.

A world they do not understand and will do anything possible to make sense of if only so that the fog will lift and they will feel less frightened, alone, scared.

And while it may feel like the best thing we can do is to give them all a hug, it’s not.

The best thing we can do is to build a safe container around them in which they can learn to build resiliency, healthy boundaries and powerful ways to be in this world. That way, no matter where they live, when the fog of homelessness lifts, they have the tools they need to live rich and fulfilling lives. A world in which they connect on deep and appropriate levels with the people around them. A world in which hugs are not an expression of your attachment issues but rather, an expression of your capacity to connect in healthy ways to the world around you.

 

 

 

 


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Dinner at the Inn.

Photo by Jaco Pretorius on Unsplash

The first sitting is for families with infants.

There are three of them. Three mothers. Five children. One child is celebrating his 2nd birthday.

I wonder about celebrating a birthday in a homeless shelter. About the memories built. The one’s lost.

I wonder how the mother keeps up such a brave and loving face. How she manages to smile and love-on her two infant sons so beautifully in such crisis.

I do not ask.

It is not my place to do so.

I am there to help shelter staff manage the chaos that is dinner-time at the shelter.

We are understaffed. Over-capacity. Summer holidays. Sick time. Maternity leaves. And an unprecedented number of families seeking shelter.

In a building designed to accommodate 27 families, we have not been under 30 families throughout July. One night we had 40 families in shelter. That’s unprecedented.

At the same time, we are giving the 3rd floor shelter space a Big Refresh, painting it to be a more calming and supportive environment. Less institutional. More welcoming.

It’s a week long exercise to paint each of three shelter areas. The second floor was completed two weeks ago. We’ve moved onto the third. Which means the families staying on one side of the third floor are being sheltered every night at our external emergency space in the basement of Knox church throughout this week. Next week, the families on the other side will pack up and move to Knox.

It is not ideal. But we need to ensure the shelter space is renewed and clean and intentionally designed to promote healing through its environmental look and feel.

It was scheduled now because July is generally a quieter month. We didn’t know it would get this busy.

Yesterday morning, at a leadership meeting, one of the team leads talked about the chaos of dinner-time. Of trying to feed over 100 people in an hour to ensure families get nutritional meals as well as are able to get to where they need to be on time.

We’re constantly short-staffed, a team lead said.

How can I help? I asked.

Come to dinner!

Who could refuse such an invitation?

Which is why I ended up helping supervise mealtime with the team.

I was mostly just an extra body trying to keep children from racing out of the dining room without their parent(s).

Mostly, I stood in awe and watched shelter staff manage children and parents and plates of food and glasses of milk and water, wipe up spill-overs, catch plates before they hit the floor and answer the questions of the volunteers who came in to serve the meal and make lunches for the next day.

In the face of crying children, laughing children, children who would not sit and eat and children who wanted to hang off the gate installed at the entrance to the doorway to keep children from wandering out and walking out onto the busy avenue, as has happened twice in the last month, the staff are engaged. Caring. Compassionate. Kind. They share fist pumps and pick up children and carry them around as they make them laugh and help mothers navigate strollers and tote bags and coax unruly youngsters who don’t want to eat, or don’t like salad, or would rather have juice than milk.

It is, in many ways, a typical family dinner scene with young children.

Parents trying to get a child to eat more than one bite. To drink their milk. To not bounce up and down in their booster seat. To not fight with a sibling.

It’s dinner at family tables the world over.

And then, it’s not.

Because this is an emergency family shelter. A place of crisis. Of high anxiety and feelings of loss, uncertainty, fear, confusion. Of young minds developing, seeing and experiencing in a place young minds struggle to comprehend.

It is a communal space. Meals are in shifts. Twelve tables. Five chairs at each table. Families with young infants first. Knox families second so they can get on the bus at six. Second floor next. And then the remaining families on the 3rd floor in two more shifts. Each family called down via radio as tables become free.

There is no time to linger. To talk about the day’s happenings. To share stories that last more than a few moments.

This dinner time is exactly one hour and fifteen minutes long, broken up into fifteen minute segments.

Because once the families leave, the volunteers clean up, do the dishes, finish off sandwich making and get everything spruced up for the next day.

They too need to get home to families and dinner tables.

The kitchen staff need to get the prep work done for the next day and the shelter staff need to ensure families are where they’re supposed to be before the night shift turns up.

I helped in the dining room last night.

I left feeling tired. Humbled. Grateful.

Grateful the shelter is there to help families in crisis. Grateful for the amazing staff who care so deeply. Grateful to be part of such an amazing team.

Namaste.

___________________________________

Photo by Jaco Pretorius on Unsplash

 


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The General and The Gangs

“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.


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Will you choose compassion?

I had an OpEd published in our local newspaper on the weekend. It was about homelessness and choice.

There were many voices of support. Of people applauding me for my words and insight.

I like feeling connected to people who agree with me. It’s immensely human and makes me feel good!

But what about those who wrote in to disagree? Who believe, even though I wrote that homelessness is not a choice, it’s a lack of choice, a lack of resilience, a lack of many things — that homelessness is a choice. That if people just got jobs and cleaned up, their lives would be all better.

In the face of their words, I don’t feel so connected.

Their words cause me despair.

Their view of the world causes me consternation.

In the face of their differing worldview there is a part of me that would really just like to call them names, tell them they’re wrong, tell them to ‘get a life’.

Yet, their views have as much right to be heard as mine. Their views are equally as important to the conversation as mine because in their words the truth of the world according to their view rings true.

What will I choose?

Will I choose to condemn and complain?

Or will I choose compassion.?

Will I listen to understand, not to judge?

Will I create space for common ground, rather than a battleground?

In those moments of dissent, finding compassion, acting with integrity, being present is vital.

Because if I lash back, if I choose to discount or ignore their voices, then I am creating a world where us versus them is the norm. Where my voice is the only voice that matters to me and they can damn well go… blah blah blah.

Bottomline, when I respond from a place of condemnation, I am contributing my worst, not my best.

To understand another’s point of view, to find common ground, we must stand with open mind and heart. We must listen deeply without judgement and be willing to be vulnerable.

To be vulnerable, we must choose compassion.

Namaste.