Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


6 Comments

We are all players in homelessness

I was in Vancouver over the weekend visiting my daughter, her husband and my grandson. He’s 8 months old, his life a beautiful big slate of possibilities not yet explored or even imagined.

Three weeks ago, my daughter and her family, along with 43 other tenants who lived in the same apartment building in downtown Vancouver, were summarily evicted the day after a fire destroyed 10 units completely and caused extensive damage in the building.

My daughter and her husband had insurance. They have family they can stay with while searching for a new place. They have the means to afford to find and move into a new place, and they have the resilience that comes from a lifetime of relative privilege that has given them emotional reserves to fall back on to hold them up as they journey through these difficult days post fire.

So many others in the building don’t have those same opportunities. They are senior’s, single mom’s and dad’s faced with enormous damages and losses plus the challenge of having to find a place to live in Canada’s second most expensive renter’s market.

At the family emergency homeless shelter where I work, families arrive at our doors every day seeking shelter after a housing crisis has hit.

Like my daughter and her neighbours, they didn’t plan on the crisis and are doing whatever they can to weather the storm. In this case, bringing their family to an emergency shelter. What is essential to the families we serve is what is essential to my daughter and her neighbours – finding safe, temporary shelter while they seek new housing. Housing that is safe and sustainable. Housing where they can once again be at home in that place where their stories of new possibilities begin.

Everyday families come to the emergency shelter seeking shelter. Like my daughter and her family who are staying at his parents, or their neighbours who are staying with family, in motels or on friend’s couches, the shelter is not their home. It is the place they are staying as they navigate their path back home.

As my daughter and I wandered the streets of Vancouver, checking out shops for furniture and baby supplies for their new home, we talked about the unexpectedness of this event in their lives and its impact. They are moving to a new neighbourhood. Her son will no longer be swimming every week at the Y around the corner or sitting in the park with her across the street watching the puppies play or the birds in the trees.

“Will my son remember what happened?” my daughter wondered. “I just want to get him back into a routine. Get him settled in his own room.”

It has not been easy, but they are doing their best.

I am sure her thoughts are similar to those of the parents who come to the shelter. How much will their children remember? How will they be impacted? How do they get them settled quickly in a new home?

Faced with the crisis of being without a home, they are doing their best to ensure their families are safe. On their journey home, some people will need a little bit of extra help and support to make it happen.  But no matter what, every family needs a place to call home for their children where a better future is always possible.

It is easy in homelessness for those of us looking ‘in’ to think the crisis is all the fault of the adults involved. That it is their choices that caused the problem.

No one caused the fire that resulted in my daughter and her neighbours being evicted, and not having insurance is not the problem either. The same is true of the families who come to a family emergency shelter. No one human caused their homelessness. Lack of a social network, lack of social policies that protect the vulnerable from greed and the man-made attributes that contribute to a highly-overpriced housing market are all players. Our human condition’s need to accumulate wealth, to build bigger and more without thought for those who are not able to take advantage of the same opportunities are also contributors.

And the part that is so daunting, that makes it so hard to witness children experiencing homelessness day after day is the fact, it is the children who pay the ultimate price. They are the one’s who suffer the consequences.

Homelessness is not the problem, just as those experiencing it are not the problem.

We all are contributors and benefactors of its root causes. We all buy into and pay forward the creation of this state called homelessness through the things we do to create ‘better’ in our own worlds that have unintended consequences, and sometimes intended consequences, in another’s world. In our complicity, whether overt or covert through our silence, we are all impacting the futures of the children who are its innocent victims.

________________________________________

If you would like to help the families who were impacted by the Thurlow Street Fire that resulted in my daughter and her family and neighbour’s evictions, you can support their GoFundMe campaign HERE.


7 Comments

Sleep is worth the time!

Beaumont never worries about sleep

I don’t often give sleep its due.

I tend to ignore it or at least take it for granted.

A life-long early-riser, I struggle to sleep in, to keep sleep as a priority, regardless of how tired I am.

Sleep was on my mind this morning as I struggled to get out of bed and move into my day.

Fighting a cold puts me on the other side of tired. You know, that place where your bones feel weary and your head heavier than the rest of your body.

I don’t always give sleep its due.

Sleep was also on my mind as I was reading the over night shift reports this morning from the family emergency shelter where I work.

It’s hard to get a good night’s sleep in a homeless shelter.

There is constant movement, emergency lights in the hallways, unfamiliar surroundings, noises on the other side of your cubicle wall as children whimper and parents struggle to calm their anxious states of mind.

Sleep is not part of the homeless experience. At least, a good night’s sleep isn’t.

The challenge is, without sleep it’s hard to think clearly, to process and plan. to remain positive and hopeful.

When sleep is at a premium, sleep is always on our minds.

Like new parents, sleep is often absent when you need it the most.

Yesterday, my eldest daughter called all excited. She’d had a good night’s sleep! My grandson isn’t big on sleeping, yet. Since the fire that tore them from their home on October 4th, his sleep has been even more disjointed with the turning upside down of his world.

For my daughter, this has caused more angst at a time when there’s lots of it to go around.

Suddenly being evicted from their home. Staying with her husband’s family. Having to find a new place to live, dealing with movers and cleaners and insurance companies while also trying to advocate for the other tenants in the building who have not been well-treated and in many instances, are faced with the loss of everything as they didn’t have insurance. All of this has caused her sleepless nights.

A good night’s sleep is a gift.

I’ve been thinking about sleep recently. I’ve been teaching myself to give into it a little more and be a little less judgmental of myself in my need of its healing grace.

Sleep is restorative. Sleep is healing. Sleep is vital.

I hope you all had a good night’s sleep.

 

 


1 Comment

Early morning light and other awakenings

From where I sit

Sunrise comes later in the lengthening shadows of autumn days growing shorter and nights longer.

My body wants to stay in bed, to remain snugly curled up under the covers just a little bit longer.

My brain says, ‘get up. It may be dark but it’s morning. The day is awaiting.’

And so I arise.

I make my latte, take Beaumont out and settle at my desk as he settles on the floor beside me. Outside, the light from the walking bridge I can see from my window shimmers on the surface of the river flowing beneath it. the room behind me is reflected in the glass. The blanket of night that engulfs the world is broken by dark leaves on the trees that line the water’s edge. They stir gently in the early morning stillness, their dark silhouettes etched upon the surface of the shimmering water flowing in the night like a delicate filigree of lace. The headlights of a car moves through the darkness, crossing over the bridge that spans the river further to the south. The sky is dark.

I am wrapped in the warm cocoon of our home. A candle burns on my desk. A floor lamp casts a halo of light around me. Soft piano music plays. I am safe. I am warm. I am content.

At the family emergency homeless shelter where I work, morning has begun. Wake-up call is long past. Staff are turning on the hallway lights and families are stirring. Children grumble about the darkness of the morning, begging to sleep just a little bit longer. There are soft whispers, crying, a burst of laughter, the sound of a book falling to the floor from where it slipped off someone’s bed. Parents stretch and crawl out from beneath their covers, one rush to gather their things and reach the showers before someone else, the other rushes to get their children ready for the day. They prod and chide their children, telling them to ‘wake up. Hurry up. Get dressed. Get moving. And don’t forget to brush your teeth.

Morning has broken.

A new day has begun.

For many of the families who found safety at the shelter last night, the day will be a continuation of the last. Endless rounds of speaking to their case manager, connecting with other agencies and support workers, seeking housing, jobs, supports of every kind..

And waiting. Lots of waiting. for someone. Something. Nothing. Just waiting.

They’ll feel tired. Depressed. Like they want to give up. But they can’t. Their children are counting on them to find their way out of this mess called ‘homeless’ back to the place where they belong. Home.

At some point, possibly, a worker will ask them for a piece of paper they will realize they’ve forgotten, or lost, or simply misplaced in the turmoil of homelessness. And the process of filling in whatever form they were filling in will have to stop, and wait, for the right piece of paper to be found.

At some point, possibly, they’ll open a door that leads to another and then another only to find, that first door was the wrong one. They don’t quality or fit the criteria of that program. And they’ll return to their starting point and begin again. Waiting.

it is a daunting task this trying to end homelessness for your family, even with the support of case managers and other workers. It is daunting.

Not because it’s impossible. It’s not. There is help to be had. Supports to be gained. Homes to be found. People willing to guide you through the paperwork and tasks.

What’s daunting is waiting and the sheer overwhelming sense that pervades every pore of your body when your entire life has felt like one continuous struggle to not just get ahead, but to get your head even a tiny bit above the ‘poverty line’. To get enough food, education, health care, child care, money to support your family.

Dreams are lost in the darkness when the dreamer cannot fall asleep with the peace of mind necessary to calm troubled spirits and anxious thoughts. Dreaming doesn’t happen when the dreamer knows the roof above their head is insecure, there isn’t enough food  in the cupboard to stretch beyond the next morning or enough money under their pillow to meet the number of days remaining in the month.

Dreamers don’t sleep soundly in the midst of poverty grinding away at every fibre of their body stretched out in a bed they never knew how to make more comfortable for their family. Not because they didn’t want to, but rather, because they’ve never known the comfort of having enough to dream about what true comfort could feel like.

Morning has broken.

I am grateful for the quiet of my morning. The peacefulness that surrounds me. The slow quiet awakening of my day.

And I am grateful that on this morning, just like every morning of the year, there are those who are willing to walk with the children and parents who awaken in the early morning darkness of a shelter and help them turn on the lights so they can find their way home.

Namaste.


8 Comments

What does ‘Homefullness’ mean to you?

Photo by Hajran Pambudi on Unsplash

When my daughters were pre-teens I decided to volunteer with an organization that worked with troubled teens.

One of my first meetings with a director of one of their programs was at a building where they provided short-term housing for youth in crisis because of relationships at home. On this day, as I walked up the stairs towards the building, a young girl was exiting. She saw me, stopped and asked me where I was going.

“I’m going to meet someone,” I replied.

She grabbed one of my hands, dug her nails into the flesh and stated forcefully, “You can’t go in there.”

As calmly as I could, I looked into her eyes and said, “Please let go of my hand.”

She kept digging her nails into my flesh so deeply she drew blood. And all the while she kept looking into my eyes and repeated, “You can’t go in there.”

I calmly kept looking into her eyes as I repeated, “Please let go of my hand.”

She paused, looked at me and I repeated, “Please let go of my hand.”

Finally, she did.

She walked away and I walked into the building.

Shaken by the encounter, I told the man I was meeting with what had happened.

He sighed and smiled sadly and told me that she had just been informed she was going home that afternoon. She didn’t want to and had probably done what she did to draw attention to herself and to create a situation where they wouldn’t let her leave yet.

How tragic that home did not feel like a safe haven for her. How sad she wanted to stay and not return to her family.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times over the intervening 20 years since that incident. I’ve wondered what happened to her. Where she ended up. Did she have a safe, secure home today?

Yesterday at a meeting, we were asked to consider the question, “What does ‘homefullness’ mean to you?”

Is ‘homefullness the opposite of ‘homelessness’? As in, instead of being considered ‘less than’ because you don’t have a home, you’re full of possibilities and potential because you have a home.

For me, it’s a word bigger than just a place to lay your head, to come home to everyday. It’s about belonging. Security. Feeling welcomed, wanted. Safe. A place where dreams are planted and love grows.

I work in a world where home is none of those things for the people we serve because home is not part of their reality.

For many, home doesn’t even feel like a dream because the only vision of home they have is what they’ve seen on some TV comedy show where everyone laughs at the exploits of the main character and everything always ends up well.

In their worlds, things don’t always end up well. In fact, their entire existence has been built upon the reality that nothing ends up well for them. Nothing. Ever.

And I wonder… how many of the parents we serve today are like that young girl I encountered on those steps many years ago?

Without ever having known what it means to feel safe at home, without understanding how home, and family, are nurturing, caring, safe spaces, how do you create ‘home’ where you children feel safe and nurtured?

Child homelessness is a complex issue. But there is one fundamental fact that cannot be ignored. Without a safe and caring home, a child will struggle to find a safe and caring place to belong in the world. In that struggle, they will act out in order to get the things their heart so desperately yearns for.

It is only human. We act out when we don’t know what else to do to get the things we most desperately want. To feel safe. To know Love. To have a sense of Belonging.

 

Namaste.

 

 


9 Comments

The Lunch Date

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

The last time I saw him he was not looking good. I feared for him. Knew there was not a lot I could do to change the trajectory of his life and so I prayed for him that he find comfort and ease no matter where he was.

And then, he turned 65.

“My old age pension kicked in,” he told me on Friday when he dropped by my office for a visit, and to take me to lunch.

Originally he was coming for a coffee. When he called me in the morning to see if I had time for a visit, “I have lots of exciting things to tell you,” he said, I looked at my jam-packed day and didn’t see how I could do it.

But, I know this man. To try to set another date would not work. He wouldn’t call the next day as promised, not because he wouldn’t want to but rather, because he lives in the immediacy of now and to put him off would translate to, ‘she doesn’t want to have a coffee with me’.

I had no means of getting in touch with him. He doesn’t have a cell phone, nor a home phone.

He is homeless.

A veteran of the streets, he has lived for over 20 years at Calgary’s largest single’s homeless shelter.

In the end, he was late for our coffee date but in time for lunch.

“Do you want to walk over to the coffee shop at the corner?” I asked him when he arrived.

“Why don’t I buy you lunch instead?” he queried.

“You don’t have to buy me lunch” I replied.

“I want to,” was his simple answer.

Leaving his backpack in my office, we walked down the block to a cafeteria style restaurant in an office tower down the block.

Together we examined the food selections as staff and some customers checked us out. We made an interesting couple. A grey-haired woman in business attire and an older, visibly homeless, man.

When he’d arrived at my office I was relieved to see how much better he was looking. When I complemented him on his fresh haircut and trim mustache, he told me about turning 65 and getting his monthly cheque.

“I’ve got a counsellor working on getting me housed,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a slow process but I’m in no rush. I kind of like it where I’m at.”

Where he’s at is sleeping every night on a mat in the shelter’s Intox area, all his possessions in a backpack or stuffed inside a small locker. There are two keys to his locker. He has one, staff of the shelter the other.

I have known him for over 12 years. One of the first artists to come to the art program I started at the shelter when I worked there years ago, he is incredibly talented and vulnerable. Gentle of heart, a questing mind, he is proud. Sensitive and single-minded.

Once, while driving him to a play he was involved in he told me he wasn’t going to go through with it.

“No one understands,” he told me. “And they definitely don’t care.”

As we drove and I listened to his story of how the Director didn’t ‘get him’ and the whole thing about being involved in the play was futile, I asked him to tell me the lines he had written for his part in the play.

“I am a father, son, brother, uncle, friend. I am a carpenter, an artist, musician, poet. I laugh. I cry. I smile. I bleed. Which of these are diminished because I am human?”

“You will never get anyone to understand if you do not speak up,” I told him. “And if they do not hear your story, how will they learn to care?”

He continued on with that play and went on to perform in many others, including in the off-Broadway production of Requiem for a Lost Girl in New York City.

He almost chose to not go to New York too. He was having challenges getting his passport and wanted to give up on the whole adventure. I went to the passport office with him and supported him as he completed the process. That trip was one of the highlights of his life.

We all want to quit sometimes. To say, ‘why bother?’.

What this man has taught me is that fear is always present. When we reach out to others, when we step into our fears, into the broken places of our lives, the fear is still present, but it is diminished in our not being alone. In that place, anything can happen, including miracles.

On Friday, a man bought me lunch.

We chatted and laughed together. I showed him pictures of my daughters and grandson. He shared stories of his world today. Of his ‘trap line’, the regular route he travels everyday to collect bottles for extra cash. About those who save bottles just for him, about the restaurants along his route who make sure to separate the bottles from the trash and those who don’t. He talked about old times and his hopes for the future, his dream of once again being involved in Requiem for a Lost Girl should it be remounted. And the possibility of getting a home.

In sharing time together I was reminded once again how fortunate and blessed I am to do the work I do, to have had the opportunity to walk this path with so many beautiful hearts.

I had lunch with a man of Friday.

He reminded me of how beautiful the world is, no matter what side of the street we are on, when we walk together and share the stories of our lives.

I am grateful.

 

 

 


2 Comments

Where Plans Fail and Planning Matters

A week ago today, I took on a role I was not anticipating.

The Executive Director at the family emergency shelter and housing provider where I work left and I was asked to step in as Interim Executive Director.

It was not in my plan, but as Eisenhower is often quoted as having said (it wasn’t actually him but that’s another story), every plan is only as good as the first encounter with the enemy. Planning is essential, but plans are useless (that one is actually attributable to Eisenhower – he just said it a bit differently).

And that’s the thing about taking on such a big leadership role. While I am only taking on the role while the Board searches for a new ED, I don’t know how long that will take, and have committed to staying for as long as it takes to get the right person in place. Thus, I must plan accordingly.

Which is kind of exciting.

Because here’s the deal, several years ago I thought I’d enjoy the challenge of being an ED. At that time, as I explored opportunities I realized that my life vision and work vision weren’t aligned if I took on such a role.

When I joined this agency, I came because I wanted the last segment of my formal working career to be in a place where I was passionate about the mission, the people and the work. And I am.

I believe we can end child and family homelessness if we work together, build the necessary infrastructures and housing and stay focused on ensuring everything we do is bringing us closer to our goal.

I also believe we can’t do it ‘for’ the children and families experiencing homelessness. We must do it ‘with’ them, or as is often said by those with lived experience, “Nothing for me without me”.

To suddenly find myself in a place where I have authority and responsibility to move the bar closer to achieving our goals is exciting. Especially when I know I am surrounded by people I admire, trust and am in awe of their passion and commitment, are walking with me as we take each step on this journey.

Today, when I go into my office, I am taking with me a blank canvas to hang on the wall. The canvas represents where we are today, in a space where all things are possible and not all things are necessary.

It is the tension within that duality that excites me.

As we move forward over the next few months, the canvas will become a reflection of our hopes and dreams, desires and creations. What won’t be visible are the things we’ve chosen not to put on it. The things we determine don’t fit, don’t belong, don’t bring us closer to realizing our shared vision of ending child and family homelessness.

A week ago today I took on a new role. I believe it was the right thing to do.

Change requires stability and trust. I came to the organization to end my career on a high note. I found that opportunity. With this change in my focus, I get to play a leadership role in making a great organization even greater.

I’m excited and grateful.

Excited to take on a new challenge where I feel my contributions are making a difference to people and community.

Grateful for the Board’s trust in me and for staff’s willingness to walk with me as we explore all that we can do together to support children and families in crisis and all that we can do as a community to end child and family homelessness.

Namaste.


5 Comments

A hammock on a busy avenue

Yesterday, as I was leaving the family emergency shelter where I work, I noticed a hammock strung between two trees on the grassy area beside the parking lot across the street from our building.

There was someone in the hammock, maybe two. On the grass beneath it was a big black plastic bag and a suitcase. I could only assume the occupant’s worldly possessions.

It struck me that if that hammock was placed in someone’s backyard, its presence would evoke thoughts of comfort, coziness, lazy days of summer spent idly swinging back and forth.

Yesterday, the sight of it made me feel sad.

To have your whole world in a shopping bag. To hang your hammock, your home without a home, in a tree along a busy downtown avenue. To lie in your hammock hoping no one steals your belongings.

It just feels so sad to me. So distressing. So disturbing.

In the homeless-serving sector, we are faced every day with people whose lives are in disarray. Whose best efforts have lead them to the place they never wanted to be. Homeless.

And, just when you think you’ve seen or heard it all and encountered every aspect of this condition called homeless, you see something you never imagined.

In this case, a hammock strung between two trees on a busy downtown avenue.

I wondered about the person or persons in that hammock. What made them choose that spot? How did they get there? What resilience do they have that gave them the forethought to carry a hammock? How will they get home?

I thought about calling the DOAP team, a mobile response unit in Calgary that is operated by Alpha House to support individuals on the street who are in distress.

But the individual(s) in the hammock weren’t in distress. And they weren’t causing a disturbance.

I chose to let them be. To not disturb the delicate ecosystem they had created in that spot.

And still, the image of that hammock strung between two trees haunts me.

It is so intentional in its placement yet also a contradiction. Hammocks belong in backyards, not on busy downtown avenues.

I wonder if it will be there this morning when I arrive at work.

I wonder if in stringing that hammock between two trees they found respite from the hostile environment that a city can represent to those experiencing homelessness.

I hope the night treated them well.

I hope they came in for a meal. That between our shelter staff and the staff at the adult singles shelter next door, they found what they needed to be safe.

And if the hammock is still there, I will check with staff to see if they have already checked on their welfare. Because a hammock on a busy downtown avenue is not a sign of blissful peace.

It’s a sign that something is amiss in someone’s life.

Yesterday, I missed the sign and chose to walk on by.

Today, I’ve awoken.

Namaste.