Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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We Can All Be That Village

I am 4, maybe 5 years old.

We are living in central France. My father loves to take Sunday drives to Belgium, to the monastery, D’Orval, where the Trappist monks make his favourite beer.

I remember it is a beautiful place, this D’Orval. Serene. Tranquil. Surrounded by fields of hops and wheat. Filled with gardens of herbs and vegetables and flowers. Even though visitors were only allowed in certain places, I like to think I skipped amongst the flowers. It was something I loved to do.

I think we must have been returning from D’Orval the day my family forgot me at a gas station. They were down the road only a couple of minutes when they realized there was an unusual silence in the car. I imagine someone asked, “What’s that silence?” Followed by, “Louise, why are you so quiet?” Followed by a startled, “Where’s Louise?”

They turned around immediately at that point. Though I’m sure my siblings may have suggested leaving me behind, my mother would have worried all the way back to where they found me. I was standing by one of the gas pumps with tears rolling down my cheeks. The most likely explanation is I had skipped off somewhere to check out a flower, a flying leaf, a piece of interesting grass… When I returned from my adventures, my family was gone and I was alone.

In real time, being left behind that day may only have been a few minutes. In my child’s mind, it felt like a lifetime.

It is one of the challenges of homelessness for children. Everything feels like a lifetime. And losing all your belongings, your special places, your own room and toys, has life time impacts.

At Inn from the Cold where I work, helping children understand and cope with the trauma of homelessness is integral to the work we do of providing children and their families shelter, sanctuary and healing.

We know that the longer homelessness lasts, the greater the impact on adults. The same is exponentially true for children.

To offset the trauma, early childhood development practitioners work with children to help them develop healthy coping skills that will serve them well, at the shelter and throughout their lives. They use play and art therapy and a host of programs and practices designed to engage children in understanding and identifying their emotions, and providing them practical tools to help them find healthy ways to express them.

No one wants their child to feel lost, frightened, confused. No one wants their child to feel the trauma of homelessness. Yet, it happens. In the past 6 months at the Inn, over 250 children have stayed under our roof. As an emergency family shelter, we do everything we can to make it feel like a welcoming, safe, environment.

But it isn’t home.

And so, we must work even harder to help the children learn healthy ways to weather life’s storms as we work with their parents to guide them on their journey home. And once home, we must continue to support the children and their families to ensure homelessness does not repeat itself in their lives.

When I was 4 or 5, I got left behind at a gas station. It was just a few moments of trauma, but the ripple effect of that moment set up a refrain in my life that sometimes caused me to feel like I was not wanted, did not belong or fit in. I am lucky. I have had access to the resources and the knowledge on how to overcome those feelings so that I can be a change-maker in the world today.

Imagine the trauma of homelessness on a four or five year old. Imagine the stories they will create in their fragile minds as they try to understand what is happening to them, their siblings, their parents.

Imagine if, we did nothing.

The future would not be changed for the better and the likelihood of their being homeless as adults would grow with them as they journey into adulthood.

We can end child and family homelessness. It takes all of us working together to ensure families have access to the right resources at the right time to help them navigate life’s storms and find their way back home.

We can’t all work at a shelter, but we can all contribute our time, donate our treasures and offer our talents to help make homelessness a short-lived experience for every child who enters a shelter’s doors.

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child.

It takes an entire community to raise a family out of poverty and homelessness.

We can be that village. We can be that community.

Namaste.

 

 


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Building a path out at The Inn

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

She arrives via taxi at the door of “The Inn”* in the early morning hours. Her two year old in tow, another child due in six months. One hand grips her child’s hand. In the other she carries a few plastic bags of belongings. That’s all she has.

She came to Canada a couple of years ago when she married her husband. His brother knew her father. It was all arranged. He came to her village to make her his bride. He’d been in Canada for several years and wanted a wife from his country of origin.

She didn’t know him. She didn’t know what the future held. But she knew that to stay in the famine and discord of her homeland would mean an uncertain and terrifying future.

Since being here she has barely been let out of their home. She cannot speak English. She has no friends. No family. No support.

At first, she takes the beatings her husband regularly doles out as part of being here. But then, he threatens her child. She cannot stay and does what women the world over do, every day, every night. She flees to save her child.

At ‘The Inn”, staff quickly kick into gear to find a translator. To create a safety barrier between this woman and child and her husband who has arrived to take them home. Though she cannot speak English, her desires are clear. She will not go.

A translator is found via a phone service. Staff work with other agencies, government reps and the translator to build a path to safety for the woman.

The Inn is a family emergency shelter. It does not have the same level of security as a domestic violence shelter and staff are concerned the husband will return. The woman, through the translator, is adamant. She wants to stay.

A plan is created and space is found for her on the second floor with the 7 other women and their children who are already staying there.

For now, she is safe.

Unless, the government steps in. Because that’s her new challenge.

When she fled her abusive husband she also left the man who was her immigration sponsor. Without him, her immigration status is in jeopardy.

Again, staff work with the translation service to find help. Legal Guidance is called in. The lawyers go to work.

For now, she is safe. From abuse. From deportation.

For now, she is receiving support. Her child is being provided early childhood development coaching to mitigate against the effects of so much uncertainty, so much fear, and the abuse he witnessed in his father’s home.

It is imperative, this work. To ensure his young mind is not permanently scarred, that his healthy development from childhood to adulthood is not impaired by the trauma, he must be given tools and opportunities to find healthy ways to express his emotions and grow into a loving man.

His mother still lives in fear and uncertainty. Will she and her child be allowed to stay in Canada? Will she be forced to leave her Canadian born son behind with his father? What is the future?

Stories like this unfold many times a month at Inn from the Cold. Families arrive seeking shelter, sanctuary, healing. They come with their children clutching a toy, their hands full of their few belongings, sometimes several suitcases. They have run out of places to go that will let them stay for a night or two. They have run out of options. They need support. Help. Guidance.

Family homelessness is not a choice. It is an outcome of diverse and challenging circumstances that lead children and their parent, or parents, to the Inn’s door. They don’t want to be there but once there, they quickly discover a place where they can sit with their children at a dinner table and feed them healthy meals. They find a place where help for their children is readily available. Where they can obtain parenting and vital life skills that will help them navigate their current uncertain times into a more sustainable, livable future.

The goal is to move children and their families out of shelter into housing as quickly as possible. When the stars align, when the right housing, the right job, income and other supports can be put in place, it can happen quickly.

Sometimes, not being able to find the right housing or lack of access to income lengthens the journey.

At the Inn, family advocates and case managers work as a team to pave the way to all the pieces falling into place so that children can grow beyond the trauma of homelessness in a family space where love, kindness, caring and support create the pathway they deserve to a brighter future.

I am in my second month of being at Inn from the Cold.

I am blessed to be surrounded by so many passionate and committed people who see a future where family homelessness is no longer the reality for children and their families.

Namaste.

*To protect identity, this woman’s story is a combination of several stories.


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#BadLuckCanComeToAnyone – homelessness can’t

A friend (Thanks Nick Falvo!) sends me a link to a Tweet by Helen Clark, former leader of New Zealand.

It’s a catchy hashtag — #BadLuckCanComeToAnyone

But when it’s used in comparison to homelessness? It’s just not not true.

Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, unless of course you think it’s bad luck to be born into poverty, or suffer from untreated mental health issues or an addiction, or suffer from all sorts of aspects of the human condition for which there are no resources and little help.

Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, and it doesn’t come to ‘anyone’.

It arrives at your front door when there’s no other place to go. It arrives, unwanted, when you’ve run out of options and have no other alternative than to walk away from the one place you desperately tried to hold onto, but couldn’t because there were no social supports available to assist you when you desperately needed them.

Bad luck can happen for anyone, but homelessness happens to those for whom access to education, resources, supports, financial aid and social services are lacking.

It happens when cities grow and push people out of the areas where they could afford to live and push up the price of housing to a cost they can’t afford.

It happens to people who do not have the resilience to withstand environmental and economic disasters, to weather the storms of life and still find themselves standing at the end of the line looking for resources that don’t travel that far down the line.

It happens to people who have to make tough choices every day; do I put food on my table? Do I move because my landlord just jacked up my rent by $100 a month when I couldn’t afford it in the first place, but this is an expensive city and I won’t find anything cheaper anyway? Do I pay for insurance? Do I license my car which I need to get to work because there’s no bus service to the only job I can find? Do I risk a $250 ticket because I don’t have $3.25 to pay for the ride, but I have to file these papers to get the help I desperately need to keep a roof over my family’s heads? Do I buy the proper work boots to get a job or do I pay for my child’s school supplies? Do I pay for a course I desperately need to get a better paying job, or do I feed my family?

And yes, sometimes, the decision is to buy that next fix that will help you forget the dire straits, the stress and turmoil, the helplessness you feel living with poverty, anxiety, hopelessness.

But it’s not the addiction that causes homelessness.

It’s a result of the economic and emotional poverty that takes a toll. It beats down those for whom the lack of mental health supports, the stress of living with the constant strain of trying to stretch every cent to cover the days of the month, knowing there are more days than cents in every month, and keeps them trapped in poverty until there’s nowhere else to go but that place called, Homeless.

Homelessness is not bad luck.

People don’t ‘make’ a decision to be homeless or to be housed. They are forced into it because we make decisions as a society that result in people not being able to access housing they can afford, find help for their physical and mental health or attain a level of education that sustains them so they can weather life’s storms.

Homelessness is a symptom. It’s not the issue.

So yes, bad luck can come to anyone. Homelessness can’t, but it does, when we don’t ensure those living on the margins have access to the resources they need to climb out from the depths of poverty. A poverty we created through government policies and social frameworks that are not robust enough to support people who do not have the same good fortune as the privileged who were not born in poverty, or without mental health and physical issues they can’t afford to take care of.

Posing as homeless to raise awareness may help people shift their perceptions, but comparing homelessness to bad luck that can happen to anyone is not the answer.

We can end homelessness. But we, the collective, have to do things differently to make it happen. Let’s start with not calling homelessness ‘bad luck’.


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Can education end poverty, homelessness and discrimination?

I am at a dinner party. The people around the table are all successful by society’s norms. They have achieved status, good jobs, make contributions to their organizations, families, communities, society.

One of the guests states they know how to resolve the problem for Canada’s Indigenous people. “Give them goals,” they say with conviction, “and hold them to the outcomes.”

The other guests murmur in agreement. Yes. Yes. It’s what’s needed. They need to stop whining and start doing more to be productive members of society. Sure, we messed up, someone mentions, we treated them unfairly, but that’s in the past. It’s time to move on.

I chime in and ask if anyone around the table has read the Truth and Reconciliation Report. There’s a lot of head shaking, No.

So, we can sit here with answers when no one has read a report that provides clear directions on how to move forward in addressing the inequities and injustices that have created the trauma and crisis today.

Good point, someone says. But they still need to be held accountable to goals. They need to progress.

And who are we to say what that looks like I ask, when we don’t understand the people, culture, history and our role in creating the issues today?

I ask one man, the CEO of a large multi-national corporation how he would respond if a consultant, hired to help fix a problem in the organization, walked in and said, I know the answers. Here’s what you have to do. Yet, the consultant had not even looked at the organization’s balance sheet, annual report, strategic plan or interviewed leadership, etc.

The man laughed and replied, “I’d throw him out.”

Yet, it’s okay to act like that consultant about a situation you have not spent any time understanding.

There was a long silence and the conversation changed to another topic.

 

Yesterday, a reader commented on my post that education is vital. “… the answer is education. It lifts people, it lifts families, it lifts communities. And, while it is lifting people out of chronic cyclical poverty and its attendant problems, it lifts spirit, self-esteem/pride and empowers more accomplishment.”

I agree.

But it’s not just those experiencing homelessness, or poverty, or other social injustices who need education. It is all of us.

Recently, a man told me of his experience looking for a place to live. He arranged for a viewing of an apartment and when he got there, it was mysteriously, suddenly, unavailable.

You can’t tell the colour of my skin on the phone, he told me. But I could see his [the landlord’s] revulsion by the look on his face when he opened the door.

The man is Blackfoot.

It happens all the time, he told me. Sometimes, people don’t even bother to pretend. They just say, “I don’t rent to Indians.”

It doesn’t just happen to indigenous people, but to immigrants too.

Someone sees the colour of their skin, and doors close in their face.

Education is needed.

For everyone.

Discrimination hurts all of us. It fosters resentment, disillusionment, despair; entitlement, injustice, disrespect.

It creates Us and Them communities where the ‘have’s’ deny the ‘have not’s’ access to the resources and supports they need to be able to live without feeling the burden of poverty pressing them down.

It is not up to those who are being discriminated against to prove to the rest of us that they are equal, worthy or deserving. It’s up to each of us to let go of our thinking that someone else is not equal, worthy or deserving of our consideration, fair treatment, justice, dignity.

When we tear down the barriers we have erected to keep ‘them’ out of where we live, work, play and create communities, we create a world where tolerance, understanding, justice, and consideration for all has room to flow in all directions.

And that requires a willingness to learn — about the impact of our thinking we have all the answers for those we judge to be less than, other than, outside of our human experience.

We need to educate ourselves on the injustices we create because of our privileged thinking and belief that ‘they’ are the one’s who need to educate themselves to do better.

We are a planet of diverse cultures, faith, traditions, ways of being on this earth.

What we share in common is our human condition. And that is all we need to be equal to one another.

The rest… it comes with educating ourselves about the beauty in our differences, and learning to become compassionate in our view of how those differences make us each unique and richer in the experience of sharing our world in ways that create better, not just for the few, but for everyone.

Namaste.

 


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Preparing for the storm

Outside, the wind is picking up speed, the sky is darkening and the temperature is dropping.

A storm is forecast to move through today and with it, bring high winds and lots of rain. Already, it has blown blossoms off the apple tree in our backyard to carpet the grass like snow.

Like so many things in life, I can’t avoid the storm. I can prepare for it and take precautions.

Last night, I moved the umbrella off the deck and laid it on its side. I re-positioned some of the pots I’d planted with flowers this past weekend closer to the house, out of the direct line of the wind. I removed the lantern from where it hung and tucked it under the eaves where it wouldn’t get damaged and did what I could to ensure nothing would go flying around on the deck.

It’s all I can do to be ready for the storm.

Sometimes, the storms of life blow in so hard, we are unprepared to withstand their onslaught. Sometimes, we don’t have the resources, skills, resilience to handle their fierceness and must take cover from the storm.

And that’s where places like Inn from the Cold come in. They stand-by, ready to provide shelter, sanctuary, healing for those swept up by life’s unpredictability. Because, no matter the weather, in times of distress, we all need a safe place to land, a harbour to lay anchor in until the winds subside and the seas are calm once again.

From the sanctuary of that safe haven, we regroup. Take stock, learn new skills, repair what’s broken, build resiliency so that we can go back out into the flow of life and set sail once again towards our dreams. Stronger. More-prepared. Better provisioned to withstand storms and other unforeseen mishaps.

I had a great first day. It felt like coming ‘home’. Home to a place where the focus is on holding space for children and families to grow through life’s mishaps to be able to weather storms without crashing into the rocks again and again.

It felt like coming home to a team whose every act is imbued with deep, heartfelt passion and compassion to serve families in distress and ensure they can move on to better times, quickly and with grace, so that children can grow up strong and not become homeless statistics of the future.

It was a great first day.

I am content. Excited. Happy.

And I even got flowers!  An unexpected guest dropped in to wish me well on my first day, and with her, she brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Thank you KGB!

I am so blessed.

Namaste.

 


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A new job. New beginning. New everything!

Today I begin a new adventure. Today, I join the team at Inn from the Calgary, a not-for-profit whose vision is to build, “a community where no child or family is homeless.”

I feel excited. Nervous. Curious. Calm.

I am excited to be returning to the front-lines of homelessness. To be moving away from communicating from the ‘system planner’ perspective to being able to tell the stories of the amazing work the Inn does that has direct impact on children and families experiencing homelessness in our city.

I am nervous to be meeting new people. To be connecting with a new team who do not know me, and with whom I have had very little contact. I am nervous about ‘what to wear’ for my first day. About the little things that once the threshold is crossed, become commonplace — but until then, create fissures of unease, uncertainty because they represent the unknown. Parking. Coffee. Lunch. What will my office look like? Should I take all my stuff today, or wait a day or so? (You know, the photos and paraphernalia that make a space ‘mine’. 🙂 )

I am curious to be taking on a new role, to be discovering what makes the Inn tick. What makes it such an exceptional place. What creates such passion amidst those who work with and for the Inn.

And I am calm. Whatever will be, it will be what it is. As long as I stay present to my intentions of being open, curious and humble, as long as I stay centered within my core self, as long as I am committed to being and bringing the best of me with me, I have nothing to be nervous about.

Life is an ever flowing river. It moves and changes and bridges opportunities, new experiences, different perspectives. It constantly brings with it interesting ways of engaging, learning, becoming aware of what I don’t know, while also becoming aware of how to apply what I do know in new ways.

I am going back to work tomorrow after a two week ‘break’.

It has been two weeks filled with creativity, with opportunities to take a break and moments to get fully engaged in the wonders of what fills my life today.

And, in the process, I have passed an anniversary of sorts once again — only to discover — I had completely missed the significance of the date — until FB Memories pointed out that on May 21, 2013 I had written a post that marked the date called — Ten Years. I am Grateful.

I am so grateful for time. It moves with the flow of life’s river, carrying us further from one moment to the next and in its flow, we leave behind the moments that no longer serve our journey.

In my case, forgetting the significance that Sunday was May 21st is a gift. It is a blessing. It is a testament to how I continue to flow into life’s healing waters, immersed in the joy and wonder of all that my world is today.

I start a new job today. The work I know. What I don’t know, yet, are the people I will be working with, and the people they serve. What I don’t know, yet, are the stories. Of those I will be working with, and those we serve.

What I don’t know, yet, is how much I don’t know…

And that’s what makes me excited. I like to know before I leap.

Tomorrow I leap knowing I have much to learn, much to offer and much to share in and with.

I am excited. I am a story-teller by nature, and at Inn from the Cold, the stories I will be telling all begin at that place where families find themselves at home.

Namaste.

 


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Time to say good-bye.

Today is my last day at the Foundation where I have worked for the past 4+ years.

It is time to say good-bye.

I am sad. I am excited.

Both emotions co-exist in a field of possibility that opens up whenever we begin to step through a portal from one threshold to the next.

Life will change. It will keep flowing. It will adapt. Fill in the spaces behind. Open up the spaces in front.

And I move on. Along. Through. Stepping across this threshold into a new space.

The unknown beckons. The known is carried with me.

For 4+ years I have worked alongside incredibly talented and passionate people. In that time, people have changed, moved on, moved into the Foundation. Yet, no matter the faces at the table, the passion and commitment to ending homelessness has remained constant.

It has been 4 years of growth, of learning new things, of stretching my talents and gifts, of stretching my capacity to lead, to inspire, to collaborate, to share, to listen, to step back, to step forward.

It has been 4 years of being inspired by those I work with, for and amongst. Of building community where every voice matters, of working within a community where every act counts and is valued.

I move on and already the space I held is being filled in by the passion, talent, commitment and brilliance of those who remain.

It is what I love most about this point in time where I stand at the edge of the doorway leading into a new portal. Behind me are the infinite possibilities of change, just as there are before me. Where I stood can never remain the same. It is physically impossibly. As it changes and as I step out of it, it becomes part of the changing spaces behind me that others are creating through illuminating it with their brilliance and passion.  The possibilities of what they can do and create are limitless.

The spaces I move into have been created by others just as committed, just as brilliant in their passion to end homelessness. As I move into that new space, it too will be changed as we find our way together to create a space that is illuminated by our different voices, ideas, passion and creativity.  Informed by the past. Steeped in limitless possibility.

And so life continues.

We move from one space to another, leaving behind the possibilities of change for others to pick up, creating in front of us new possibilities for change for us to enter into.

I have been so incredibly honoured and blessed to work with amazing people. To Andrea, Kayleigh, Aaron, Wendy, Sharon B., Paul, Darcy, Kelsey, Joel, Ben, Sharon D., Teresa, Kara, over the years you have all played a role in creating an amazing space to be a part of and to work within. You have all touched my heart and made a difference in my life.  I carry you with me.

Throughout my tenure at CHF I have worked alongside incredible leadership. John R., Gerrad, Diana, thank you for sharing your brilliance.

To the team at CHF. WOW!  Your passion, commitment, willingness to learn and adapt and take risk to create better continually inspires me to do the same. Thank you.

To the CAC, your courage, commitment, humility and honesty have touched my heart deeply.

I am stepping through one doorway into the next today.

I am excited. I am sad. I am grateful.

Namaste.