Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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.

 


2 Comments

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


9 Comments

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.


9 Comments

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.

__________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________________

Photo Source: