Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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No matter what side of the street you’re on, everyone belongs in community.

“I don’t give to panhandlers,” she tells me. “I just walk right by.”

I am listening intently. She is there to find out more about affordable housing for formerly homeless citizens and I am there to hear her views.

“Nobody listens to what I have to say,” she tells me. “So why should I bother to share my thoughts?”

“Your voice matters,” I tell her. “And if you don’t share it, we won’t hear it.”

She looks at me with suspicion. Yeah. Right, her quizzical look seems to say.

She goes on to tell me about last summer when she went downtown for a Stampede Breakfast and afterwards, as she walked towards Rope Square, a big outdoor performance space that pops up during Stampede in the City Centre, she walked past a man who asked her if she could spare some change so he could buy a cup of coffee.

“You know they’ve got free pancakes and sausages a couple of blocks away,” she told him. “Why don’t you go get in line?”

The man apparently laughed at her suggestion he go line up and replied. “I’m not going to line up for breakfast!”

She was shocked. “Imagine him not being willing to go and line up for food yet he’s willing to beg for money,” she told me indignantly.

“Was he visibly homeless?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “He was quite dirty and kind of smelly too.”

“I wonder if his reluctance to line up had more to do with his experience of how people on the street treat him,” I commented. “Perhaps he’s been abused so often by passers-by he doesn’t want to risk what people will say to him if he stands in line.”

“Oh my,” she replied. “I hadn’t looked at it that way. I wonder if he was more afraid than lazy.”  She paused and seemed to get lost in her thoughts for a few moments before adding, “It’s horrible what we do to each other isn’t it?”

Yes it is, I replied.

Last night I attended a community Open House to talk about a new affordable housing project the Foundation I work for is looking to build. My job was to answer questions, to listen, to encourage people to fill out the comment forms as they left the room.

It was also to hold space for each person in attendance to give voice to their feedback, their concerns, their opinions. Without judgement. Without pushing back into their opinions. Without trying to change their minds but rather, to create common ground in which every voice was heard.

A group of women I approached to ask if I could answer their questions told me they had none. They hated the idea and didn’t want to talk about it.

Another man told me I was lying, no matter what I said in response to his questions, he wanted to hold fast to his belief he was right.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can block our vision, shut down our capacity to hear, close off our minds.

As I said to one man, “We all fear change. This is a community that is experiencing great change on every level. Fear is a natural response.”

“I’m afraid these people will come here and destroy everything,” he replied.

“Is everything the way you like it now?” I asked.

His response was fast and vehement. “Oh no! This community is a mess. It’s not like it used to be.”

His ‘used to be’ was over 50 years ago when he and his bride moved into the house they still live in today. “There were kids everywhere,” he said. “We knew everyone on our street. Today, I barely know my next door neighbour.”

It is hard to accept change when what we are yearning for is a past that no longer exists. It is hard to see the future when all we see is the loss of what we once had that gave us a sense of belonging in our community.

For the people who took the time to share their views last night, whether they were for or against the project, there was a common thread throughout the conversation. ‘Our community has changed.’

As I stood and watched the people milling about, the small groups gathering, some of them eyeing those of us from the Foundation with suspicion, angrily talking amongst themselves, while others smiled and talked about the possibilities of the project, I was reminded of Ghandi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

For those who came out to speak against the project, they are being the change they want to see in the world. They are working hard to protect what they have so that they can continue to feel like they belong in their community.

For those who were in favour of the project, they too are intent on creating the change they want to see in the world.

They are all part of community. That powerful place of connection and belonging, no matter what side of the street they walk.

Namaste.

 


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Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I’m bad.

Mayor Nenshi addresses the crowd

Mayor Nenshi addresses the crowd

While each of us is unique, there are no unique circumstances in homelessness. No matter who you are, or how you got there, homelessness harms everyone. It destroys dignity. Breaks down self-respect. Rips apart self-worth.

Discrimination is a common occurrence when you’re homeless. People look at you as less than, other than, something different than a ‘regular’ human being and not worthy of common decency.

People drive by and spit at you out car windows. They call you names. They cross the street to avoid walking on the same side as you are on.

When you’re homeless, instability is the foundation of your life. Will there be a bed for me tonight? Will I get robbed of my few possessions? Will I get beaten up for taking up someone else’s space I didn’t know was theirs? Will a gang of kids think it’s a cool idea to throw gasoline on me and watch me burn? Will someone decide they don’t like the way I’m looking at them and decide to teach me a lesson?

When you’re homeless, there are no written rules of engagement except the one that says, you must survive.

When you’re homeless, you don’t have the luxury of depending upon each breath following the next. You never know when the breath you just took will be your last.

I am always amazed when people in the broader community tell me they are afraid of people experiencing homelessness. “What do you think they will do?” I ask.

“They’ll attack me. Take what I’ve got because they want it more.”

“That’s unlikely to happen,” I tell them. “When did you last hear of someone iin homelessness randomly attacking someone on the street?”

“Well…” They usually pause here to search their brains for a memory of a story about such a situation. They come up blank.

It just isn’t the way it is.

What is true is that when you’re homeless, you are vulnerable. No matter the colour of your skin, your faith, your culture, homelessness is a vulnerable state of being and while someone may not be stalking ‘normal folk’ to attack, they are at risk of being attacked. Both by ‘normal folk’ and those in the homeless community.

Keeping a low profile is essential when you’re living the homeless experience. It’s important to not attract too much attention because attention gets you in trouble. Attention leaves you exposed and visible. And being visible is not a healthy state of being in homelessness.

On Friday, we held a World Homeless Awareness Day event here in Calgary. Our Mayor came and gave an impassioned speech talking about the need for affordable housing. Affordable Housing is The Key our posters read.

And it is. You can’t end homelessness without a home to go to.

The challenge is, people often don’t want people with lived experience of homelessness living in their communities.

My property value will drop, they tell me. Crime will rise. Parking will be a mess.

I show them the research. Talk to them about the right of everyone to have a home. The need for diversity in our communities.

And still, underlying it all is the fear that because that person is different than me, because they carry a label I’m unable or unwilling to see beyond, they will harm my way of life. They will want what I’ve got and take it from me.

Homelessness is not the issue. Our misconceptions, our perceptions and our judgements are.

In his speech, Mayor Nenshi stated, “Homelessness sucks!”

He’s right.

It does.

And you know what else sucks?

Our belief that those who are living in homelessness are different than, other than you and me.

The only difference between us is that their issues are on the surface. They are visible for all of us to see that life is fragile. Life is unpredictable and the only way through it is to count on one another, hold true to our belief in the dignity and majesty of the human being and celebrate our differences and our similarities.

And we can’t do that when we cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past someone whose pain is visible on our streets.

 

 


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Homelessness Sucks: Homeless Awareness Day 2014

Bringin-It-Home-Homeless-Awareness-Day-InvitationToday is World Homeless Awareness Day. Around the world cities and communities will be marking the day with events designed to focus our attention on what it means to be homeless and what it takes to end it.

Here in Calgary, we are holding an event at Olympic Plaza at noon. Mayor Nenshi will be saying a few words as will the Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO, Diana Krecsy. There will be performances by rapper, Transit and a young man, Austin, who he’s been mentoring. There will also be an opportunity to see the decorated patio-sized planter boxes that The Alex has created as part of its Planting Seeds of Change initiative. Fifteen agencies have painted and decorated the boxes which will be auctioned off online in the coming weeks.

While the event is designed to be fun and interactive, let’s make no mistake about it. Homelessness Sucks.

We’ve got suckers to hand out to prove it. Youth with lived experience of homelessness will be handing them out to passers-by. On each sucker is a statement a youth from the sector has written about what it means, or feels like, or is to be homeless.

Statements like,

You got no friends and family

You’re always dirty

People think you’re lazy or just don’t work hard enough to get a home

Nobody cares

It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you just can’t trust nobody.

It ages you real fast.

Someone asked me if events like this make any difference. I replied that doing nothing makes a difference, so doing something will as well. If all we do is get the media to keep the focus on homelessness, and the dire need for affordable housing in our city, we will have done something to make a difference. And that counts.

Because, that’s the key message of the event. Affordable housing is the key.

To end homelessness and to prevent it, everyone needs affordable, safe and secure homes to live in. Here in Calgary, that’s hard to come by. Rents continue to rise, availability of housing continues to lessen. We have more people moving to the city everyday. The last stat I saw said that approximately 375 people move to Calgary on a daily basis.

Where are they going to live?

It’s a tough question to answer if you don’t make $17.29 per hour, the living wage in Calgary. (Based on 35-hour work week, the “living wage” works out to $31,470 annual salary.) And even then, in a city with a 1.2% vacancy rent where average rents have increased by over 5% in the past year, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a place to live that you can afford, in the neighbourhood you want with the amenities you desire. (Source) 

Calgary’s lack of affordable housing is evident in the homeless sector. Where once, an individual could enter the system of care and be housed within a month, it now takes at least 6 months for housing locators to find housing, and there is no option. The individual either must take it, or wait again.

Affordable housing ends homelessness. Without it, people will continue to filter in and out of emergency shelter. They will continue to sleep in parks and on benches, in doorways and alleys. They will continue to live beyond the margins of everyday existence, falling further and further away from that place they never once imagined they would never have, home.

If you’ve in Calgary, please come down to Olympic Plaza today and support the agencies and hundreds of workers and people with lived experience who will be there to ensure we don’t lose sight of the truth too many youth, adults and families are living today, Homelessness Sucks.