Tag Archives: art in homelessness

The story in our hands.

Hands. To hold. To carry. To touch. To feel.

Hands. They tell a story, our story, our past. They bridge the space between us, they reach within, they stretch beyond.


Yesterday, I met a woman whose hands told the story of her life on the streets. Hard. Calloused. Strong. Her hands held mine in their vice-like grip as she poured out her grief, her sorrow, her frustration, her anger.

Her hands pushed the hair back from her face, they sliced the air as she told the story of fighting for every breath she takes. Of fighting for a space to call her own, of reaching for one small piece of comfort, ease, truth, acceptance.

And in her story-telling, she held out her hands towards me and showed me her cracked palms and insisted, You couldn’t imagine what it’s like. You just couldn’t imagine.

What I hear is your life is hard, very hard, I said to her.

And she bowed her head as tears flowed from her eyes. And then, with a shrug, she straightened up, angrily wiped away her tears with one hand and replied, It’s the life I’ve got. I gotta deal with it.

A few years ago, I sat at the bedside of a man from the shelter where I worked as he transitioned from this life to whatever lay beyond. I held his calloused hand in mine and felt the story of his life unravel in my palms.

I knew him well. He was one of the first people to come to the art program I’d started at the shelter. James had a love of photography and used whatever money he earned shovelling snow, working temp or picking bottles to purchase a camera, computer, software and other photography related tools that would help him improve his art.

It’s my retirement program, he’d laugh.

Retirement never came.

He’d been homeless for years and though alcohol had been a driving force in the tearing apart of his former life, he no longer drank. He mostly just kept to himself, did his work, took his photos and offered them for sale at our various art shows.

He was gifted. And passionate. His hands held his camera steady, guiding his eyes to the story beyond the picture he was taking.

And they never failed. They always found the beauty in the mundane, the unique angle in the light, the poignant story in a window.

His were steady hands. Hard-working. Strong.

As the cancer that gripped his body began to eat away at his life, his hands grew softer. Quiet. Until the final night when I sat with him in a room at a hospice just outside the city and heard his final indrawn breath and felt the last touch of warmth leave his body. For a moment, his hands lay still in mine until I had no choice but to let go. His hands were cold and I could not warm them.

Yesterday, a woman gripped my hands and I was reminded of James’ hands in mine on that cold December night when life let go of a man who had fought so long to hold his grip on it.

Her hands were warm and fierce and strong as she gripped mine. She did not need me to warm them. She just needed me to hold on, for a moment, while she told her story.

Sometimes, that is all we can do. Hold one another in communion, sharing our stories, guiding our hearts to listen deeply to what the other says. And when the time is right, to let go so we can each continue on our journey, strengthened by our brief encounter, knowing we are not alone.

Feeling lucky.

The C-train is pulling to a stop in the station as I validate my ticket in the machine at the top of the stairs. I quickly take the time-stamped ticket from the slot, stuff it into my pocket and start racing down the stairs. I am halfway down as the doors open and then close. I figure I won’t make it and slow to a walk when I see the driver smiling up at me through the plate glass windows of his cubicle. I race down the stairs, smile and wave my ‘thank you’. He opens the doors, I get on and the train, carrying me and all the other passengers, moves on.

“I’m so lucky!” I think.

Later, I am talking with a co-worker about my experience at Shelter from the Storm on Saturday night. I was reminded how much I miss the people in that place, I told them. How much I miss the daily connection with the people for whom we are holding the vision of ending homelessness. (I worked at the shelter for 6 years prior to joining the homeless Foundation where I work now).

I could never work there, my co-worker said. I’d get so immersed in fixing what was wrong, I’d sink under the weight of the task.

What if there’s lots right? I asked.

In 2006, when I started working at the shelter, I started an art program that became the foundation of many art’s based initiatives throughout the shelter.  When we first set up the program, I had the participants, all clients at the shelter, create the Rules of Conduct that each person had to sign in order to use the studio. The rules included things such as no food in the studio, leave your personal baggage at the door, find a way to get along with the other artists and honour the space and those who use it.

Every so often, clients would come to the studio upset about something they felt had gone wrong with someone else whose conduct did not measure up to their ideas.

“I’m never coming back to the studio if they are,” and they would name the person whose behaviour they found so objectionable.

And my response would always be, “That is your choice. You get to decide whether or not you come to the studio, or not. You get to decide to work out this situation, or not. If you enjoy coming to the studio, is it worth finding another path to resolve this situation than to walk away?”

Inevitably, they would find another path, or not. It was always their choice.

I was not powerful enough to fix the situation or the relationship with another person or whatever angst they were carrying.

None of us are that powerful.

The power we carry is the one that can make changes in our own lives. Changes that will create different ripples, different paths to living the life we always dreamed of and in the process, empower us to hold doors and spaces open for others.


I raced to catch the C-train yesterday morning. The driver held the train, just for me. I felt lucky.

It wasn’t luck. It was because I met a fellow traveller who believed in his power to hold doors open for others so they could get where they were going smiling and feeling lucky.

What a wonderful gift he gave me!

There would have been another train behind that one and I would have taken it. In his gift though, I was reminded that we all have the power to hold doors and spaces open for one another. In the ripple of our actions, other lives are impacted in ways we never could imagine.

Let’s all hold doors open for one another today! Imagine the miracles we can create for one another!