To end homelessness in the future, we must begin with the children today.

It is a startling fact. At any given time, approximately 1% of children in Alberta will be involved with foster care.

44% of adults experiencing homelessness report having had experience with foster care.

According to a 2009 report by the BC Representative for children and youth, youth in care are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized for mental health issues than the general public. By 21 years of age, 41 percent of children and youth in care will have contact with the criminal justice system, compared to only 6.6 percent of the general population in the same age group.

Put another way, involvement in the foster care system nurtures homelessness, mental health issues, criminal justice interactions and other risky behaviours in children just as we nurture resiliency, self-sufficiency, self-confidence in our children.

To be fair to the people providing foster care, it is not ‘them’ creating the issue. Many wonderful, well-meaning and competent caring people foster children in their homes.

It is more systemic. More foundational. We believe foster care works.

In that belief we overlook the impact lack of permanency has on the child. As reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Children who have a government as their parent, no matter how well-intentioned or necessary that arrangement is, are often damaged by it… They are damaged because multiple moves to living arrangements with multiple caregivers – no matter how loving the foster parents – do not promote stability, security and attachment, the building blocks every child and youth needs to succeed.”  (Trupin EW, Tarico VS, Low BP, et al. Children on child protective service case-loads: prevalence and nature of serious emotional disturbance. Child Abuse Negl 1993;17-345-55.)

To end homelessness in adults, we must stop fostering it in children.

This thought came top of mind this morning when a girlfriend sent me a link to one of the stories from the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre’s project Shelter from the Storm. I am in awe of this project which was spearheaded by Michael Frisby two years ago. It is powerful, moving and soulful. I wanted to find the times for a concert, Verses vs Homelessness, that is happening this weekend and went to the DI’s website and on the homepage, the video they did of a child’s journey into adulthood, and homelessness, played automatically.

This is a powerful, and haunting, story.

One of the actors is a client of the DI. Has been for way too long. His journey into homelessness began in adulthood with the breakdown of his marriage, an unaddressed addiction and a prolonged journey through self-defeating behaviours that lead him into homelessness. The seeds of that journey were planted in childhood. They may never have sprouted if he had not experienced the breakdown of his marriage and the subsequent loss of his relationship with his child. He may not have known the challenges of homelessness if he hadn’t succumbed to an addiction that has haunted him for years. He once told me, “I hate myself so I drink and once sober, I remember why I hate myself and so, I drink again to forget”.

An emergency shelter should never become a longterm home for anyone. But too often it does. Not because the individual chooses it, but mostly because the other options seem too daunting, too scary, too impossible to even be considered. The man in the video has thought about housing. He’s thought about leaving. He’s thought about moving on. But always, the lure of the familiar calls him back. The community of understanding draws him in. And his fear of what will happen to him beyond the world he has come to know so well, traps him from stepping out.

We don’t know what it’s like to be homeless. We don’t know what happens to someone’s psyche when they lose everything and find themselves in the one place they never imagined they would end up.

We just don’t know.

In Shelter from the Storm, Michael and all the performers share the experience through song and verse and music and story.  They are giving us an insider’s view of the loss and pain and sorrow that is called homelessness.

These are important stories to hear. What’s even more important, is that we stop creating opportunities for these stories to become someone’s life. and that begins with taking care of the children.

To stop homelessness in the future, we need to stop doing the things that foster the growth of it in children today.

Westjet rocks the skies — and customer service!

“I went to Vancouver,” my co-worker, Aaron tells me when I ask him about his Thanksgiving weekend.

I am surprised. I don’t recall him talking about plans to go away.

He laughs. “I was only there for twenty minutes.”

It was just one of those things.

His sister and two friends had gone for a ‘girls’ weekend away, leaving their husbands at home for a couple of nights with their small children. At the airport, all set to board the plane for their return flight home, his sister discovered her wallet had been stolen.

Panic set in.

Tearful, angst ridden phone calls. Cries of help. Brother and father converge at the Calgary airport in a desperate attempt to get their loved one home to her family for Thanksgiving dinner. Enroute to the airport, the father picks-up his daughter’s passport from her husband while Aaron checks out options to fly to Vancouver to deliver it. At this point, they’re not thinking about the cost. It’s all about getting her home to her family.

Westjet was amazing,” he tells me.

Who knew they have a 25% policy for situations such as this?

“I couldn’t believe how understanding they were,” he says. Not only did they give him a 75% discount on the fare, they put him on the next flight and upgraded all four return tickets to business class for the return flight home, which happened after Aaron’s 20 minute stop-over.

Way to go Westjet! It’s no wonder you were inducted into Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures Hall of Fame.

Who wouldn’t be proud of working for a company that treats distressed passengers with such good care?

As for Aaron, it gave him an even greater appreciation of what happens to people on the margins. “My sister had options. She had people jumping in to help her. When I got off the plane, they were all three standing at the gate waiting for me, crying. Her friends wouldn’t leave her alone and Westjet didn’t insist they catch their original flight. They rebooked us all together on a different flight, without charging them. But, even though my sister knew I was bringing her passport, she still felt lost and really scared. What if she never got home?”

I remember when a mix-up with my passport left me stranded in New York City for a couple of days. When the Canadian consulate told me  they couldn’t help me, I started to cry. Even though I had my wallet, credit cards and money in my bank account, I still felt lost and alone. I feared they’d never let me out of the country, even though they deemed I was there illegally.

At the time, I wandered the streets of New York feeling hopeless. I tried to visit a church, it was locked. I stopped for a tea and when the waiter asked if he could get me anything else, I started to cry. I remembered all the people at the homeless shelter where I worked at that time. How they continually came up against doors closing, people telling them, no, we can’t help you get ID without a fixed address, or open a bank account, or get government assistance. No, you can’t go there, do that, sit on that, talk like that.

It was a reminder of how blessed I am, and how fragile some people’s lives are.

Aaron’s sister never planned to have her wallet stolen. She never planned to need the help of her family to get her home. And she never anticipated that an airline would step in and do whatever it could to help her through a situation they had no part in creating.

Yet, there they all were. Her family, friends, and an airline that wouldn’t leave her stranded.

For those on the margins, stranded in that place called homeless, without resources, at a loss on what to do next, sometimes, the only people standing by to help are in places called Emergency Shelters. In the emergencies they find themselves lost within, it is in those places where caring people reach out to say, “Here, let me help you shoulder the load,” that they find themselves again on the road of life, taking those first steps back to where they belong, that place called home.

Aaron’s sister made it home, just as I did long ago.

For the thousands who have not yet found their way, I am grateful there are places such as the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre and the Mustard Seed and Alpha House and a host of other agencies filled with caring people committed to ensuring that those who are stranded with no way home, are not lost forever on the streets of Calgary.

Celebrating the heroes in our midst (a Saturday Feature)

I had coffee with one of my favourite heroes yesterday, Ian Prinsloo. Excerpted from his bio at The Rehearsal Process — in formal terms, “Ian is a professional theatre director with over 20 years experience working across Canada… Recently Ian has been exploring theatre outside of theatre. His graduate research (MFA, University of Calgary) focused on how the alternative ways of knowing developed through actor training and enacted in the rehearsal process could be developed in people outside of theatre and how those abilities prepare groups to engage in change processes.”

In real life terms, Ian is a man with a great heart, inquiring mind and enormous capacity to, as he calls it, be comfortable in the field of inciting change. I first met Ian at the shelter where I used to work when he came in to work on The Lower Depths Project he created for the National Conference on Homelessness held at the University of Calgary in February of 2009.  “The Lower Depths Project explored the lived experiences of people connected to the issue of homelessness through theatre practices; in doing so it was seeking to create an opening for alternative views of the issue to emerge”, his bio states.

Ian knows how to touch hearts and open minds, to see possibility in everything and to be open and generous with his enormous talent.

Ian is a hero. 

Max Cielsielski. was one of the participants in The Lower Depths Project and continues to be a supporter and participant in The DI Singers. A gifted artist, carpenter, musician Max is a man of great heart and deep soul. Max was a founding artist of the art program I started at the shelter, and one of its strongest supporters. His generosity of spirit, his willingness to explore his creativity and to share his discoveries inspires me. Max is a beautiful soul who never ceases to leave me breathless at the beauty and magnificence of the human spirit.

Max is a hero.

I first met Des Nwaerondu at the TEDxCalgary event last November where I was a presenter and he was one of the participants. We met for coffee in January and  I sat in awe of this young man who is committed to make a difference in the world, and who is doing it everyday. Des takes action. Des makes change happen — and in his doing, creates opportunities for others to see their power to create change too. You can read Des’ blog HERE, and follow him on twitter here — @AdvisorDes. He’s always got lots of good information to share on creating wealth in your world — he’s an accomplished wealth advisor by day and a heart-driven philanthropist at all times.

Des is a hero.

Heroes in Our Midst would not be complete without a video of someone, something in the world that inspires creativity, wonder and awe. My friend Maureen at Writing Without Paper shares a VIMEO video of music expressed as a rollercoaster ride this morning on her Saturday Shares (My finds are your finds) — Its fun and exciting to watch and makes me marvel at the ingenuity of the human spirit! Enjoy!

ZKO Rollercoaster // GREAT EMOTIONS from virtual republic on Vimeo.