Homelessness isn’t sexy

I am talking on the phone with a peer at another agency about their efforts to stage an event, and the lack of up-take from corporate Calgary.

Homelessness isn’t on a lot of company’s radar, they tell me. Most big companies want to invest in kids, women fleeing violence, the environment. Things that capture the public’s attention and help them feel like they’re making a difference. Homelessness just isn’t sexy enough.

Not ‘sexy’ enough? When was ‘sexy’ ever part of the homeless equation?

Somewhere in our collective psyche is the notion that people fall into homelessness by their own fault. Their own doing. Collectively, we hold an unspoken belief that people don’t deserve to receive any more help than having an emergency shelter to fall back on simply because, what they need to do to fix their homeless state is to clean up, dress up and get a job.

It’s not that simple. It’s not that easy.

Homelessness is not that benign.

Homelessness is a state of being present in a world that has not taken steps to address the issues that undermine people’s capacity to access the resources they needed to live without fear of falling through the cracks.

When we feel strong, when we have access to knowledge, resources and supports, finding our way is possible — no matter where we stand on the road of life. We have enough resiliency to get through the dark times because we’ve been supported in building a foundation that is strong enough to withstand life’s knocks.

People living on the margins, who have never known what it means to have equal access to resources to help them achieve their dreams to not know what it means to be resilient, self-confident, self-determined. Their lives have been limited by the lack of resources, lack of support, lack of advantages most of us take for granted.

In their lifetime of scraping by, of being unsupported, unacknowledged, unseen, they don’t recognize or see resources waiting to be accessed. They are too familiar with doors slamming closed in the face of their efforts to not fall through the cracks gaping on their road of life.

Homelessness is not who someone is. It is not a dream come true. It is a nightmare.

Believing people can fix the potholes and cracks in the road that lead them into their state of homelessness is like telling someone with terminal cancer to stop dying. No matter how hard you wish for it, it isn’t going to happen without a miracle or two and a whole lot of care and attention. Like a diagnosis of terminal cancer, the damage was done long before the evidence was in or someone hit the doors of a shelter.

We humans can be shallow. We can be pack animals. We can be easily lead to judge and label others based on our lack of understanding of what it is that they are experiencing.

Homelessness isn’t sexy.

It also isn’t a choice. It isn’t a decision one morning to get up, jettison everything in your life you hold dear just so you can wander the streets and sleep in a crowded space with others experiencing the same condition, and eat what you’re given when told and sleep where directed and lose your dignity and pride and sense of who you are in the world — if you ever knew it in the first place.

Homelessness is nullifying.

Debilitating. Scary.

Homelessness is deadly.

It strips you of everything you own, and steals your life from the inside out, one nullifying indignity at a time, scraping away your pride, your confidence, your belief in yourself (if you ever had any) with every grinding step you take.

Homelessness isn’t sexy.

Neither is telling someone when they’re down to just get up, clean up and carry on.

If it were that simple, we’d all do it every time we hit a bump in the road of life. If it were that easy, we would all just pull up ourselves up by our bootstraps and get going on living the dream life we’ve always imagined.

Someone told me yesterday that homelessness isn’t sexy.

They’re right. It’s not.


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.