Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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We’re all on this journey of life together.

I have stopped by my old hairdressers to buy the shampoo I love. They recently moved and this is my first time at their new Beltline area location.

As I am about to pay, I ask the young woman at the desk how she likes the new location.

“We love it,” she replies enthusiastically. “Except for all the hobos and street people everywhere. They’re awful.” And she goes on to talk about how annoyed she is by ‘their’ presence.

I take a breath. For a moment I consider not buying my products. Or, buying and leaving without saying anything.

Silence in the face of ignorance is not my strong suit.

“Just as a piece of information,” I say to her as calmly and kindly as I can. “Hobo is a really derogatory term. The individuals you are referencing are human beings, like you and me, who have fallen on really hard times. You may want to consider using the phrase ‘individuals experiencing homelessness’. It’s less offensive.”

She looks at me. Squirms a little and pastes on a smile. “Oh well, you know, it’s just a word,” she said.

“Yes. And words have power. Did you know there’s an apartment building across the street that provides housing…”

And before I can finish my sentence she chimes in. “Oh yes. It’s a halfway house.”

I take another breath. “Actually, it’s not. It’s Permanent Supportive Housing for individuals exiting homelessness. In this case, the building supports veterans who were experiencing homelessness before moving into the building. That building is their permanent home. They live there as residents of this community. Halfway houses are generally for individuals existing the justice system in preparation of their moving on to their own housing.”

“Oh. Well there’s always lots of activity over there.” She says it in a way that makes me grit my teeth as though I’ve just heard nails scraping along a blackboard.

I breathe deeply and remind myself that ignorance is not a crime. It comes from a lack of understanding.

“I’m sure there is. It can be a struggle to leave the homeless identity behind. After years of service to your country, and then years of struggling on the street it’s hard to believe people care or that you’ve actually got a home of your own.” I take another breath and ask, “Have you gone over to meet the staff and residents?”

She looks at me with wide eyes. “Of course not!”

I smile at her and say, “It’s one way to get a better understanding of what’s going on,” I tell her. I know I probably sound a little condescending. I don’t mean to but I can feel my blood coursing through my veins. I am vibrating at a little too high a frequency.

I work on calming my racing mind. On changing my tone and position.

“I worked in the homeless sector for a lot of years,” I tell her. “Connecting and getting to know your neighbours is a great way to build a community.”

She packs up my products into a paper bag and hands it to me. “Well you have a nice day,” she says.

“I will,” I reply. “I hope you do too.”

And I leave.

And inside I feel sad and angry. Upset and dissatisfied.

For fifteen years I worked to shift perceptions of homelessness in our city. And here was a young woman, probably early 20s, who still carried the bias and misconceptions that existed when I first started working in the homeless serving sector.

We cannot know the answers unless we’re willing to ask the questions.

And we cannot ask the questions unless we hear the truth of where our judgements mislead us.

For that young woman, she may never ask another question about homelessness. Hopefully, if nothing else, she will stop spreading misinformation.

Then again, the story she shares may be about the nasty old lady who walked in and was all uppity and judgemental about her use of the word ‘hobo’ who then had to give her a lecture on homelessness..

And I breathe.

We are all just struggling to make sense of our world.

We are all on this human journey together, sharing life on this round ball circling the sun. Sometimes, we walk in darkness. Sometimes, we travel in the light. Wherever we walk on this planet earth, may we step lightly, treating one another with loving kindness, dignity and respect. May we seek first to understand before casting judgement on our companions who like us, sometimes struggle on this journey called life.

And in my heart I say a prayer for both of us.

Bless her.
Forgive me.
Bless me.
Forgive her.

Namaste.

 


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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


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What matters in the big picture of your life?

For several years, I provided ‘homelessness training 101’ to first responders. Every week, I’d meet with a group and we’d talk about homelessness and their experiences working with the city’s most vulnerable. Often, they would express their frustration with having to deal with the same people again and again. About how few resources they had to do anything productive for an individual on the streets other than to ticket them or be their ‘taxi driver’ to get them from where they were to one of the shelters that provided care for those under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Mostly they told me they wanted to make a difference. They wanted to impact lives in positive and supportive ways. They felt not being able to change the life of an individual experiencing homelessness was a failure. That they weren’t doing enough.

At the frontline, facing the same people in crisis day after day, they couldn’t see they were part of a bigger picture. That they were doing their part, giving their best in that moment. They couldn’t see that their interactions with an individual in that moment, did make a difference.

Often I would ask them, “What if in being kind and compassionate, you left an imprint that perhaps not today, but maybe tomorrow or another time, said to that person, maybe there is another way?”

“What if in treating them with dignity in that moment, you gave them the thing they needed most but that they believed they deserved least?”

“What if you don’t have the answers for their life but you do have the capacity to make a difference in that moment? Would that be enough?”

Like many of us, accepting that we can’t ‘fix what is broken’ is hard. We want to help people. We want to make it right. In our frustration, we judge ourselves as not doing enough.

Sometimes, all we have are our words of support and kind acts. All we have is being ourselves, turning up without judgement and being present to someone else’s pain, confusion, fear, hurt, brokenness.

Like many of us, the first responders I met with developed coping skills to mask their frustrations and to protect their hearts. They made up stories to explain what could not be understood. How homelessness was awash in people willingly breaking laws. They were all criminals. How those experiencing it were lazy. Somehow less worthy of help than those who were at least trying to get sober or to find a job or get their lives back on track.

We all do it. We encounter a situation or person that just doesn’t make sense to us. No matter what we do or say, we can’t ‘get through’ and end up walking away, often muttering to ourselves or complaining to others about that person’s behaviour. In our frustration we make them ‘the other’ and separate ourselves to keep from acknowledging the fear that perhaps there are no ‘others’. We’re all just different aspects of our shared human condition.

I happened to run into someone who was in my course awhile ago.

We talked and laughed about our ‘different perspectives’ when first we met.

I’ve come a long way, they told me. I don’t see every homeless person as criminal anymore. I see them as human beings who have faced such incredible hardships, they don’t know who they are anymore and can’t find themselves without some help.

They told me how now they take the time to talk to those they meet on the street. How they listen to their story and do their best not to judge.

You helped me get there, they said.

I was one piece of a bigger picture, I replied.

We are all one piece of the bigger picture of life in our communities.

May each of us walk with compassionate hearts and open minds to hear the stories of everyone we meet so that in our meeting, they are left with the awareness that their story matters enough to be heard. In our hearing and seeing them, may they know they matter in the big picture of our lives.

Namaste.

 


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When the only answer is, I survived.

 

No. 37 — #shepersisted series
http://louisegallagher.ca/shepersisted

A woman arrives at Inn from the Cold, the family emergency shelter where I work, seeking refuge. She is pregnant, alone, scared.

Her life has not been easy.

Poverty. Abuse. Addictions.

They’ve all taken their toll.

She’s had other children. All have been apprehended by Family Services.

She desperately wants to keep this one. She desperately wants this time to be different.

She has known no other way than the hard road.

Will she find a softer landing this time? Will she find the help she desperately needs so she can proudly call herself a mother, without the shame of the past haunting her?

Will she be able to hold her child in her arms? Watch her go off to her first day of school, graduate from high school, go to college, get married? Be there for the significant milestones? The milestones at which no one was ever there for her.

There is hope.

For this mother and so many other mothers like her who have only known the hard road and are now, finding shelter, sanctuary, healing at The Inn.

Every day mothers like this mother, and fathers and grandparents too, who have not had an easy road find their way to the Inn seeking that one thing they seem to have lost completely, hope.

And at the Inn, they find it. Along with the possibility of a better tomorrow for them and their children.

It’s not easy work. But then, being born into poverty, moving thousands of miles from a war torn land only to find yourself destitute, without a place to call home, is not the easy road either.

See, we all want to be good parents. We all want to believe we are doing our best to provide for our children, to create safe and loving homes where they can grow up knowing life is not as hard as we’ve known it.

We all want to believe.

And then life hits. And we stumble and get back up. Sometimes, if we don’t have the resiliency to withstand life’s stumbles, the getting back up is not far enough to bring us out of where we were. And we stay trapped.

And then, as we struggle to rise up, judgement from others hits too.

It’s your own fault, they say. You’re an addict. You have no education. No skillset. Look at you. What have you done to improve yourself? What have you done to make it better? My parents were immigrants, they managed. Why can’t you?

Sometimes, the only answer is, I’ve survived.

I’ve survived to this moment, right now, where I am reaching out for help.

I’ve survived whatever life has thrown in my path until this moment, right now, where I am able to see the possibility of a different path.

I’ve survived, war, famine, terrifying journeys in a small boat where I had to pay my entire life savings to cross an angry sea so that my family could have hope for a better future.

I’ve survived. And now I’m here. Can you help me?

Every day, children and their families come to the Inn seeking hope for a better future.

They’re not seeking fame and fortune, the keys to the city, a pulpit to stand on.

They are seeking hope, possibility, a future.

And everyday we provide shelter, sanctuary and healing so that better is possible. So that the future is not as grim, or hard, or bleak as the past.

We take the long-view. The view that says, to create better we have to start with the small steps right now that will move a family back home as quickly as possible without too much disruption to the delicate fabric of a child’s developing mind and body. From the sanctuary of home, we can work together to create healthy relationships, healthy parenting, healthy eating habits… whatever is needed to create a healthy environment for children and their parents to thrive and live without the fear of homelessness rearing its head on some dark and terrifying horizon.

For that mother, the one who yearns to see her child grow up, hope is there. Possibility exists. But only if we create a path for her to be safe at home without fearing the past will always be her future.

She’s at home now this mother, but there are hundreds more like her, yearning to revel in the joy of watching their children grow up free of the past that brought them to their knees.

We can’t do this work alone. We don’t. There are others working with us, committed to making a difference. Committed to helping children and their families find their way home.

Everyone can help. Everyone can make a difference.

It begins with changing our minds about why people fall, because if we believe it’s their fault they fell, whose fault is it they survived?

 


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#BadLuckCanComeToAnyone – homelessness can’t

A friend (Thanks Nick Falvo!) sends me a link to a Tweet by Helen Clark, former leader of New Zealand.

It’s a catchy hashtag — #BadLuckCanComeToAnyone

But when it’s used in comparison to homelessness? It’s just not not true.

Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, unless of course you think it’s bad luck to be born into poverty, or suffer from untreated mental health issues or an addiction, or suffer from all sorts of aspects of the human condition for which there are no resources and little help.

Homelessness isn’t caused by bad luck, and it doesn’t come to ‘anyone’.

It arrives at your front door when there’s no other place to go. It arrives, unwanted, when you’ve run out of options and have no other alternative than to walk away from the one place you desperately tried to hold onto, but couldn’t because there were no social supports available to assist you when you desperately needed them.

Bad luck can happen for anyone, but homelessness happens to those for whom access to education, resources, supports, financial aid and social services are lacking.

It happens when cities grow and push people out of the areas where they could afford to live and push up the price of housing to a cost they can’t afford.

It happens to people who do not have the resilience to withstand environmental and economic disasters, to weather the storms of life and still find themselves standing at the end of the line looking for resources that don’t travel that far down the line.

It happens to people who have to make tough choices every day; do I put food on my table? Do I move because my landlord just jacked up my rent by $100 a month when I couldn’t afford it in the first place, but this is an expensive city and I won’t find anything cheaper anyway? Do I pay for insurance? Do I license my car which I need to get to work because there’s no bus service to the only job I can find? Do I risk a $250 ticket because I don’t have $3.25 to pay for the ride, but I have to file these papers to get the help I desperately need to keep a roof over my family’s heads? Do I buy the proper work boots to get a job or do I pay for my child’s school supplies? Do I pay for a course I desperately need to get a better paying job, or do I feed my family?

And yes, sometimes, the decision is to buy that next fix that will help you forget the dire straits, the stress and turmoil, the helplessness you feel living with poverty, anxiety, hopelessness.

But it’s not the addiction that causes homelessness.

It’s a result of the economic and emotional poverty that takes a toll. It beats down those for whom the lack of mental health supports, the stress of living with the constant strain of trying to stretch every cent to cover the days of the month, knowing there are more days than cents in every month, and keeps them trapped in poverty until there’s nowhere else to go but that place called, Homeless.

Homelessness is not bad luck.

People don’t ‘make’ a decision to be homeless or to be housed. They are forced into it because we make decisions as a society that result in people not being able to access housing they can afford, find help for their physical and mental health or attain a level of education that sustains them so they can weather life’s storms.

Homelessness is a symptom. It’s not the issue.

So yes, bad luck can come to anyone. Homelessness can’t, but it does, when we don’t ensure those living on the margins have access to the resources they need to climb out from the depths of poverty. A poverty we created through government policies and social frameworks that are not robust enough to support people who do not have the same good fortune as the privileged who were not born in poverty, or without mental health and physical issues they can’t afford to take care of.

Posing as homeless to raise awareness may help people shift their perceptions, but comparing homelessness to bad luck that can happen to anyone is not the answer.

We can end homelessness. But we, the collective, have to do things differently to make it happen. Let’s start with not calling homelessness ‘bad luck’.


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Preparing for the storm

Outside, the wind is picking up speed, the sky is darkening and the temperature is dropping.

A storm is forecast to move through today and with it, bring high winds and lots of rain. Already, it has blown blossoms off the apple tree in our backyard to carpet the grass like snow.

Like so many things in life, I can’t avoid the storm. I can prepare for it and take precautions.

Last night, I moved the umbrella off the deck and laid it on its side. I re-positioned some of the pots I’d planted with flowers this past weekend closer to the house, out of the direct line of the wind. I removed the lantern from where it hung and tucked it under the eaves where it wouldn’t get damaged and did what I could to ensure nothing would go flying around on the deck.

It’s all I can do to be ready for the storm.

Sometimes, the storms of life blow in so hard, we are unprepared to withstand their onslaught. Sometimes, we don’t have the resources, skills, resilience to handle their fierceness and must take cover from the storm.

And that’s where places like Inn from the Cold come in. They stand-by, ready to provide shelter, sanctuary, healing for those swept up by life’s unpredictability. Because, no matter the weather, in times of distress, we all need a safe place to land, a harbour to lay anchor in until the winds subside and the seas are calm once again.

From the sanctuary of that safe haven, we regroup. Take stock, learn new skills, repair what’s broken, build resiliency so that we can go back out into the flow of life and set sail once again towards our dreams. Stronger. More-prepared. Better provisioned to withstand storms and other unforeseen mishaps.

I had a great first day. It felt like coming ‘home’. Home to a place where the focus is on holding space for children and families to grow through life’s mishaps to be able to weather storms without crashing into the rocks again and again.

It felt like coming home to a team whose every act is imbued with deep, heartfelt passion and compassion to serve families in distress and ensure they can move on to better times, quickly and with grace, so that children can grow up strong and not become homeless statistics of the future.

It was a great first day.

I am content. Excited. Happy.

And I even got flowers!  An unexpected guest dropped in to wish me well on my first day, and with her, she brought a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Thank you KGB!

I am so blessed.

Namaste.

 


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A new job. New beginning. New everything!

Today I begin a new adventure. Today, I join the team at Inn from the Calgary, a not-for-profit whose vision is to build, “a community where no child or family is homeless.”

I feel excited. Nervous. Curious. Calm.

I am excited to be returning to the front-lines of homelessness. To be moving away from communicating from the ‘system planner’ perspective to being able to tell the stories of the amazing work the Inn does that has direct impact on children and families experiencing homelessness in our city.

I am nervous to be meeting new people. To be connecting with a new team who do not know me, and with whom I have had very little contact. I am nervous about ‘what to wear’ for my first day. About the little things that once the threshold is crossed, become commonplace — but until then, create fissures of unease, uncertainty because they represent the unknown. Parking. Coffee. Lunch. What will my office look like? Should I take all my stuff today, or wait a day or so? (You know, the photos and paraphernalia that make a space ‘mine’. 🙂 )

I am curious to be taking on a new role, to be discovering what makes the Inn tick. What makes it such an exceptional place. What creates such passion amidst those who work with and for the Inn.

And I am calm. Whatever will be, it will be what it is. As long as I stay present to my intentions of being open, curious and humble, as long as I stay centered within my core self, as long as I am committed to being and bringing the best of me with me, I have nothing to be nervous about.

Life is an ever flowing river. It moves and changes and bridges opportunities, new experiences, different perspectives. It constantly brings with it interesting ways of engaging, learning, becoming aware of what I don’t know, while also becoming aware of how to apply what I do know in new ways.

I am going back to work tomorrow after a two week ‘break’.

It has been two weeks filled with creativity, with opportunities to take a break and moments to get fully engaged in the wonders of what fills my life today.

And, in the process, I have passed an anniversary of sorts once again — only to discover — I had completely missed the significance of the date — until FB Memories pointed out that on May 21, 2013 I had written a post that marked the date called — Ten Years. I am Grateful.

I am so grateful for time. It moves with the flow of life’s river, carrying us further from one moment to the next and in its flow, we leave behind the moments that no longer serve our journey.

In my case, forgetting the significance that Sunday was May 21st is a gift. It is a blessing. It is a testament to how I continue to flow into life’s healing waters, immersed in the joy and wonder of all that my world is today.

I start a new job today. The work I know. What I don’t know, yet, are the people I will be working with, and the people they serve. What I don’t know, yet, are the stories. Of those I will be working with, and those we serve.

What I don’t know, yet, is how much I don’t know…

And that’s what makes me excited. I like to know before I leap.

Tomorrow I leap knowing I have much to learn, much to offer and much to share in and with.

I am excited. I am a story-teller by nature, and at Inn from the Cold, the stories I will be telling all begin at that place where families find themselves at home.

Namaste.