Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher


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A tale of the city.

I am driving down a side road towards the main avenue near our home when I see a man, arms flailing as he stumbles along the sidewalk. He windmills for a moment at the edge where the sidewalk ends and the road begins.

He falls.

I can’t see his fall. There is a parked car blocking my view.

I drive past. See him lying on the pavement.

I pull over. Get out of my car and walk quickly back to where he is lying, face up, on the curbside. He is staring up at the sky. Eyes closed. Arms splayed out at his sides, palms open.

Me:  Are you okay? How can I help you?

He opens his eyes. Looks at me. His eyes are bleary.

Man: I don’t know. I fell.

Me:  Yes. I saw you. Can you move? Do I need to call an ambulance?

Man:  No. No. No ambulance.

Me:  How can I help?

Man:  I was just going for a coffee.

He wants to sit up. I lean over to help him and he moans.

Man: That doesn’t feel good.

He lays back down.

Me:  What’s your name? Mine is Louise.

Man:   Wayne.

He starts to cry.

Me:  Do you live near here Wayne?

Wayne:  Yes. In that building. And he waves one arm towards the apartment building to his right.

His speech is slurred. His words come out in a mumbled stream. I think he has been drinking. A lot.

Wayne:  I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

Me:  There’s nothing to be sorry about, Wayne. But I do need to call 911. I don’t know how else I can help you.

He nods his head. Up and down. I call.

As I wait for EMS to arrive more cars stop. A couple of men walk over to where I am sitting on the curb, Wayne sprawled out on the road beside me.

They ask what they can do to help. I tell them we are waiting for EMS.

They stay and keep us company. Wayne continues to apologize. He is crying. He tells us he sometimes has seizure.

Me:  Did you have a seizure just now?

Wayne:  Yes.

Me:  Do you have epilepsy Wayne?

Wayne:  No.

I pause and think about my next question. EMS will need to know.

Me:  Does alcohol cause seizures for you Wayne.

He nods his head slowly, once. He keeps crying.

Me:  It’s okay Wayne. Just breathe. Deep slow breaths. EMS will need to know about your seizure and the alcohol. It’s important.

Wayne:  Okay.

He nods his head again. Up and down. His tears keep flowing.

Me:  Are you in pain Wayne?

Wayne:  I don’t know.

Me:  Are you cold?

Wayne:  No.

One of the bystanders offers to get him a blanket.

EMS arrives.

They determine nothing is broken and help Wayne get up and walk him towards their ambulance. “We’ll take over from here,” they say.

I thank the two men who stopped to help.

“Thank you for stopping,” one says. “Not many would.”

“You did,” I reply with a smile and start walking towards my car.

Another man who had stopped his truck across the street and stood with his wife on the sidelines while we waited for EMS approaches me.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I stop and turn back towards him. “Yes?”

“Did you used to work at the Drop-In Centre?” (an adult emergency homeless shelter in the downtown core where I was the Director of Communications for 6 years)

“Yes,” I reply slowly.

“I thought so. I remember you. It’s nice to know there are kind-hearted people in the community,” he adds before wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving. He and his wife return to their truck and drive away.

I walk to my car, get in and drive to the store where I was going when I saw Wayne fall.

I will be late. It is Thanksgiving Day. Our guests will have arrived for dinner and everyone will be wondering where I am.

There were many kind-hearted people out that evening. Two women who came from the condo building on the other side of the street. I asked them to go to the main avenue to wave down the ambulance.

The two men who stood watching over us as I sat on the curb and chatted with Wayne.

And the other’s who stood waiting and watching until EMS arrived.

No one had to wait but in the tale of this city, people care enough to stop and help a stranger helping another human being lying on the side of the road.

I am grateful.

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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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Can education end poverty, homelessness and discrimination?

I am at a dinner party. The people around the table are all successful by society’s norms. They have achieved status, good jobs, make contributions to their organizations, families, communities, society.

One of the guests states they know how to resolve the problem for Canada’s Indigenous people. “Give them goals,” they say with conviction, “and hold them to the outcomes.”

The other guests murmur in agreement. Yes. Yes. It’s what’s needed. They need to stop whining and start doing more to be productive members of society. Sure, we messed up, someone mentions, we treated them unfairly, but that’s in the past. It’s time to move on.

I chime in and ask if anyone around the table has read the Truth and Reconciliation Report. There’s a lot of head shaking, No.

So, we can sit here with answers when no one has read a report that provides clear directions on how to move forward in addressing the inequities and injustices that have created the trauma and crisis today.

Good point, someone says. But they still need to be held accountable to goals. They need to progress.

And who are we to say what that looks like I ask, when we don’t understand the people, culture, history and our role in creating the issues today?

I ask one man, the CEO of a large multi-national corporation how he would respond if a consultant, hired to help fix a problem in the organization, walked in and said, I know the answers. Here’s what you have to do. Yet, the consultant had not even looked at the organization’s balance sheet, annual report, strategic plan or interviewed leadership, etc.

The man laughed and replied, “I’d throw him out.”

Yet, it’s okay to act like that consultant about a situation you have not spent any time understanding.

There was a long silence and the conversation changed to another topic.

 

Yesterday, a reader commented on my post that education is vital. “… the answer is education. It lifts people, it lifts families, it lifts communities. And, while it is lifting people out of chronic cyclical poverty and its attendant problems, it lifts spirit, self-esteem/pride and empowers more accomplishment.”

I agree.

But it’s not just those experiencing homelessness, or poverty, or other social injustices who need education. It is all of us.

Recently, a man told me of his experience looking for a place to live. He arranged for a viewing of an apartment and when he got there, it was mysteriously, suddenly, unavailable.

You can’t tell the colour of my skin on the phone, he told me. But I could see his [the landlord’s] revulsion by the look on his face when he opened the door.

The man is Blackfoot.

It happens all the time, he told me. Sometimes, people don’t even bother to pretend. They just say, “I don’t rent to Indians.”

It doesn’t just happen to indigenous people, but to immigrants too.

Someone sees the colour of their skin, and doors close in their face.

Education is needed.

For everyone.

Discrimination hurts all of us. It fosters resentment, disillusionment, despair; entitlement, injustice, disrespect.

It creates Us and Them communities where the ‘have’s’ deny the ‘have not’s’ access to the resources and supports they need to be able to live without feeling the burden of poverty pressing them down.

It is not up to those who are being discriminated against to prove to the rest of us that they are equal, worthy or deserving. It’s up to each of us to let go of our thinking that someone else is not equal, worthy or deserving of our consideration, fair treatment, justice, dignity.

When we tear down the barriers we have erected to keep ‘them’ out of where we live, work, play and create communities, we create a world where tolerance, understanding, justice, and consideration for all has room to flow in all directions.

And that requires a willingness to learn — about the impact of our thinking we have all the answers for those we judge to be less than, other than, outside of our human experience.

We need to educate ourselves on the injustices we create because of our privileged thinking and belief that ‘they’ are the one’s who need to educate themselves to do better.

We are a planet of diverse cultures, faith, traditions, ways of being on this earth.

What we share in common is our human condition. And that is all we need to be equal to one another.

The rest… it comes with educating ourselves about the beauty in our differences, and learning to become compassionate in our view of how those differences make us each unique and richer in the experience of sharing our world in ways that create better, not just for the few, but for everyone.

Namaste.

 


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A Homeless Shelter is a Place to Belong

seeking_human_kindness-homeless-hub-york-uniWe all need a place to belong.

In the homeless-serving sector, a shelter is where many people find a place to belong, and for some, it is the first place they’ve ever felt like they fit in.

It’s what makes a homeless shelter work. At a shelter, people find a place to belong that does not judge because they have nothing, or are broken, or lost. A shelter accepts you as you are.

You don’t need to prove your worth. At a shelter, you’re worth can’t be found in the things you possess.

At a shelter, you don’t have to pretend you’re not broken. You wouldn’t be at the shelter if something in your life wasn’t broken.

At a shelter, you don’t have to fake you know exactly where you are going. Nobody planned on being there and, up until ending at a shelter’s doors, everyone has done everything they could think of to avoid ending up at the one place they never imagined they would be.

Beyond food and shelter, a homeless shelter represents a place of belonging for those who feel outside the norm. It represents community. Safe haven. A place of last resort. A place where you know having nothing doesn’t matter. Everyone else is in the same boat.

And, it is a place for human kindness. a place where conversation happens. Friendships blossom. Lives change.

“Hey, I got a lead on a new place but I’m looking for a roommate.”

“I’m trying to find a way back to [and they name a country, province, town, or an area somewhere in the city], but I need a ride.”

“Know anyone who’s hiring?”

“I hear ABC has a couple of spots for the next month.”

“Got an extra smoke?”

“I’m workin’ on getting outta here. I just gotta find a place to rent that I can afford.”

As individuals move into and through and hopefully, out of a shelter, one of the biggest struggles isn’t always to find a place to live. It’s to find a place to belong, out there, like they felt, in here.

One man, Karl*, spent four years struggling to move beyond the shelter doors. He was a natural leader. Once, he encouraged others on his floor to contribute their bottle money to buy a young 10 year old a gift because she’d donated her birthday money and created a blanket drive for the shelter. Addiction kept him trapped until gradually, he gave up on staying drunk and reconnected with his former life, eventually moving out of the shelter. But he was lonely.

“In here, I know who I am,” he explained one night, six months after he’d moved out and turned up at the doors, drunk and hollering for access. “Out there, I’m a nobody. A peon. Just a face in the crowd.”

We are all just ‘faces in the crowd’ but when the crowd are the people we know, people we work with, play with, volunteer with… When our crowd shares a common bond, sense of purpose, we feel more connected. More safe. Welcome. Part of something that stretches us beyond the daily routine of: Get up. Get dressed. Go to work. Come home. Watch TV. Have a brew. Go to bed. Repeat daily.

Being a face in a crowd where we feel a sense of belonging gives our daily life purpose, direction. We are moving with the flow. Not standing like an island being buffeted by the waters raging around us.

And in that place, where we see ourselves reflected in the faces of those around us, we don’t feel different. Lost. Alone.

We feel like we belong. And in that belonging is the possibility of something different. Maybe. One day.

But until that day, at least here, we have a place where we know we fit in. A place where we belong.

 

 


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#LongestnightYYC

Today is Solstice. The Longest Night of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

After months of travelling deep into the darkness, today, the sun will rest low upon the horizon. There she will rest three days before slowly beginning the long journey back to summer Equinox. In her journey back into the light, she will breathe hope into the promise of spring bursting forth with new blossoms. She will breath possibility into the new buds bursting open. In her warm embrace she coax all beings out of hibernation.

She will breath. In and Out. In and Out. And we will rejoice in the sun’s welcoming rays.

For today, we remember.

We remember, the long journey here to this longest night. The long walk into the darkness and depths of winter.

This journey into the darkness of shadowed days where the sun moves back and forth in ever-shortening arcs giving night room to hold reign upon earth.  The darkness is not something we can avoid. Pass-over, under, or by. The darkness must be savoured, explored, journeyed into as we explore the essence of our creative spirits resting in winter’s embrace, breathing deeply into the knowing that soon, the cycle will continue, the earth will journey closer to the sun, and summer will once more hold us in its rays of light.

longest-nightFor today, re remember.
We remember, those for whom the journey here on earth ended in another season. We remember those whose hearts stopped beating on one final note and breath escaped their bodies to nourish life no more.

Today, we remember.

We remember, those who followed the sun’s journey and have now entered the eternal deep and left us here on earth without their smiles, their hopes, their presence. Who have left us here with only the memories of those we loved, cared for, dreamed with, and about. .

Today, we remember.

Tonight, if you are in Calgary, we are holding The Longest Night of the Year Memorial at Canada Olympic Park. Please join us in remember those whose long walks into the darkness never lead them home.

 


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Drowning in the raging torrents of homelessness.

We are waiting for a street light to turn green when my daughter says, “Oh dear, I hope that man is okay.”

A truck is blocking my view of the man she is referring to. When it passes I see the man. He is lying in the doorway of a building on the other side of the street. Half-in. Half-out. His legs on the stair above him. His head resting on the sidewalk.

We cross the road, pass two business men deep in conversation and approach the man where he lies just behind them.

“Sir? Sir? Are you okay,” my daughter asks him.

His legs are twisted where they lay on the step above him. He spills out onto the sidewalk like a slinky running down the stairs.

He opens his eyes. Befuddled. Confused. The braid of his long grey streaked black hair lays at a right angle to his head. His clothes are tattered and worn. His boots are untied.

“What happened?” he asks.

We’re not sure but we tell him it looks like he has fallen on the street.

“How can we help?” my daughter asks.

“Help me sit up. Please.” he says.

Both my daughter and I think we should call 911. What if he hurt himself when he fell.

No. No. He insists. I just need to sit up.

“We need to make sure you can move before we help you sit up,” I tell him. “Can you show us that you can move your legs?”

He wiggles his feet. I sense a bit of a mischievous smile as he does it. There is something engaging in his nature, even as he lays on the ground at our feet.

Alexis and I help him sit up.

“How can we help?” we ask again.

“If you have some spare change I can go get a cup of tea,” he says.

“I’d rather you not move just yet,” I tell him. He seems disoriented. Weak and oh so vulnerable. “I’ll go get you some tea.”

And I cross back over the street to the fast food deli on the corner while Alexis stays and chats with him.

His name is Frank she tells me when I return with tea and cookies. I tell him my name. He thanks us profusely.

The two business men on the corner finish their conversation and move off. We stay and sit with Frank and chat for a little longer. We give him money for fried chicken and chips from the ‘joint’ just up the street. His favourite he says. He promises me he will not use the money for more booze. I tell him I trust him. He smiles, and there’s that glimmer of endearing mischief again. He tells me I have no choice.

Alexis and I leave him sitting there with his tea and cookies. We discover the building just down the street is a Drop-In Centre. We go in and let the woman at the desk know about Frank’s condition, his fall and our fear he may have hit his head harder than he imagined.

She goes out to help him and after stopping at the deli on the corner further down the block for a bowl of soup, we see that Frank is no longer sitting in the doorway where we’d left him.

We hope the worker has taken him into the Drop-In Centre to keep an eye on him.

We have done what we can.

As we continue our walk towards downtown, Alexis tells me that Frank has told her he is 70 years old. I drink a lot, he said. What else do I have to do with my life?

His words sit heavily in my heart.

The latest Vancouver Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness found 1,847 people experiencing homelessness. 539 of those people are unsheltered.

It is everywhere in this city. Homelessness.

There are people ensconced in sleeping bags lying at the corners of almost every busy intersection in the downtown core. There are youth. Men. Women. Dogs too.

They sit, their cardboard signs telling the same story. Asking for the same thing. Hungry. Grateful for any help.

The cost of living in this beautiful city by the ocean is spiralling upward and upward. And people are falling faster and faster through the cracks. It feels like a heavy and daunting task — to end homelessness. To make sure everyone has a home.

Alexis and I met a man named Frank. His body lay sprawled across the street. We could not end the homelessness that has swept him up in its mighty torrent. We do not have that kind of super human strength just as he does not have the super human strength he needs to pull himself out of the waging waters.

As a society, we must find our collective strength to make the choices needed to stop the flow of humanity falling into the raging waters of homelessness.

We must find ways to build bridges so people can find their way safely to the other side before being dragged under homelessness’ turbulent depths.

 

 

 

 


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Intersections.

I am walking out of the building where I work to go next door to the convenience store for a bottle of Pellegrino. A tall man walks towards me, smiles. I smile back. I don’t want to make assumptions, but I think it is possible he is homeless.

He stops and says, “Excuse me…”

I stop and turn to look at him. “Yes?”

“I don’t want money” he says immediately. “But, I’m kinda stuck here. I just got out of emergency and I’m really hungry.” And he shows me the cut on his foot. “Would you be able to help me out with lunch?”

I look at him. Consider my options and say, “I could buy you some lunch here.” And I point to the little take-out restaurant on the other side of our office doors.

“I’d rather go to Mac’s,” he says.

“I don’t have time to go to Mac’s,” I tell him. “I’ll gladly buy you lunch right here.”

He considers it for a moment, thanks me and we walk into the restaurant where he orders lunch.

As we wait for the server to tally up the bill, I ask him if he has a place to stay.

“I’m kinda couch-surfing right now,” he tells me.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“Hobbema or as I call it, Hellbema.” He laughs. Shrugs a shoulder. “I don’t like it there.”

“I know a number of people from Maskwachees,” I tell him, using the Indigenous name. “They are working very hard to create positive change.”

“Yeah,” he says. “But all my people there, they just judge me. Make me feel bad about myself.”

“Do you feel bad about yourself?” I ask.

Again, a nervous laugh. A shrug of the shoulder. “Yeah. Pretty well all the time. Life’s not easy.”

“I would have to say that for your people it has been very, very hard.”

He nods his head up and down. Looks me in the eyes. “You’re a good lady.” And he leans over and gives me an awkward, sideways hug.

I return the hug.

“How come you know people from Maskwachees?”

“I’m involved in a program called Choices,” I tell him. “I’ve met them through it.”

His face lights up. “Hey! My cousin went to Choices. When he came back, all he wanted to do was hug everybody! He loved it.”

This time, he gives me a full on hug. Laughing as he does so.

Laughing, I hug him back.

The server has my bill ready. I pay. I wish him well and tell him he could check with his band about going to Choices. “It might help you feel less bad about yourself.”

“I’d have to go back. I don’t want to go back there.”

“Sometimes, going back is the only place to find the way forward,” I reply.

He nods his head, side to side as if weighing my words.

I tell him I have to go. He thanks me for lunch and as I’m about to open the door to leave he calls out, “Hey wait! Don’t forget. We gotta hug!”

And I turn and we hug and I leave. I go to the convenience store next door to buy my Pellegrino and he waits for his lunch.

And life flows onward.

And both of us move on carrying the memory of a hug where our paths intersected.