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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When we fear what we do not know…

Recently, in Calgary, we’ve had an ongoing debate around a Supervised Consumption Site, both a fixed address and proposed mobile facility. As part of the debate, the phrase most used to describe its necessity is ‘harm reduction’.

To those not accustomed to working in the areas of addictions or homelessness, harm reduction can be a scary thought. Partially because unless you do work in this field, you don’t really understand it (even those who work in it sometimes struggle with it), and secondly, because it immediately suggests there is harm to someone, we just don’t know who and being naturally egotistical humans, we fear what we do not understand and assume it is us at risk of the harm.

Harm reduction is about lessening opportunities for self-harm by creating safe practices and spaces for those engaged in drug use. Someone with an addiction is going to use. That’s what addictions do. They steal ‘common sense’ and override our entire beings with this burning desire to have the thing we desire, even when we know it’s not good for us. We don’t really think about the dying part. We think about the relieving ‘the itch’ by using the thing that gives us relief.

But, we say, they choose to be addicts, why can’t they take care of themselves? Or as one person commented on a news article online, Why can’t we just let them all die?

I don’t know about you but people dying on my watch, when I have the capacity to make a difference, even if it’s only by accepting a Supervised Consumption site in my area is better than being complicit in someone dying of a drug overdose anywhere.

On average, 2 people die of opioid poisoning in Alberta every day with Calgary experiencing the highest number of overdoses in the province.

This is a complex issue. Lives are being lost. And we are afraid. The challenge is, I’m not sure we know what it is we fear.

Do we fear encountering someone on a high on the street?

Do we fear someone dying in front of us?

Do we fear we won’t know what to do if we encounter someone overdosing?

Do we fear the unknown?

All of these are real fears.

Are they real enough for us to take action by learning more, by carrying a Naloxone kit for example, or by volunteering at an organization that works with people with addictions or who are experiencing homelessness?

Or, do we just complain, criticize and condemn those who are doing their best, even when we don’t understand what they’re doing or why, to keep fellow human beings alive.

There is a narrative in our society about addictions that is not healthy.

Addiction is a choice.

People should just stop.

If they’re going to use,  it’s not my job to save them.

There’s nothing I can do.

Actually, there’s lots each of us can do. We can become advocates for kindness, compassion, acceptance of our fellow human beings, in all their many facets, in all the expressions of our shared human condition.

Ultimately, by creating a kinder more forgiving and tolerant world, we create opportunities for everyone to live free of labels, free to experience what it means to be human in a world that does not judge or find others lacking simply because they’re different than us. A world that sees our differences as vital parts of the fascinating and beautiful mosaic that is our human condition.

In such a world, anything and everything is possible.

______________________________________________

Please note:  This post is not to create a debate on supervised consumption sites or addictions or the opioid crisis. My words are my effort to understand better what it means for me, and what I can do, create, change.

If my words stir something in you, please do share your thoughts. Your thoughts will help me understand more, create common ground, increase the field upon which we share understanding.

Please be respectful. Kind. I reserve the right to delete comments that denigrate or belittle human beings.


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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.