Tag Archives: homelessness

Not having an answer to homelessness isn’t good enough

She is walking towards me deep in conversation with another woman. She is animated. Expressive. Her whole body engaged in her conversation. It is a warm October afternoon but she is dressed for colder weather. Toque. Mitts. Big heavy winter jacket. Blue with a fake fur collar. Khaki pants tucked into the tops of laced up black walking boots, the kind you’d picture if someone said, “your mother wears army boots,” in an attempt to dis you.

As we pass she looks at me. I smile. She stops. Calls out. “Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in awhile.” She darts between two passers-by and comes to a full stop in front of me. “Where do I know you from?” Before I can answer she blurts out her response. “The Women’s Centre! That’s where.”

I start to correct her. I’m not sure I know her but perhaps it was the shelter where I used to work, but her words keep rattling out towards me like a woodpecker digging into bark. “You still there? I sure hope so. You stood out. You always do. It’s why I noticed you on the street.”

Again I attempt to correct her, to tell her I don’t think we’ve met and then I let it go. Sometimes, people just want to be heard.

She tells me about her husband. ‘The abusive bastard’. They put him in the ground three years ago. That’s how she says it. Put him in the ground. I wasn’t there. No f*cking way, and her expletive is loud enough it startles someone walking by. They skirt our little tableau where we stand at the corner of the avenue where the C-train rumbles by.

She tells me the story of how he kept her locked up on 149 acres. Sixteen years I suffered, she says. How she’s lost a son to suicide. Hung himself. Why would he do that? she asks.

I hope she doesn’t expect an answer from me. I don’t have one.

She’s lost another to cancer and the third, well, the good for nothing, and again she inserts a loud expletive, is in jail. Just like his father. She says. And she shakes her head making her salt and pepper curls bob up and down. “How come I couldn’t do nothing good in the world?” she asks. “Tell me that? How come?”

I am grateful she keeps on talking without waiting for an answer. I don’t have one.

She shares more of her story. Dates. Places. Names. They are written on her memory, streaming out in a continuous tide of re-telling. She animates her conversation. Bounces from one spot to another in front of me. One moment up close, almost whispering in my ear, the next stepping far back. “You stay there,” she says. And I wonder, does she mean me or is the statement part of her story.

She talks about the Catholic school she attended as a child. The abuse. The nuns. The priests. She points to two tall brick buildings down the avenue from where we stand. “Big as those,” she says. “I had to walk in and tell them I was there to demand an apology for my sister. She was one pound when she was born. You could hold her in the palm of your hand.” And she cups one hand holding it out towards me like a child begging for alms. “She was that little. I had to protect her. I had to get her away from them.”

She breathes and I look into her eyes and say, “It sounds like life was very hard for you.”

“You don’t f*cking know the half of it,” she sputters and continues on with her story. Jumping from her sister to one of her other 10 siblings. “Only 8 of us survived the first years of our lives,” she says. “There just wasn’t enough to go around.”

“I seen my sister just before she died,” she says. And she moves in real close to my right ear and whispers. “I walked up to her bed, she was so sick, so close to dying, and I said, ‘Terry’, real soft like. She knew it was me. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She knew it was me.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. It is all I can think of to offer her in way of comfort.

“Nah. She’s better off dead.” And she continues on re-telling stories of her life. A 1963 GrandAm she once owned. A shotgun that belonged to her husband that he used to threaten her with until she gave it, along with his other 20 guns, to the police.

“He told them he was a collector. Insisted they give them back. I got away though. Took the bus to Edmonton. I’m a registered LPN. I’m not stupid you know. They tell me I’m bipolar. F*cking baztards. What do they know? I’m 74. Of course I have moods.”

Another C-train rolls by and I know I have to go. Ellie the wonder pooch is waiting for me at home. She’ll be anxious for her dinner.

“Hey! I’m glad I saw you,” she says. “You listen good but you gotta speak up good too. For others. Will you do that for me? Speak up? Get us some justice? I got a place now but ya’ know, there’s so many who don’t. Will you make sure they get a chance?”

“I’ll do my best,” I tell her.

And we part and move in our separate directions and I carry her story with me. I wonder how she got so lost. How life could have been so difficult and still she clings to it, fights for it, and others.

And I wonder, what is the best for someone who’s needs are so complex, whose mental health is so fragile that they would reach out to a relative stranger and tell them their story standing on a street corner? How can my best do anything to offset the demands of a life lived on the edges?

And I know, Not having an answer to homelessness and abuse and lack of support for mental health issues isn’t good enough anymore. We can’t keep pushing the problem along, sweeping it into shelters or someone else’s backyard. We’ve got to speak up, give voice, stand up for those who have been beaten down so far they no longer have the strength to do it alone. We gotta do it together. All of us.

 

 

 

Two people standing heart to heart

He is sitting on a bench outside of the offices of an organization that works with people with mental health issues.  I am walking past to a meeting further down the avenue.

He sees me. Stares. Gives me a little smile.

I smile back.

He says, “Hi! How are you?”

I stop in front of him, give him my attention. “I’m great. How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

He pauses before replaying. As if trying to remember, or place me, or see if he actually knows me. He remembers.  “At least two years,” he says. “I can’t remember your name. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I forget yours too. I’m Louise.”

“Oh right. I remember. I’m Jack.”  (not his real name)

“Nice to see you Jack. It has been awhile. How are you doing?”

He shrugs his shoulders, takes a puff on the cigarette he’s been holding in one hand. He’s tall and gangly. Mid-forties. He sits with his body entangled, one leg over the other, the foot bouncing in constant motion. His body doesn’t move as much as it vibrates in a constant hum of nervous energy flowing.

“You still work there?”

I know him from the shelter where I used to work. I tell him I’ve been gone for almost two years.

He laughs. “Me too. And I’ll never go back. I’m on a life bar. Stupid really. I couldn’t control myself. Someone got fed up with me. Now I’m gone.”

“That’s too bad,” I say.

“No it’s not,” he replies. “I’ve got my own place now. It’s hard. But I’m managing. I got support and I don’t want to go back. But it’s hard.”

“How is it hard?” I ask him.

His body stills for a moment and his eyes focus on me intently.

“I remember. You were always interested in what was really going on. You cared.”

I’m not sure what to say. I sit down beside him and ask again. “How is it hard?”

“The living day-to-day,” he says. “The remembering to do what I gotta do. I come here,” and he waves his cigarette at the building behind us, “because they get me. They help.”

“I’m glad they’re here for you.” I tell him.

“It’s been nice chatting with you,” he says.

He is dismissing me. “It’s been nice chatting with you too. Can I give you a hug?” I ask as I stand up.

He looks surprised. Nervous. Scared.

“Really?”

“Well, I’d like to but only if you want one,” I tell him.

He laughs. “People don’t hug me,” he says. “I scare them.”

I smile. “Would you like a hug?”

His leg that is crossed over the other bounces up and down and then stops. He unwinds his body and stands up. Leans over to put his arms around my shoulders. Lightly, like a willow tree folding over so its branches can kiss the earth. It is a quick hug. A squeeze. His arms are gone as quickly as they touch my shoulders.

“I liked that. Thanks. I gotta go now.” And he carefully butts out his cigarette, tucking the saved bit into the palm of his hand. He waves one hand and returns into the building behind us.

I continue on my way to my meeting, smiling as I walk.

A chance encounter. A brief moment of conversation. A smile. A hug. Two people standing heart to heart. A human connection.

I like that. I carry it with me throughout my day.

 

Where nightmares end

It stormed last night. Thunder rumbled across the sky. Lightning bolts streaked through the night, searing the dark. The wind howled. The trees moaned and I lay in my bed, warm and dry, Ellie snoring on her mat at the foot of the bed and Marley curled up beside me.

I love storms. I love their fierce energy cascading from the sky, rippling across the earth. I love the wind and the rain and the trees bowing and the wind chime tinkling madly in the back yard. I love the sound of the rain pattering on the roof, the water splashing in puddles and dripping from the eaves.

And I love  listening to the storm from inside the safety and warmth of my home.

I am grateful for the roof over my head. I am grateful we live on higher ground, that our foundation is secure, our roof strong. I am grateful for the stove light that glimmers in the dark from the kitchen, the candles ready just in case, the flashlight strategically placed on my bedside table – just in case.

I am grateful I can take precautions, just in case.

I have the resources, the resilience and the necessary strength to take care of myself, just in case.

There was a time…

I was thinking of those times yesterday as I listened to a group of co-workers talk about ‘harm reduction’ — the art of maximizing safety even when someone is engaged in unsafe and risky behaviours.

It’s part of Housing First which forms the foundation of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The first step in any housing first model is to get someone into housing, and provide them the prerequisite supports to enhance well-being.

The premise is, you can’t look at options, you can’t see possibilities, you can’t feel safe, when your life is one unstable step after another.

It’s true. You can’t.

Having worked in a shelter for almost six years, no matter how good the service, no matter how well-intentioned the supports, when homelessness sits heavily on your shoulders, believing in the possibility of change, knowing there’s hope for more is a constant battle of reality versus resignation. Life is just too hard, too heavy, too confusing to conceive of your capacity to change.

I know. When I was mired in the darkness of an abusive relationship, when my home was gone, my belongings stored precariously, my family ties shredded, I couldn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t believe there was anything I could do to make it different. It took everything I had to pretend everyday that I was coping with the uncertainty and trauma of what was happening in my life. How could I create change? How could I believe I had the capacity to change my path when I believed I was the one who had destroyed my life in the first place? How could I do anything differently when to do something different meant I was lost? How could I find courage in the fear driving me deeper and deeper into the dark?

I told myself I couldn’t. I told myself there was nothing else I could do. I told myself, this is all there is. This is where I belong. This is what I deserve. This fear, confusion, abuse. This constant uncertainty. This continuous instability would never change. It couldn’t. Because I didn’t deserve anything else. I was 100% responsible for what was happening in my life — and I was powerless to change it.

Homelessness begets helplessness. Losing everything leads to losing yourself. It opens the door to nothing but, more of the same. In the downward spiral of feeling helpless to stop the storm rumbling through your life, sweeping away everything you once held onto or believed would keep you safe, you stand exposed to the harsh and bitter winds of hopelessness. And in that place, even when the shelter provides a roof over your head, even when you know there are three meals to count on every day. Even when you have a bed to sleep in, a chair to sit on, a locker to store your meagre belongings in, others to talk to in a community of people with your shared experience, you never feel safe. you never feel at home, because in being given everything you need to survive, you still do not have the one thing that will lead you home — a place to call your own. A place where you can lock the door, make yourself a cup of tea, butter a slice of toast and dream.

When I was homeless and life stormed all around me, darkness was my companion. In the dark, I could pretend I couldn’t see what was happening. In the dark, I didn’t dream of the storm ending, because dreams always lead to awakening to the nightmare that was my life and I didn’t believe I’d ever awaken from the horror of what was happening. In my disbelief I held onto the dark where fear kept me still and held me fast in the hopelessness of its embrace.

It stormed last night and I awoke to thunder rumbling across the sky. In its passing I am left with the gift of today, the beauty of this place where I am grateful for the roof above my head. This place, where I know that to end homelessness we must first find a place to call home. A place where the nightmare of homelessness ends and dreams begin again.

On living and dying

I had another blog planned for this morning, but then I read Diana Schwenk’s mention of Hazel Gillespie’s passing, and clicked on the link she shared to Staying in Touch with Hazel.

Before I worked at the homeless shelter, I had never been to a hospice. The first time I went, it was by accident. A long time client, a photographer who found his gift through participating in the art program I’d started, was being moved from the shelter-owned apartment he’d been living in as cancer eroded his body’s strength, to hospice one cold December day in 2009. That evening, I called the hospice to find out how he was doing and they informed me, ‘he won’t last the night’. I didn’t want him to be alone amongst strangers as he passed over and so I drove out to the country where the hospice was situated and held his hand while he let go of life. It was one of the most profound and moving moments of my life.

The next time, was just last year when Terry Pettigrew, a man I’d grown to know and love at the shelter, also moved into hospice for his final days. He lived two weeks after moving in, and this time, his brother held his hand, a brother he hadn’t seen in 34 years. It was a blessed moment. I spoke about Terry during a presentation I gave on Saturday for the This is My City Festival panel discussion, On Common Ground and wrote about my experience of remembering Terry on my blog at Recover Your Joy today.

Both experiences with hospice staff have left me feeling grateful for their amazing grace in our world — they make a world of difference. Their humility and compassion, their ability to shine a light on the ‘ending’ while holding space for life to slip away with grace, has inspired me and given me great comfort.

And then, this morning I clicked on the link to Staying in Touch with Hazel that Diana shared and I was moved again by Love. In the beauty and tragedy of our lives, it is Love that carries us through. And, it is the love of people who share our journey, who light our path, who surround us in care that makes the journey hard to let go of, even when we must. In Hazel’s last few weeks on earth she was surrounded by four women committed to holding her hand, to reading to her, laughing with her, being with her in Love. I read back through their stories at Staying in Touch with Hazel, and I am in awe of their beauty.

The world is in good hands when those hands are the loving hands of those who work and care for the dying in hospices, and those who care for the one’s they love as Vicky, Christine, Barb and Judy cared for Hazel.

What an amazing difference they make in our world. What amazing light and grace they bring to living and dying.

Blessed journey Hazel Gillespie. May Love hold you forever more.

The difference when I stop, look and listen

I am standing by the Navel Orange bin, focused on picking just the right ones when I feel someone watching me. I look up and see a man, walking towards me, his eyes focused intently on my face. I recognize him as he approaches. Smile and give him a wave.

“I know you,” he says, the rubber stopper on the bottom of his multi-coloured metallic cane making a soft thump as he plants himself in beside me. “Why do I know you?”

I know him from the homeless shelter where I used to work.

In a public place like a grocery store, it’s not always caring of the other to tell them that.

“I was the spokesperson for the DI (the street name for the shelter where I used to work),” I tell him. “I was on television a lot. Maybe you recognize my face from there?”

He gives his head a quick shake from side to side. Then nods it up and down. “Yeah. That’s why I remember you. You were one of the nice ones.” He pauses, lifts his cane and thumps it on the ground. Not loudly. Just a gentle statement of fact to punctuate his words. “I didn’t like it there. Who could? Full of drunks and drug addicts. And the staff…”

He looks away.

“Glad I’m out of there now.” He finishes his statement and looks me in the eyes. “I’m gone you know.”

“So am I,” I tell him. “How are you doing?”

And he rushes into a story about an accident that broke his hip. A two month hospital stay. A landlord who ripped him off and a host of other sad events that have brought him down.

And  I listen. It is all I do. Listen. Deeply.

It is what he needs. Someone to listen to him. To give him space to give voice to his pain, his fears, his sorrow. And, his possibilities.

“I worked construction you know,” he tells me. “That’s over with now. But I can cook. Got a friend who’s got a friend who owns a restaurant that’s just opening up. Gonna go submit my resume. You could come visit if you want.” And he gives me the approximate location of the restaurant. “I can’t remember the name. But I’m sure you can’t miss it. It’s the pub right beside the gas station.”

I tell him that I’ll definitely drop by sometime over the next few weeks. Check if he got the job. See how he’s doing.

“What I really need is better housing,” he says. “Someplace where I’m not sharing space with others. I talked to Calgary Housing but their wait list is too long.”

“Have you spoken to the Homeless Foundation?” I ask.

“What’s that?”

And I explain about their housing programs and find a piece of paper and write down their number and pass it to him.

He’s excited. Another path to explore. Another possibility opening up.

And we part and I am grateful for our encounter. He has reminded me of the importance of seeing people. Of honouring the human being through creating space for story-telling to happen, of listening to the stories that are shared with an open mind and loving heart and a belief in the sacredness of the truths that are revealed when we take time to see and listen to the story-tellers.

Thank you John. You made a difference yesterday by giving me the gift of listening on purpose.

The Difference of A Dream

I was there when he took his last breath. I held his hand and waited in anticipation of an exhalation that never came. And in that one final breath in, the life-force left his body and James A. Bannerman was gone.

James was a client of the homeless shelter where I worked. Just after joining the team, I started an art program. One day, a box of throw-away cameras arrived in my office and I gave them to clients with the request they take pictures of their world. James was one of the ones who agreed to participate. From then on, a camera was never far from his sights. Whenever he wandered the streets of Calgary doing what he did everyday, picking up bottles along the riverbank, he would take photos. “Bottle pickings my civic duty,” he used to tell me when I’d pass him as I walked into work in the mornings. “I’m helping keep the city clean.”

Photography became his way of life.

That little box of a camera became a conduit for him to express the light and darkness of the city all around him. He became indefatigable in his ‘picture-taking’ as he liked to call it.  Homeless for over 15 years when he received that first camera, picture-taking became his passion and, he laughed, maybe even his retirement plan. He became so immersed in his art that eventually, he saved up enough money from his odd jobs and bottle collecting to buy himself a digital camera, and then a laptop. And his picture-taking became an insatiable desire to express his awe of the world around him. Whenever we held art shows James would always turn up. A man of view words, he struggled to connect through words to those who passed his booth. He didn’t need words to speak. His photos spoke for him and to the hearts of those who purchased his work and gave it a home.

And then, cancer came and within months he was gone.

But not his photography. Not his view of the world  he inhabited that he captured tirelessly where ever he went throughout our city. He didn’t take photos of people. He only took photos of buildings and bridges and water flowing in the river and frozen footprints in ice and the patterns of a manhole cover and an image of a street through the broken glass of a bus shelter.

James A. Bannerman had an eye for beauty and next week, on the day that would have been his fifty-fourth birthday James A. Bannerman’s first solo exhibit will open.

Yesterday, I met with the curator of the exhibit from The New Gallery (TNG) and two individuals who are part of hosting this year’s inaugural, This is My City Festival to finalize the selection of photos that will appear in the exhibit. As we sorted through Jame’s photos, looking for just the right one’s to include in the Plus 15 TNG Window Gallery that will be their home for the next two months, I shared stories of James and his indefatigable spirit and felt connected once again to this man who touched my heart in so many ways.

James would be pleased. His photos are out of retirement.

This is a difference worth making. This is a difference I have held in my heart since I sat and held Jame’s hand and listened to the last intake of his breath rattling through his lungs in the early morning hours of December 8, 2009. This is a dream I’ve breathed life into throughout the intervening days, a dream other’s have joined with me in bringing to light.

I am happy and I am grateful.

Namaste.

 

PS:  For those in Calgary, or visiting over the next few months, the exhibit will be located at the Plus 15 at Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts — http://www.thenewgallery.org/exhibitions/plus15-window/the-compassionate-eye-of-james-bannerman-2012-02-01

Begin with turning up

It was a full house last night at the Joe Dutton Theatre for the live recording of The Eviction of Stuart Block, a radio play written and created by people experiencing homelessness and people who are working to make a difference in the homeless sector. Created by This is My City for this years High Performance Rodeo, The Eviction of Stuart Block tells the storied history of a three storey former rooming house in Calgary’s downtown core that now sits empty, awaiting demolition.

The cast was primarily actors from the homeless shelter where I worked for almost six years until I resigned at the end of 2011. A motley crew of troubadours, actors, writers, misfits, down and outs and up and comers as Col Cseke, co-director of the piece called them in his introduction. And everyone laughed and for the next hour and a half, everyone was enchanted. Seriously enthralled by this motley crew who brought the real life comings and goings, joys and traumas of a rooming house’s slide from inner city influence into skid row dereliction to life on the stage.

It was a moving, touching and compelling evening for me (and everyone there). As Max, one of the actors said to me after the play, “There will always be a bit of you up there on the stage Louise. This would never have come to be without you.”

I was touched by his words. Touched by the grace of this man whom I first met sitting on the second floor of the shelter painting by himself at a table, surrounded by the chaos and hubbub of the busy day area of the shelter. “Why don’t you come up and paint with us on the sixth floor?” I asked him almost everyday for a month after starting the arts program. “It’s much quieter up there and the view is awesome.” (and the view of the Bow River and the valley to the north of the shelter is awesome!) And eventually, Max did come and join the group that met every Thursday evening in the multi-purpose room. And eventually, he opened up to his creative urges to explore more, to give more of himself to not only his art but also to creating music at the shelter and in the community. And in his sharing, songs have been written, a singing group formed and performances shared all over the city.

In May 2006 when I began working at the shelter, I started an arts program which, over the years, evolved into full spectrum arts-oriented programming that encompassed all the arts from visual to theatrical to musical and written/spoken word. Over the years, the Possibilities Project, as it became known, created opportunities for clients, volunteers, staff and the community to connect in ways beyond the traditional “Let me help you” model prevalent throughout the homeless service sector. The Possibilities Project made it possible for people to connect on the common ground of creative expression — no matter the medium, no matter their address.

I had a lot of ‘me’ invested in the Possibilities Project and no longer being involved, I felt the sadness and the pull of separation anxiety when I arrived at the theatre last night. And then I walked in as the DI Singers (the singing group Max continues to sing with that co-director of the play, Onalea Gilbertson started in 2009) began to perform their pre-show concert. The performers waved and smiled when they saw me and I waved and smiled back. I sat in the front row (a place I never sit) and became immersed in their performance.

It was a night of magic and wonder. Of witnessing the human spirit in flight. It was a moment to let go of regret and savour the wonder of what happens when an idea takes wings on the spirit of  human beings celebrating their magnificence.

I was touched by Max’s words to me last night. Touched and awed by the splendor of the people on that stage. And, I was humbled. Years ago I created a space for people to explore their creative yearnings. Today, they are still exploring those yearnings, still expressing their creative impulses and still creating special moments for all of us to witness and experience and enjoy.

As my friend Rachael said after the performance, “You made a difference by turning up tonight, Louise. It was important for everyone on that stage that you be here.”

I am blessed. I didn’t have to ‘do’ anything to make a difference. All I had to do was turn up and be part of the magic.

It’s all any of us have to do. To make a difference begin with turning up. Turn up and let the magic happen.

And here’s a great article by Stephen Hunt in the Calgary Herald about the play. Homeless build show from century-old building.