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.



A Tree for Christmas #storiesofhope

She hadn’t had a Christmas tree in four years. Not because she didn’t want one. She never gave up wanting one. She didn’t have one because for four years she didn’t have a home to put one up in.

And now, she does. Now, she has a place of her own.  She has a tree.

It’s not a large tree, but in her one bedroom apartment, it fits perfectly. “I love the smell,” she says as she ties another silver ball onto a branch. She breathes deeply. “Oh wow! This is so exciting.”

I am sitting in a chair watching her, chatting, attaching hooks to each ball in preparation of its placement on the tree. Joelle had agreed to have her photo taken for the brochure as a way to give back to the agency that has, as she describes it, ‘saved my life’.

I knew Joelle* when she was staying at the shelter where I used to work. A tiny birdlike woman, chronic health conditions, addiction,  a messy divorce, life missteps left her without a home, or the ability to work. In her weakened state, she became one of those who ‘fall through the cracks’ and end up on the doorstep of shelters across the country. Struggling with life, poor health, poverty, addiction, they run out of resources to keep a roof over their head and find themselves knocking on a shelter door.

If they’re really lucky, and there’s a focus in their community on affordable housing for those living on the margins they will get a place to call home, just as Joelle did.

On this day, just before Christmas several years ago when I still worked at an emergency shelter, I watched Joelle carefully place decorations on the tree and was moved and touched and reminded of the delicacy of this thread called the human condition. A thread made up of tiny moments that link us to the wonder, and sometimes sorrow, of being human, of being part of humankind, alone, yet not alone. Together, yet separate.

Joelle’s tree was a gift. A gift from a woman she met during the summer while in hospital for six weeks receiving chemotherapy. The woman, Sarah, was in the next bed. For six weeks the two women from very separate and different walks of life connected. They talked and shared and when Joelle got out of hospital, Sarah took it upon herself to create a welcome home for Joelle in her new apartment.

And that’s where the magic kept unfolding.

Being released from hospital into homelessness is one of the tragedies in our social fabric. For Joelle, being released back to the shelter was a given. Until through Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness and the housing the shelter provided, Joelle was housed.

She was provided the basics, furniture, dishes, but the place still lacked that feminine touch, that sense of — ‘Joelle’. And then Sarah,  stepped in and ‘prettied up’ the place. She held a house-warming for Joelle, inviting her lady friends to come and create a place of comfort and beauty for this woman she’d met while lying in a hospital bed, recovering from her own serious medical condition.

I sat and watched and chatted with Joelle and I knew it was there. In that room with us. It was palpable.

The spirit of Christmas.

The best of our human condition dancing in the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree that was a gift from a stranger who has become a friend and who continues to take the time to ensure this woman for whom life has not been easy, finds a less stressful, more beautiful path.

“What does having your own place this Christmas mean to you?” I ask Joelle as she tosses tinsel and reminisces about Christmases past.

“It means I get to spend it with my daughter. We get to be a family.”


And there it was, all over again. The meaning of Christmas shining in the light of one woman’s eyes filled with wonder as she decorated a tree and dreamt of spending time with the ones she loves. And in the wonder of the moment I was reminded  once again that Christmas is not in the baubles and glitter, the gifts or the Christmas cards strung along a mantle. It’s right here. Right where we are. It’s a place to belong. To be welcomed. To be together. A place where family meets and connects to what makes magic happen — our human condition shining in Love.

It is Christmas. No matter where we are, no matter how far from home we have strayed, may we all come home to the heart of sharing peace, love and joy at this special time of year.

For stories of Christmas and recovery and having a home, please visit The Gift Project.


This article has been revised from its original version posted in 2010.  I have changed the names of the individuals involved.

We are all doing our best.

It is an interesting thought waiting for me this morning in my email. From TUT: A Note from the Universe.  “…no matter what has happened, you did the very best you could.  And so did those who may have let you down.”

Other than those of personality disordered behaviours of the negative kind (and yes, there are some of those in this great big beautiful world), the vast majority of the +7.4 billion human beings on this planet are trying to do their best. Every day. Day in. Day out.

Like you and me, they experience moments of joy, sadness, sorrow. They have felt the loss of love, belonging, connection.

Like you and me, they have searched for meaning. They have wondered, why am I here? Is this all there is? What’s my purpose? Or even, What’s the point?

Like you and me, they have struggled to understand why some people do the things they do that hurt them. Why it feels some days like they are alone.

And, like you and me, they have done things they are not proud of. Done things that hurt others. Let others down. Upset apple carts and tipped over hopes and dreams.

Like you and me, they were not consciously working at letting anyone down, tripping someone up or fighting them off. They are, like you and me, just doing their best to get along, keep going, keep moving forward. They are all striving to give what they can, however they can, where ever they are on their journey so that they can feel like they got something in return for their investment in life.

Framed that way, it’s easier to accept that sometimes, we misstep. Sometimes, we don’t get it ‘right’. Sometimes, we just aren’t playing at our highest — but we are doing the best we can in that moment.

The other night I attended a community association meeting in an area where the homeless foundation I work for is looking to purchase property and build a small apartment building for individuals with lived experience of homelessness (less than 30 units). The board of this association is mixed 50/50 on their support of our project. Like many communities we talk to, those not in support feel that the community has enough low income developments, that they are at a tipping point with the point of no return towards decline too close for comfort given the socio/economic mix of the community.

At the meeting, two community members in close proximity to the property we are considering purchasing came to present their views of the development. “Nobody wants you, not even the businesses in the area,” they said. And one by one they listed off businesses and after each name said, “They don’t want you.” “They don’t want you.” “They don’t want you.”

Clinging to their position of ‘you don’t belong here’, it was challenging to provide these individuals with any facts.

Our evidence, and research from across North America, show that a development of this size does not negatively impact community with higher crime rates and lower property values. In fact, the evidence shows that a low-income project of this size has little to no impact on a community. Crime stays at historical levels, though it can drop given the increased attention to safety the not-for-profit brings to the community, and property values continue to follow prevailing market trends.

Beyond the facts of this kind of development however, is the fact that these individuals weren’t there to do their worst for their community. They were there to do what they believed was best.

It is easy in emotionally charged situations to sit in judgement of what another is doing, especially if what they are doing does not align with what you see as the preferred outcome.

I have been to many of these kinds of meetings. Always, on both sides of the conversation, people sit with their deep beliefs over what makes community work. And both sides work hard to get the other side to shift their perspective to see it through their point of view. Both sides want to defend their positions. Both sides want to protect their right to build better community — the best way they see to do it.

I believe in the vision and mission of creating better community through ending homelessness.

I also believe that within individual communities, people want to create better through ending those things which disturb their peace of mind and disrupt the vibrancy and health of the community they know. They are doing their best to protect what they know and have today so that they can have some reassurance the future of their community does not slip over the tipping point into such disorder they too will no longer feel like they belong there either.

Having spent the past 10 years working in the homeless-serving sector, I believe we cannot end homelessness by telling people ‘you don’t belong in our community’, or conversely, “we belong in your community”. We can end it by recognizing that we are all doing our best — and sometimes, our best means finding common ground through shifting our position from fearing what we don’t know to seeing the human cost of keeping homelessness on our streets.

We all belong in community. We all have the right to find our way home, even when the way we get there might be different than yours or mine.




Become and Let Joy Arise

On this day of your life,
Louise, I believe God wants you to know…

…that safety is not the thing you should look for in the
future. Joy is what you should look for.

Security and joy may not come in the same package.
They can…but they also cannot.
There is no guarantee.

If your primary concern is a guarantee of security,
you may never experience the truest joys of life.
This is not a suggestion that you become reckless,
but it is an invitation to at least become daring.
Neale Donald Walsch (Daily Message from CWG)


When I read the message above from a daily note I receive in my Inbox, I felt this visceral, oh no! kind of response that said, “See Louise. No one can give you a sense of feeling safe or secure. Only you can do it and the only way you can do it is to seek joy, not safety.”


Here I thought it was someone else’s job to make me feel safe and secure.

Wouldn’t you know it, the Universe knows and is constantly delivering what I need to learn. Sometimes, I’m just not ready, or perhaps not feeling safe or secure enough within me, to heed the lesson.

I have often confused feeling ‘safe’ with ‘trusting’, especially in relationships. Having been prone to trusting the untrustworthy, it was virtually impossible for me to achieve a sense of feeling safe so I constantly put the responsibility for my unease on the world outside.

“I need to feel safe so I need to trust you,” is very different than, “I feel safe within me so I choose to trust that I am capable of making loving decisions that support and honour me and my life, whatever you do.”

In the first, I am placing all the responsibility for my feeling safe and for having trust honoured (or not) on ‘the other’.

In the latter, I am acknowledging my accountability to creating my own sense of well-being within me, and acknowledging that I have the power to make decisions that create the more of what I want in my life — whatever is happening in the world around me — in loving, kind expressions of my truth.

And in living my life true to my inner knowing, I find joy arising with every breath.

The joy of freedom. the joy of knowing I am safe no matter how fierce the winds are blowing around me when I stand in my “I” and stay true to my beliefs, my values, my being who I am in the world.

At the talk I gave on Wednesday night at Canadian Business Chicks Christmas Social, I began with telling the group that I believe we are all born magnificent.

Within each of us, I told the group, no matter where we stand on the street, no matter our economic, spiritual, physical or emotional state, is the seed of magnificence that is our true essence.

When we’re experiencing homelessness or other life hardships, it is easy to forget our magnificence. It is easy to believe we are the labels we carry. Homeless. Addict. Bum. Emotionally disturbed. Mentally-ill. Broken-hearted. Rejected. Lost. Alone.

I shared with the group the story of a man in a class I was teaching at the homeless shelter where I used to work who was once a boy soldier in Africa.

I have done awful things, he said. How can I see myself as anything other than bad?

Do you want to be a ‘bad’ person in the world today? I asked.

No, he replied vehemently.

I invited him, and the group, to close their eyes and for just a moment imagine they truly were magnificent. That in that moment, they radiated pure, beautiful light. Live it. Breathe into it. Become it, I told them.

When they opened their eyes I asked the man who was once a boy soldier if he could feel it.

Yes, he replied. And he smiled and his eyes lit up and for just a moment, his magnificence shone.

Then it is true. I told him. You could not imagine it if it did not exist within you. Rather than fearing the truth that what you did when you had no choice but to survive or be killed is who you are, breathe into the truth that your magnificence is your birthright. Live that truth everyday and keep doing one thing, everyday, that awakens your magnificence.

I saw that man several years later when writing an article about one of the housing first programs in our city. He was working as a custodian/building manager. He saw me and took me aside and reminded me of that moment and thanked me. “I work at being magnificent everyday,” he told me.

When we live our magnificence, when we breathe into it without seeking anything other than to know it, we become it.

Just for today, let go of the fear you will never be good enough, or tall enough or rich enough or safe,  and simply, Become.

Become and Let Joy Arise.

Ending homelessness. If this can happen, what else is possible?

Next Tuesday, June 9th, from 3 – 7pm, the Calgary Homeless Foundation will be inviting the public to join in the kick-off of construction of two new housing projects , Aurora on the Park and Providence House. These 24 and 25 unit apartment buildings will become home for formerly homeless Calgarians. Part of the RESOLVE Campaign, they mark another step, many steps, forward in our collective vision of ending homelessness in Calgary.

There is a lot of hope around these two buildings. A lot of belief in the future, the possibility of lives changing, homelessness ending.

For the kick-off event, we have contracted This is My City Art Society to yarnbomb the entire house. For two weeks, artists and volunteers wrapped afghan blankets and skeins of wool around the building and its fixtures creating an art piece that not only draws attention from every passerby, and is also encouraging people to come from other parts of the city to take a look at, it also signifies what can happen when a hope becomes a dream, becomes a possibility, becomes reality.

The finished art piece is incredible. The house is all wrapped up in beauty, whimsy and a sense of warmth and hominess, ‘just like grandma’s’, as one reporter said in his TV piece on the house.

More than grandma’s, this house, and the building that will eventually be home to 24 people who will live there and be supported through each step away from homelessness, represents hope. Hope for a better quality of life. Hope for a better future. Hope for change that makes a real difference.

This project is all about hope.

Ask someone with longterm lived experience of homelessness what kept them mired in that place of no fixed address and they will often reply, “I had no hope anything could be different.”

It is a common refrain.

“I gave up on hope while I was homeless.”

Homelessness, by its very nature, is filled with loss.  Your belongings. Home. Family connections. Friends. Job. Life as you knew it is lost.

And then there’s the other losses which are harder to measure, more difficult to see, even though they are felt deeply by those experiencing them.

The loss of hope. The loss of believing you can create different in your life. The loss of knowing where you belong. The loss of feeling accepted, worthy, part of the greater world out there just for who you are. In homelessness, you lose your ‘things’. You also lose your sense of self.

While at the house on its final day of yarnbombing, I was speaking with one of the artists with lived experience of homelessness. He told me about finally getting a place of his own, a year ago this week. “I hadn’t realized until I sat back in my own living room and started counting the time I was homeless how long it had been,” he said. “Seven years.”

What kept you there (at a shelter) so long? I asked.

“I lost all hope,” he replied.

Each day became like the last. Every day predictable, even in all its uncertainty. If it was Sunday, the dinner was this because volunteer group A came in on Sundays and prepared the meal. Monday, it was group B. He could go to work at some temp job, get paid a fee and know, hoping for anything different was futile. He had no hope. How could things be different?

There was no sense to hope for anything different, he told me. It was always the same old, same old.

And that included the feelings of losing your sense of self, of your own worth, competency, ability to create change. Like hope, it evaporated with every passing day until without even counting down the days, the light was gone and all hope of ever finding your way out of the darkness vanished.

How did you eventually get out? I asked.

It was through art. Through connecting with This is My City Art Society and getting involved in their initiatives, he began to see another path, another way.

With every streak of paint from a paint brush, with every bit of creation and connection made with the world beyond the shelter, hope came alive.

On Tuesday, June 9th, we will kick-off the construction of 49 units of housing for formerly homeless Calgarians. There are two buildings in different communities, both of which have embraced the idea that ending homelessness begins in their backyards.

In 2008 when Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness was launched, there was only a hope that this could happen.

Today, it’s a reality.

We cannot give up on hope.

If this can happen, what else is possible?

Hope banner copy

This is still part of my Ultimate Un-guide series. Ending homelessness is all about holding onto the hope that it is possible, and then, taking action to create the possibility.

Death is not the only route off the street; Home is.

He wheels his wheelchair up to where we stand on the platform waiting for a train back downtown. A co-worker and I have just come from a memorial service for people who have died on the street in the past few months. The man in the wheelchair was also there and as he straightens out his position, I greet him and we begin to chat.

I haven’t seen him a long while. Years ago, when I worked at a homeless shelter, he was walking. Barely. Mostly, he was living tough. Cantankerous. Often under the influence, he was angry, belligerent and difficult to work with. Few believed he could ever be housed. He was one of the marginalized who could never get away from the edges of living on the street.

He’s been housed for four years now. Has a small apartment of his own through an agency working towards ending homelessness.

He’s proud of it. Proud of where he’s at. How far he’s come.

And it struck me as we said good-bye, without the plan to end homelessness, he could have been one of the one’s we were bidding farewell today.

Just like the two other people who stopped to say hello as we walked towards the memorial service.

*Ellen called to me as we walked past. “Louise! Aren’t you going to say hello?”

I stopped and turned towards her voice, saw her and walked back. We hugged and chatted and she shared stories of her life in the past year.

“I’m completely sober now,” she told me. “Had to drop out of school but I want to go back. I want to do some upgrading and then go on to college.”

She’s in her 50s. A First Nation’s woman. A talented artist. Drugs and alcohol played havoc with her life for years. In and out of rehab. Jail. Emergency shelter. Her drug use spiralled whenever the pain inside threatened to consume her.

She’s in housing now. Has a support system. People who care about and for her.

And it struck me as we said good-bye, without the plan to end homelessness, she could have been one of the one’s we were were bidding farewell today.

As *Jake walked towards us on the street, I thought I knew him but wasn’t sure. He looked so calm, so together.

He smiled as we drew near, said hello and we hugged and I told him how good he’s looking and he laughed.

“Clean and sober for 4 months,” he said proudly. “I’m sleeping now.”

Jake’s been housed for 2 years. He’s always told me he wanted to get sober. Need to, he’d say. But was too afraid to try.

After many steps towards rehab, he finally made it.

And it struck me as we said good-bye, without the plan to end homelessness, he could have been one of the one’s we were bidding farewell today.

I thought of these individuals and the thousands of others who have been housed since Calgary implemented its plan to end homelessness. Without housing and support, the trajectory of their journey too often leads to death on the streets. Death inexplicably cruel and senseless.

As I watched the family who had come to the service, I felt the weight of their pain and sadness. “Death comes for all of us,” said Lloyd, the elder who lead the ceremony.

But when death comes to someone living on the streets, it tears away all hope of their ever finding their way back home to where they belong.

There were 11 people’s lives celebrated at the ceremony. 11 people whom death found far from home.

But it didn’t find those I chatted with yesterday. And it didn’t find the thousands of others for whom homelessness has ended because they have found their way back home to where they belong.

I am grateful.  For Calgary’s plan to end homelessness. For those who had the compassion and wisdom to know we needed a plan to shift our focus towards ending homelessness right from street level and continue to support the work we do to keep the plan alive and moving forward. And I’m grateful for the countless people in all the agencies who work so hard and passionately to ensure that death is not the only route off the street; Home is.


*Not their real name.

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.