“Urban Intervention Training” is the name of our volunteer training program which we host three times a year. It’s a full Saturday, followed by a weeknight session for each of four weeks. The last evening consists of a walk in downtown Ottawa, where experienced staff/outreach workers take our new volunteers and show them the sights of the city. It’s not an interactive evening with our street friends, but rather an education for volunteers to help them understand a little of the culture of our city.
Parts of our walk are not too pretty. Groups of people milling about outside shelters, the drug deals going down, the pushers and the takers, many ‘faceless’ homeless that someday might be new friends to our volunteers. It’s about light penetrating darkness, caring for humanity, justice and advocacy and a host of other issues swirling all around and calling out for attention.
Last night I lead a group of new volunteers in a walk downtown.
Here’s a look at the streets of the Nation’s Capital from the perspective of some people who have already spent considerable time in a fast track to learn about poverty and homelessness. Here’s how they responded:
Q: What were your observations?
- It was really enlightening. As a person with a disability, I wouldn’t have a chance on the streets.
- It was a nice night – I can’t imagine what it would be like if it were raining or snowing.
- A lot of bridges have fences around them. They are inaccessible.
Q: How would you survive?
- If I had to do it on an on-going basis it would be physically and mentally draining.
- I saw the fences, the restrictions, and the attitudes reflected by that message. I was torn between thinking, ‘It’s too bad to have fences,’ and ‘Why are they there in the first place?’
- I felt very unwelcome and scared. I spent the whole time trying to figure out where am I going to sleep? Where will I be safe? Where could I find peace and quiet? I was caught between those thoughts – especially because I am a woman.
- I don’t know. It was very unwelcoming: Don’t stop here. Don’t come here. Bars and fences everywhere saying, not you, not here.
It is a dark and unwelcoming world, but one that needs to first be seen and then be addressed. The final question, “How can we help?” was succinctly answered by one of our new volunteers: “It’s not about fixing anything. It’s about caring. It’s about coming alongside, it’s just to ‘be’.”
In many respects we are very limited in what we can do. On the other hand, we can make a significant difference in people’s lives through our caring, our touch and our ‘walking alongside’. It’s all about people and all about relationships, dignity and respect, and caring enough to go beyond our own comfort zone.
Ready? Let’s go?