Hanging by a Thread

Working with people who are poor or homeless can be a challenge: there is great satisfaction and fulfillment, but it can be hard when we see how our friends often struggle to survive.  We have no right to complain, because we will leave the downtown core and head back to our own homes, lives and ‘other’ responsibilities.

It is a much larger challenge to continue to live on the streets.  That’s why, I think, people who call the streets their home have so much to offer.  They are often examples to me in many ways: in generosity, community, loyalty and even faith – in many respects they leave me at the starting blocks by comparison.

Their lives and our ministry are similar: both are hanging by a thread. 

Not just a ‘thread’, but a thread that is frayed and seemingly ready to give way at any moment.  Any major catastrophe or even small breath of wind would bring everything to a standstill in a second.

 I marvel at the tenacity and perseverance and strength of character that enable our friends to survive.  I wonder at the strength of the human will that at the last possible moment, when all seems black and lost and abandoned, rises up and — and makes a last ditch recovery.

 The ministry is something like that too, in some ways.

 Hanging by a thread.  Both give a distinct impression and appearance of immanent disaster, a perception that even the slightest breeze will break the thread and all will be lost.

But the appearance of the thread is quite different that the reality.  While it appears frayed and weak, broken and disintegrating, in the core of the thread is a titanium wire that is capable of withstanding the worst of storms.

 That centre is faith in God, the power of love, the strength of justice and the spirit of a man/ woman/ ministry that refuses to give in, give up or die.

 Where there is life there is hope. 

 Never quit.  Never give up.  Never.

Downtown Ottawa

“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?

A Changed Life

Sam was always going to go to detox in Thunder Bay  – some day.  His mother would send money and Sam would spend it on booze.  His mother would send more money for a bus ticket, but the temptation was too great.  Once he even made it to the bus station, but ran.

 He failed to follow through – we don’t know how many times. Many years worth, at least.  He’d tell his ‘failure’ story over and over again.  He wanted to change, but couldn’t.

We would see him on a weekly basis, often several times a week.  One favourite haunt was the coin laundry downstairs.  He would come with Stacey and Milo, hang around for a while and off to the next stop.  Our words of encouragement seemed to fall on deaf ears.  It was disheartening and discouraging.

Then last fall he disappeared completely.  Gone.

When someone disappears it might mean several things: death, jail or the hospital are the ‘big three’.  No  one had heard from him – not even Stacey and Milo.

Three months later he shows up, clean and sober.  His mother sent him some money, he finally made a decision, and followed through.

Remarkable!

Ten months of sobriety now, and counting – his life has changed.

If you’re interested in another perspective on this story, check out http://bit.ly/cSmznf

It takes a community to change a life, and for whatever part we had to play in this story, we are grateful and thankful.

It’s a pretty good reminder: You never know when something you say, or some random gift of kindness, or prayer for help will make the difference in someone’s life. 

It’s also a good lesson on life: Never give up.  Never.

Tom Called

Tom Called (see previous blogs re. Injustice)

While I was away in Vancouver I received the following email from our front line receptionist at OIM:

Tom called! 

He is at Fenbrook Institution in Gravenhurst. 

We were only able to talk a brief time as he was in a room with his prison assigned PO (that’s what he called her) and was on an office phone. 

 He said that he had been trying to reach you for awhile but that for some reason was unable to call through.  He had requested that your name/number go on his call out list but it never seemed to work for him.  I’m not really clear as to why and it was difficult to get a lot of information as someone was listening at his end so I did not want to press for info. 

Bottom line, he sounds really good!  He says he’s due to be released in two weeks and will make his way back to Ottawa asap.

I’d say that’s good news. 

Interesting isn’t it that ‘it never seemed to work for him’ to get my (OIM’s) number on his call list (!).

Last week his total world belongings were picked up by our staff and we were able to find a place to store them.  His place of residence was kind enough to allow us to hold them for him, although they could not hold his room.  Fortunately he doesn’t have to ‘start all over’ when he comes back.

I’ll keep you posted.

His parole is finished next week, so we’ll be sure to keep you updated, as he will be a free man after all this time (and able to talk freely, and come to the ‘forbidden’ OIM office).

Thanks for all your thoughts, prayers and kind words!  It’s good to know you are not alone.

You Can Make a Difference

Something is wrong. Very wrong.

The Alliance To End Homelessness Report Card tells us that the number of people using shelter beds has increased again this year (http://www.endhomelessnessottawa.ca/). This last published report (2008) even indicated a 27% rise in the number of youth that used a shelter system.

Ottawa is not unique. Major cities across Canada may vary in climate, population and economic standing, but the ratio of people experiencing poverty and homelessness is fairly consistent across the country.

One friend of mine, Rick Tobias from Yonge street mission (www.ysm.ca ), has stated that after 27 years of devoting his life and energy to alleviating the distress of the marginalized and the suffering of people who are in poverty, the problem has become worse instead of better.

What to do? There are many answers to this important question, not the least of which is, “We can all do something.”

It is our hope that this website will encourage you to take action, to change your world, one person at a time.

We need to be informed, encouraged and motivated to take action and be able to communicate our concerns to others. Your part in changing the face of homelessness might be a one-on-one relationship with someone who calls the streets their home through volunteering with an agency that is making a difference. It might be actively engaging governments on any or all levels. Perhaps you have a gifting or skill to network and raise awareness of the blatantly obvious problem of people panhandling on the streets of our cities. Maybe your part will be to pray and lift up our friends on the streets and the volunteers and outreach workers who are on the front lines.

Please visit us again. As we develop and expand this website we will provide different opportunities for you to become involved.

You can make a difference!