LIfe on the Streets 3: Panhandling

We see people panhandling for loose change all the time in our cities.  It’s commonplace.  We have come to adopt certain attitudes towards panhandlers and developed our own patterns of giving (or not).

We make assumptions about those who would ask us for a handout, and we have prejudices about the different approaches people take when asking for money.  However we respond, we walk away and the next person on the sidewalk is hit for a donation.

Generally, those who ask, ask unashamedly, without reservation, boldly, maybe even arrogantly.  Some have learned to hit the right buttons and tell one (maybe of several) stories that have brought them success in the past. It looks so easy, like anyone could do it.

That’s what it appears to be right now, but it wasn’t always like this.

What about the first times?

What would it be like to have no other choice but to ask others for help?  When you have exhausted all of your options?  You ask people for money: not your family or friends (that ended long ago), but complete strangers (who generally are opposed to what you are doing). 

All of your resources are gone and you have hit the wall.  You have no other options, so you do what you have to do to survive.  Pride is long gone and the memory tapes of ‘loser’,’ useless piece of ____ ‘, useless bum’ –  that were ingrained into your thinking from childhood come to the resurface, are reinforced and become your reality.

The first few times it would be hard – maybe the first few thousand – but it becomes a part of who you are.   Blame, shame and desperation have become your daily portion.  

There’s  no way out.  It’s your life now, and you get used to it.  You get better at it.  You harden yourself to the shame, and do your ‘work’. You know where to go, what to avoid, work the angles, develop the stories, and push yourself farther and farther away from who you once were.

Panhandling, it’s pretty simple.  Easy.  Straightforward.  Right?

 “Hey mister, any spare change?”

Life on the Streets 2: Invisibility

I can become invisible in three seconds.

In the time it takes for me to move to a standing position on the sidewalk to sit on the curb beside someone who is experiencing homelessness, I am invisible. 

No one sees me (or the person I am now sitting beside); people look at their watches or their pda’s as soon as they catch a glimpse of us;  attention is diverted quickly to anything that is in a different direction.

You can try it sometime if you want to risk it, and it will be nerve wracking to say the least, but don’t worry,  you’ll be OK as soon as you stand up and continue on your way.

But what if you couldn’t stand up?  What if you just didn’t have the wherewithal to sluff off the years or abuse and mental torment?  What if you could not muster the stuff to rise from that place of invisibility and anonymity and no-one-ness? What if you had to stay there? What would that be like?

I know some high level leadership training courses that have a segment where the student has to either sleep in a shelter or panhandle until she ‘earns’ ten dollars.  At OIM, we have provided opportunities for people to attend ‘One Homeless Night’ where a participant spends the evening on the streets (8 pm to 12 midnight) with only $1.50 and then sleep in a church basement as part of an ‘out of the cold’ shelter experience.  Other programs like these have been run with varying degrees of severity, and in some measure, participants can experience a certain degree of ‘homelessness’.

The common denominator in all these examples, is that at the end of a certain period of discomfort, hunger or embarrassment, you just go back home to the suburbs where a caring family, nice warm home and bed await.  (Notwithstanding the stop at the first fast food joint for a period of ‘catching up’ on some serious eating).

What if there was no choice?  What would it be like to find a place to stay when the shelters are full? Who can you trust? Where can you go?  Where will you use the bathroom (after you are identified as homeless)? Where is safe?

Give this five minutes of your consideration, then give us some feedback.

Life on the Streets I: Walking

I arrived back in Ottawa late last night and drove through the downtown area on the way home. I saw a man walking with a garbage bag over his shoulder and as I approached, I wondered if this was someone I knew.  It was.

Eddie is somewhere around forty years old and has been habitually homeless.  He doesn’t use alcohol or drugs but he does have some mental health issues, and a major story that has brought him to where he is tonight.  He is friendly, can carry on a conversation most of the time, and is one of our friends. 

I want to take you to just one part of Eddie’s life:  Eddie is a walker.  He walks.  And walks.  And walks some more.

He is constantly on the move, from one styrofoam cup of coffee to the next, from one doorway or abandoned building to another when he is ‘moved along’.  He is allowed to most of the social service agencies in our city, but really does not access them.  He has trouble, as I mentioned earlier, with mental illness.

OK, so I want you to imagine for a brief moment what it would be like to be Eddie. Not the voices inside his head, or the trauma that has formed his life, but something simple, that we can all ‘get’.  The walking piece.

People who are experiencing poverty and homelessness are always on the move.  Police, business owners and citizens all say, ‘Move along.  Go Somewhere Else.’ (I have not ever located this place called ‘Somewhere Else’, but I have a suspicion that it must be pretty full by now).

Walking.  No where to go, just walking.  Heat from the concrete, frostbitten toes, soles from the donated runners separating from the tops and flopping, wet, damp, wet and even frozen. Not sure of your welcome anywhere, but a basic understanding that you are welcome nowhere (many good citizens tell you this, but the voices in your head confirm repeatedly). Some degree of danger, because when you are alone and on your own you are an easy target.

We might imagine some discomfort in our own walking experiences perhaps, but realize there is no reprieve here.  No let up.  No stopping. You can’t get another pair of shoes and dry socks.  There are no boots available, just used donated runners – when you can find a size close to your own.

Where would you go?  Can’t go for coffee, ‘cause you have no money.  Restaurants are out.  Drop in programs, maybe, if you are safe.

You just keep on walking, walking, walking.  Endless walking.  Keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, but there is no end.

Welcome to one part of Eddie’s world.

Any ideas?

Life on the Streets I – Walk

I arrived back in Ottawa late last night and drove through the downtown area on the way home. I saw a man walking with a garbage bag over his shoulder and as I approached, I wondered if this was someone I knew.  It was.

Eddie is somewhere around forty years old and has been habitually homeless.  He doesn’t use alcohol or drugs but he does have some mental health issues, and a major story that has brought him to where he is tonight.  He is friendly, can carry on a conversation most of the time, and is one of our friends. 

I want to take you to just one part of Eddie’s life:  Eddie is a walker.  He walks.  And walks.  And walks some more.

He is constantly on the move, from one styrofoam cup of coffee to the next, from one doorway or abandoned building to another when he is ‘moved along’.  He is allowed to most of the social service agencies in our city, but really does not access them.  He has trouble, as I mentioned earlier, with mental illness.

OK, so I want you to imagine for a brief moment what it would be like to be Eddie. Not the voices inside his head, or the trauma that has formed his life, but something simple, that we can all ‘get’.  The walking piece.

People who are experiencing poverty and homelessness are always on the move.  Police, business owners and citizens all say, ‘Move along.  Go Somewhere Else.’ (I have not ever located this place called ‘Somewhere Else’, but I have a suspicion that it must be pretty full by now).

Walking.  No where to go, just walking.  Heat from the concrete, frostbitten toes, soles from the donated runners separating from the tops and flopping, wet, damp, wet and even frozen. Not sure of your welcome anywhere, but a basic understanding that you are welcome nowhere (many good citizens tell you this, but the voices in your head confirm repeatedly). Some degree of danger, because when you are alone and on your own you are an easy target.

We might imagine some discomfort in our own walking experiences perhaps, but realize there is no reprieve here.  No let up.  No stopping. You can’t get another pair of shoes and dry socks.  There are no boots available, just used donated runners – when you can find a size close to your own.

Where would you go?  Can’t go for coffee, ‘cause you have no money.  Restaurants are out.  Drop in programs, maybe, if you are safe.

You just keep on walking, walking, walking.  Endless walking.  Keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, but there is no end.

Welcome to one part of Eddie’s world.

Any ideas?

Restoring the cities, walls and people

At our drop in staff and volunteers meet early for some words of encouragement and a time of prayer.  The brief passage of Scripture was found in Isaiah 58:10-12.  From those verses came the focus question of the day: “ Is there a way we can ease someone’s troubles today?”  We decided to look for opportunities to do this.

When we opened the doors at ten o’clock, Cleary came in, sobbing.  She told us how one of her closest friends had died of a heart attack at the age of 48.  We consoled her as best we could and she was glad to receive such support. One of the staff sat beside her, held her hands and listened to the stories of her friend’s life.

As the day progressed Cleary went upstairs to the clothing section for a visit. In a few minutes we heard angry loud voices and saw that another of our ladies, Laura, was very agitated.

She told the story of how once again, that nasty lady Cleary, had grievously wronged her.  Cleary had apparently yelled at Laura in the clothing section, telling her to get out of her way!

We took Laura aside and tried to help her understand Cleary was having a bad day.  We explained about the loss of her best friend and how this was such a difficult time.  As the conversation continued, there was a softening in Laura, an understanding that was not there a few minutes ago.

Laura supposed that perhaps she had not heard Cleary properly – even admitted some loss of hearing in one ear! 

Just then, Laura’s eyes locked on someone or something immediately behind us.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Cleary appeared.  We wondered if we would now have to break up a fight between the two women. 

What a surprise to see what happened next.  In that moment of time there was birthed a miracle.  Two ladies, whose hearts were once hardened in anger and resentment towards each other, caught up in their own worlds of pain and misunderstanding, suddenly saw and understood the pain and trouble the other woman was experiencing.

In a moment, Cleary tearfully apologized for her inappropriate tone of voice and demeanour.  She was surprised and saddened to hear that Laura had a hearing problem.  So that was why she had not moved earlier. She was so sorry. 

Laura apologized for her words and bitterness that she had earlier directed at Claudette.

The two women folded into each other’s arms in tears, forgiveness and a new  friendship.  All the anger and anxiety and hostility was washed away as two souls embraced. 

You might be interested in the verse that was shared at the beginning of the day.  “Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.  Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.” Isaiah 58:12

Amazing or what?  It’s a powerful reminder that there is a God who is deeply concerned with all of the needs, sorrows and troubles of all of His children.

Bedbugs or Brutality?

I walked past Jim sleeping outside the convenience store on my way to the bank.  He was OK, probably tired from a late night.  The doorway of the building he was laying across was vacant, and he was ‘out of the way’ at least, from pedestrians and cars.  No danger.  No alarm.

This is Jim’s ‘area’, I guess you could say.  He would pan outside the supermarket, play his guitar for donations (or not), and generally was easy to get along with.  He knew how to do his ‘work’ and got by – as best a person could get by, homeless style.

I have wakened Jim on occasion to see if he was OK, or needed something, or if I had something for him.  Today everything looked good, so I let him sleep.

He comes to the office regularly, and we have gone out of the way to help him with recording some of his songs, created CD’s for him to market and so on.  He appreciates the help, but he is pretty entrenched in his lifestyle for any radical change – at least for now.  So, we do what we can, and wait for the day when he wants to make a change.

Back to the street.

On the way back from the bank, one of Ottawa’s finest has pulled the black and white over the curb just in front of Jim’s spot.  A young constable, mid twenties, has the task of ‘moving Jim “along”.  ( I have yet to discover where ‘along’ is.  For sure it’s not here and not now).

It doesn’t look pretty.  Jim is shaken up from his peaceful sleep, rushing to gather his things to the tune of “Hurry up.  You need to move – NOW!” and other such pleasantries.  Jim slips his foot out of his oversized running shoe and shows the peace officer his feet – black and blue and cut.  “I can’t move fast – look at my feet”, Jim shouts at the policeman, who by now is donning his black leather gloves. 

I stay and watch as a witness, in case something goes awry, but it gets cleared up.  “Cleared up”.  Sounds good, clean, and neat, but it’s far from anything even remotely connected with clean or clear.  It’s messy.

I am grieved whenever I see this happen, and it happens all the time. Some business owner, or not – maybe it’s just time for a ‘sweep’ of our streets from city hall – whatever… it’s dehumanizing, degrading, condescending and sometimes brutal.  It’s about the wielding of power and the power of injustice.

Jim has tried to get housing, but it’s not an easy option for him.  He had to leave his last place because of the bedbugs.  Lots of them – hungry too! 

At the very least, there aren’t any bedbugs on the streets – just the police.

What’s worse?

Modern Day Good Samaritian

Some have asked me to print a story that Brent Daley, one of my buddies at our drop in, has written.  Here it is, with only moderate editing.  Anybody need a ghost writer?

It was the spring of 1995 when I moved back home from Calgary. I was tired after spending 15 years as a mechanical engineering technologist at the University of Calgary, but if the truth be known I was burned out.

The normal three day drive would double because of the shape I was (wasn’t) in both physically and mentally.  My aging Honda Civic was packed full and the utility trailer I was hauling had more than double it’s capacity.  I had everything I owned with me.

 An early May morning on the north shore of Lake Superior showed God’s handiwork: deep blue sky, blue lake, paper white beaches, trees in bloom – it was a picture postcard.  Highway good, no traffic, my gas tank was ¾ full with 30 miles from the last town and 20 to the next. That is when the trouble began.

 My body tensed when I heard the loud crunch and grind behind me, and I was surprised to see my right hand trailer wheel come off, pass me, jump the gravel ditch and come to rest on the tree line.   Of course I immediately pulled over into the gravel and stopped. I went for a walk to retrieve the tire as I had no spare and took it back to the car. Upon further inspection I discovered that the complete wheel had pulled off the trailer, right over the wheel nuts. The bolt holes on the wheel had become enlarged to accomplish this. What to do?

 I sat on the trunk of the car to ponder my predicament. While I was having a smoke and a think, a car came along in the opposite direction. His brakes lights indicated he was stopping, and a quick U-turn confirmed his intention.  I was alone with a considerable amount of cash with me so I was a little leery of the situation. I noticed that there was a man driving and a woman in the passenger seat knitting. I felt a little more at ease. The man got out of his car and approached me asking what the problem was. I explained to him about the wheel and how it had come off. He asked me if I had tools, a jack for the trailer and some washers in the tool box which I assured him I did. He said “Come on and I will give you a hand to fix the problem.”

 He and his wife had been vacationing in Toronto, now on route home to  Thunder Bay. He was a motor mechanic and his wife was a registered nurse. Within 20 minutes he had the wheel back on the trailer, using the washers to have the nuts hold the wheel in place. He made the wheel spin true and jacked the trailer down.  Ready to go. I put the tools and jack back in my trunk and went to shake his hand.

 “What do I owe you for your time and help?” I asked.

 “Well, let me tell you.  Last night I hit a patch of water on the highway near Barrie.  I lost control of the car and it jumped the ditch.  Both front tires were blown on impact.  A farmer came along and pulled me out of the ditch, went and got his pickup truck and took me into Barrie to purchase new tires. When we returned to the car the farmer helped me install the new wheels and I asked him that same question you just asked me.”

“He told me that I owed him nothing, but that if I was given the opportunity I should do a similar kindness for someone else. I have now done that and what you owe me is to pass it along”.

 I have often thought of that mechanic and the help he gave me out in the middle of the northern Ontario wilderness that fine morning in May. I have had opportunity to pass along the favor many times. It has always struck me that if everyone in the world treated each other the way he treated me this would be a much better place to live.

 Brent Daley, July, 2010

Getting a Place of Your Own

Harry has been desperately searching for shelter since he was released from jail three months ago.  He has been squeaky clean – no drugs or alcohol since his discharge.  He is pleasant, kind and often helps others with their troubles.  (Oh yes, he’s still a bit rough around the edges, but we are proud and happy to see how he is managing things at this time).  The one major glitch in his life right now is finding a place of his own. 

I spoke with him at some length and he gave me the ‘Housing 101’ summary.  I took note of his thoughts and feelings about what it is like to have your own place.  Three phases: On the streets; Looking for Housing; Finding a place.

ON THE STREETS

You are nothing.  Nobody wants to know you, know who you are. You’re the bottom of the shoe.  You feel like a ‘low life’, limbo, and you are always wondering the ‘what if’s’: what if this, what if that.  You feel like an empty shell, like you are just spinning your wheels.  You feel depressed, deprived, miserable, and angry – angry at yourself.  You get depressed, real depressed.

LOOKING FOR HOUSING

Agencies, housing help, your worker… it’s all the same story.  It’s one long headache.  Living in a bad area is worse than homelessness – people always knocking on your door, buy this/that… there’s no stopping it.  So ANGRY!

Me: ‘How hard is it? One to ten?’

TEN!  It’s not about money. If you’re starting over, you need money, references, someone to vouch for you.  Twenty years ago, if you had the money, you were ‘in’.  Not today!  Used to be:  “Oh, on ODSP (Ontario Disability Service Plan)?  OK, just fill out this form.”  Not now.  It’s fill out this form, that form, get references, who will vouch for you? When something comes up, we’ll call you.’

It doesn’t happen.  Not any more.  Getting housing is like winning the lottery – about the same chances.

WHEN YOU FINALLY GET HOUSING

It’s about 100,000 pounds off your chest.  Your mind is at ease, all the pressures are gone, complete turnaround.   If you got no place, and then you get a place, you lose the anger, you can relax.

It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s yours.  You go to the door. You have the key.  You open the door and shut the world out behind you.  Maybe you have a TV here, a bed there, a little table – it’s your place, your domain…

When you finally get your own place, you can begin to think about what to do next.  You have more patience, you can start to plan.  You’re not on the edge, not jumpy.

You get a place, you see things different; you answer different – there’s no more anger in your voice.

You can put your feet up and say, “I’m home and this is mine.”

Getting a place can make the difference between success in reintegration and re-offending. We’re doing what we can to make Harry’s search successful.

Word from the Drop In

Speaking with Brent at the drop in last week, I discoverd he had an aptitude and interest in writing.  I asked him to write about our Wednesday drop in and describe from the front lines, what it was like.  Without editing, here is his report:

One of the best kept secrets amounge people of limited income, who live in Ottawa, is the Ottawa Innercity Mission’s (OIM’s) Wednesday Drop-in. I have been a semi-regular at these drop-in’s since before they took up residence at their present location. I will try to explain here most of the reasons for my attendance at this particular function..

 The drop-in is held every Wednesday year round at their new location on Gladstone Ave. between Bank and Kent streets.in the Salvation Army Church building and easily accessible by several OC Transpo bus routes. It is free and open to everyone who cares to attend. I like to attend because of the relaxed atmosphere which is well organized, clean, well maintained and usually quite quiet and very well run. Although OIM is a Christian based organization, there is no lectures, chapel services or religious readings at these drop-ins. The people who attend maintain an atmosphere which is quite controlled, friendly and easy going. Staff members and volunteers mix freely with the patrons. There are several aspects to the program throughout the day which I will explain here.

 The door is open at at 10:00 am and the entire building is utilized. The first 25 people through the door are offered food bank tickets, which I will come to in a moment. On the lower level coffee, tea, milk and juice are available all day. At opening time there is a selection of breads, muffins, cookies and the like (breakfast) available. People gather in groups to talk, play cards or other games, read or just generally socialize. It is a great place to meet old friends or make new ones. At noon a hot meal is served at the tables and there is always enough food that seconds are regularly offered The volunteers serve up the food and everyone is encouraged to eat their fill. After lunch is served the volunteers and staff usually circulate throughout the room offering a selection of sandwiches and some type of desert. Promptly at 1:00pm one of the staff members begins to call numbers for the food bank offerings and groceries are distributed in an orderly fashion. Many people stay on to chat, socialize and play cards until 3:00 in the afternoon.

 On the second level there is a barber who, on a first come first served basis, will cut your hair for free. Rudy usually does between 12 and 15 haircuts throughout the day but he does take the summer months off. There is also a foot care clinic there where you can get your feet cleaned and once dried you will receive a new pair of socks. A chiropractic doctor is available afternoon for those who need his services.

 The third level of the building has a room which offers a selection of used clothing and footwear. This is quite popular first thing in the morning as that is when selection is best. If you can’t find what you want, come back again next week as there are always new offerings available.

 All in all OIM runs a great, fun, safe and much appreciated program. I would encourage everyone of limited means to come out and participate in a great weekly event. It is well worth the price of admission. 

 Hope this meets your needs.  I will get the other article bout the good samaritan written this afternoon or evening.  I am making preperations to get away for the weekend so am very busy.  Cheers.

Brent

 If you would like to read Brent’s article about the good samaritan, let me know by responding to this blog.  Cheers!

100% Success Rate at OIM!!

 ‘So what kind of success rate do you have with people?’  I looked at this person while a whirlwind of thoughts raced around in my head, almost like the dog chasing his tail.

My friend was thinking there might be a 3%, or maybe 5% success rate – where a person who lives in abject poverty, on the streets, ‘recovers’ and breaks the cycle of poverty, gets a job, an apartment, a family and all the other trappings that accompany the ‘Canadian dream’.

My mind flashed to people that I knew on the streets: people that had been sexually abused for many years as children and who had articulated these abuses only after living with them in silence for over 20 years;  I thought of others who were trapped in the dark cycle of drug and alcohol addiction which started as self-medication to deal with the beatings received from father, mother, step-parent or whoever; then of the teenage girl who brought her new born baby to the drop in for help, looking for someone – anyone who might show her real love, because in her experience people had only used her as if she were a piece of meat, a commodity that could be sold, rented or used.

All this raced through my mind in just a few seconds, with my friend waiting for an answer to his probing question.

‘One hundred percent,’ I replied, ‘We have a 100% success rate.’

His mouth dropped open in disbelief.  ‘What??  How??’

‘Each time we hand out a sandwich, or sleeping bag, or pair of socks, we build relationship with people who have never had relationship before.  It brings someone a step closer to a time when a light will come on and they will make better decisions and life choices.’

Some agencies count their ‘success’ by the number of plates served at a shelter or drop in (not withstanding that many folks will have five helpings!), or the number of people who attend a chapel service in order to receive a meal ticket, or the number of youth who will participate in a ‘project’ so as to make them eligible to receive services.

We count the number of positive interactions we have with our street friends at our drop in services or on the street through outreach.  It’s all about relationship (and 100% success).