“Tessa’s Home” Episode 3: Life on the Streets, Shelters and Drugs

Tessa’s Home is an 8 part series running until December 27th.  To listen to the audio backgrounder from CHRI, click below.

 

Miss previous episodes? Click “Recent Posts” on the right sidebar.

Please help us tell Tessa’s story through your social media, Facebook and Twitter. Comments welcome! #TessasHome

 

Here is Tessa’s story in her own words….

One guy took me in (and also molested me), let me stay at his house actually burned my hair with Axe hair spray and a lighter.  That’s when I first started wearing a Mohawk.

From there I went to a shelter and then I got a ride to Ottawa.  I stayed at one shelter for maybe a month before I learned that if you lived outside, you didn’t have to listen to anybody. I didn’t like the rules they had there (at the shelter).

Soon after I started living outside, I was smoking and using marijuana.  After living on the streets for about a month, someone asked me if I had ever tried Ecstasy. I lied and said, “Yea, totally.” I started doing hard drugs more and more.  I was addicted to ‘uppers’ or Ecstasy (most of the time) or anything that made me feel happy. It took away the pain.

I was abused all my life. From the outside we lived like a happy family, but behind closed doors it was really bad.  I could never remember a time when I was as happy as I was when I was on that drug: it was like all of your bad feelings go away, and I was doing it every single day for a while.

After about 3 years of sleeping outside, couch surfing, and staying at shelters, but mostly on the street, I went for a visit to my “family”. I’d like to say ‘home’ but it never really was – not at all.  The reason I say it like this, “Family”, is because to this day, I consider the bonds I made with other youth who experienced the pain and heartache as I did, to be stronger, than those of my own blood. While visiting, I ended up seeing my lifelong abuser for the last time, and it was not a happy memory. I remember the very last words he said to me, were “take those stupid things out of your face, and grow some hair, then I’ll respect ya you freak!” I simply replied, “Love you too Dad,” and he drove away. Two days later, at around 3 a.m., the police came to my mother’s door to tell us my father had been in an accident, and did not survive.

I didn’t feel sad that he was gone. I tried to act sad, like everybody, but I didn’t.  I went in and finally was able to say everything that I wanted to say to him. The only thing I’m sad about today, is that I never had a chance to confront him to let him know how I felt as an adult.

OIM does not receive on-going government funding to operate any of our programs, but instead we rely on the goodwill donations of concerned citizens and business owners in the National Capital Region and beyond.  We need your help to continue our outreach program on the streets.  Please make a donation today. Click “Donate Now”.  Thanks for your support!

A Special heARTfelt Thursday: Sneak Peek!

P4Y Art Show Collage 2013-11-191

Texture, colour, pattern, meaning…

OIM is excited to extend an invitation to friends and community members for the up-coming Passion 4 Youth art show.

The Passion 4 Youth artists have been hard at work this Fall to create pieces that explore the idea of violence and social structures. Each artist has created an art piece that represents a major structure in our city that has had a positive or negative influence on their lives. From the perspective of a street-engaged youth, we will be looking at the Children’s Aid Society, the criminal justice system, financial institutions, immigration, the media, health facilities, and many more.

We encourage you to come out. Doors will be open 7:00pm-9:00pm, and there will be a suggested $5 donation at the door. Light refreshments provided.

Tabaret Hall, Room 112, uOttawa–550 Cumberland St. 

Everything I Have

vaccuum

“It happened again. I have to leave,” she told me in a panic.

Laura had called me several times that week. She was always in a panic because of the abusive partner she was living with. Things were getting progressively worse for Laura, but she had never before talked about leaving.

This time was different. Laura no longer felt safe.

She knew she would have to leave, yet there was nowhere to go. No family to turn to. No friends to crash with. Laura had been off the streets for over a year, and though she was glad to be indoors she felt like the streets would be safer than staying in her abusive relationship. Laura kept telling me she had to leave.

However, Laura was worried about her stuff – the processions she had collected throughout the year. She knew she couldn’t carry them all with her on the street, and had nowhere to store them. She asked if she could store some of her stuff in the art room. I agreed, and we planned to meet there later.

What I didn’t know, is that Laura did not own luggage, she had nothing to put her possessions in, no bags or boxes. So, she improvised. She fit as much as she could into a small laundry cart. Then, she looked for something else with wheels…..the vacuum cleaner. She attached a laundry hamper full of her stuff to the vacuum cleaner using packing tape. Once everything was packed and secured, she left the apartment and started walking to the art room.

I want you to think about how tired she must have felt dragging these heavy loads with her. How embarrassed she must have felt, as people looked at her drag the vacuum cleaner. Then imagine, walking with this baggage for over 2 hours. That’s how far her apartment is from the art room. And with no bus tickets or car, walking was her only option.

She arrived at the art room completely exhausted. We packed her stuff away and she thanked me. She said it was a relief knowing that her stuff would be safe.

She told me that one of the items was a stone memorial from the grave of her parents – her most precious procession.

It was heartbreaking to see Laura in such a state; still I was happy that if nothing else, she had the art room as a special space where she could store her prized processions. I felt honored she put her most valued possessions in my trust. When you have very little, those few things represent a whole lot; enough to make it worth a trip with vacuum in tow.

~Moira, OIM Staff

When Can I Take This Off?

I was talking with someone recently who had obtained housing. They have been on the street since their early teens—both sleeping on the street and in flop houses. They haven’t seen stable housing in years and have a weathered look about them. It is impossible to tell if someone is homeless simply by looking at them, but this individual carries the stereotype, and most on lookers would assume that they were homeless.

We were walking down a street the other night, with condos and old houses on either side, talking about the new place. They had been there for about a week. There was excitement in their tone, as they told me about the new wood floors, the paint, and the windows. The conversation continued casually until they said “a homeless person like me”.

I stopped walking and looked at them: torn pants, rugged hair cut, and rebellious attitude. And, I said “But you’re not homeless? Not anymore.”

“No, not exactly.”

It struck me that this individual walked around with a big sign duct-taped to their back: HOMELESS. Even when they had a home, a place that was their own, where they could sleep indoors, safe and tucked away from Ottawa’s nightlife, they still saw themselves as homeless. Even when they had a key, and a door, and a lock that only they could unlock, they saw themselves as homeless.

I thought about a story I was told recently, where a street-friend who had been on the street for 13 years had found housing. After a year he had to leave that situation and went back on the street. He was discouraged about the situation but a staff member congratulated him.

“You’ve lived on the street for 13 years, and then you lived in doors for a year! That’s a big deal.”

Many of our street-friends seem to be used to the transient life style of moving around, sleeping in doors for a few nights and being outside the next. Shelters, flop houses, couch surfing…there are ways to make your way inside but you will still carry that label.

My question is, when do they get to take it off? What could finally change so that they don’t feel like it is the core of their identity? What can I do to stop allowing this to happen? Being ‘homeless’ doesn’t seem to go away when you find housing. Many of our street-friends have housing, be it through ODSP, OW or their own means. The problem seems to have very little to do with the home.

So, what are we really saying when we use that term? Or, what scares me more, is what do those we label hear when we say it?

Yet, a better question may be this: What will that person have once they remove that label? Who will be their community, and with whom will they share their culture?

What if this label has become a shelter, an identity and a safety-net? I think of the street-friends who lost his housing after a year; isn’t it easier to leave the label on then being forced to put it back on? It is like saying, with no expectations I can have no disappointment.

I pray these two individuals can both see themselves and be seen as so much more than their labels. Where they sleep should not define who they are, and I continue to ask myself where my place is in that. Though I cannot change how they see themselves I can try and show them how I perceive them.

Stories from the Street: Size Doesn’t Matter

This episode of ‘Stories from the Street’ is a little different, because it is not a verbatim story told by a street-friend. Instead, this is a description of a series of discussions.

Not every street-friend who participates in OIM’s programs is living on the streets, we welcome anyone who is street-engaged to participate in our programs. Last week’s ‘heARTfelt Thursday’ post talked about what some call the ‘hidden homeless’, individuals in unsafe or temporary housing. As well, we have many individuals who have housing through a program like OW or ODSP but are still struggling with poverty.

Greg, who loves coming each week to our Stop-In is quite a talker, so it has been easy to find some things we have in common. Specifically we talk a lot about our apartments. No specifics; we don’t know where the other person lives. Mostly we talk about our small spaces, how to buy in bulk so you save the most money, and how and where to store things so they don’t go bad. We discuss closet space, cupboard space, and how to live frugally but not have stacks of boxes up your walls.

I graduated from university and moved to Ottawa last year, so right now I am in my first ‘home’. Now, my apartment isn’t the biggest place in downtown, it is small and cozy with very little counter space. It certainly doesn’t look like something out of Homes & Gardens, but I am very proud of what I have done to make it my ‘home’.

This is an idea that Greg understands very well. We both live in small places that we are always trying to reconfigure to suit us best. He has given me lots of good ideas on how to make the best of my space, and I think he would make a great professional organizer!

The thing I love most about talking to Greg about his apartment is that he has a lot of pride in his space. I imagine it isn’t the fanciest apartment downtown, but he has obviously put a lot of thought into making it his ‘home’. I don’t believe we always need to be content with what we have; it is important to strive for better (not necessarily more). But, it is easy to get caught up in that mentality, thinking we deserve to ‘get’ something nicer than what we have. Greg has taken the time to take what he has been given and ‘make’ it better, and because of the work and creativity he has put into his home I think he has a kind of pride that others may not.

He has inspired me to care more for the space I have, and to stop telling everyone how I would do ‘this’ or ‘that’ in a bigger place. The fact is, I have a ‘home’ right now, one the suits me and my needs, and I should take pride in that. Not because I have something someone else does not, but because I have the opportunity to work to make a ‘home’ for myself.

I lost a piece of my heart…

Today I lost another piece of my heart.  That’s what I feel when I meet someone who just makes me want to weep.

Today I met Constantine….a proud man with a proud name.  He tells me he is seventy years young.  He tells me he is a descendant of Constantine the Great.  He is Romanian he says and has been here for many years, fleeing persecution in his native land.  He says his family left behind is better off without him, he must leave so they can be safe.  He tells me he has been here for many years but has only been on the streets a few months.  He says that mold was discovered in his apartment, that it was making him sick but no one did anything about it.  He tells me he suffered a small stroke and that scared him.  He left his apartment, for good.  Now he’s on the streets.  He has trouble finding food that he can eat because he can’t cook on the streets and his doctor has told him to not eat salt as it’s making him sick.  His legs are swollen from water retention.  He prays.  He thanks God he says every morning when he wakes up.  Thanks Him that he made it through another night.  He’s cold.  He’s wearing three jackets and three scarves today but he is still cold.  He says he has lost about fifty pounds since September, since he’s been on the streets.  He says he has hope though.  He’s pretty sure he’ll be getting another place in a couple of weeks.  He prays it is mold free.  I pray it is too Constantine.

There is something wrong with this world when we allow a seventy year old man with multiple health issues to sleep on the street.

Today I lost another piece of my heart.  I think maybe God did too……

God’s hands on a cold night…

This past Wednesday, Ottawa experienced what I hope was the last winter storm of the year (fingers crossed!). It was windy, snowy and wet. Buses were cancelled and everyone was warned to stay off the messy roads.

But that night, I was scheduled to do outreach from 9-midnight. I would love to tell you that I am a really tough/super-amazing outreach worker who is always motivated to walk the streets to do God’s work.-but that’s just not true. Last Wednesday I was exhausted, and the last thing I wanted to do was walk around the empty streets of Ottawa in a storm. In fact, I was secretly hoping that Jeff, my outreach partner, would cancel so I could stay in my nice warm apartment. But he didn’t, so I dragged myself to the office to do outreach.

We did our normal outreach route down Elgin and throughout the market. The streets were mostly empty and quiet. (When the weather is really bad our street friends are much harder to find. Not because they are in a safe, warm place, but because they are anywhere that is an escape from the elements)

On our way back to the office, I was dreaming about the hot shower I would have when I got home, when we heard “Hey outreach!” It was Laura and Kelsey, two youth who I have met a few times on outreach.

Neither had jackets. Neither had boots. Both were soaking wet. “Do you guys have any sleeping bags?” they asked.

We didn’t have any with us, but we told them they could come back to the office with us to get some. They walked back with us to the office, and we learned that they had both been kicked out of their places so they had nowhere to go. There was no space in the youth shelter and both refused to go to the adult shelter, saying they were too scared. Instead, they were going to sleep outside.

They warmed up in the office and changed into dry socks. We gave them food and sleeping bags, and they thanked us over and over before leaving to go find a dry place to sleep.

It was easy for me to give myself a pat on the back that night. “Good job Moira! It’s a good thing you braved the elements so you could help those girls.” Then it occurred to me that I was giving myself a whole lot of credit. When really, God has these two girls in his hands and He will take care of them. He may have used me and Jeff that night, but if we had not done outreach God would have taken care of those girls. And this does not make me feel like I am not needed, but rather reassured God will take care of his children.

 

Feeling Human

 

I met Ashley last summer. She had just left her parents house and was staying at a downtown shelter. Like many other youth who first come to the streets, she seemed nervous but excited about being out on her own for the first time. She spoke about her life like she was starting a new adventure. But just like other youth, this excitement began to fade as the harsh realities of the street began to set in. Ashley’s hope for the future seemed to fade too….Ashley showed up at the office recently. She was looking thin and exhausted and she had two fresh black eyes. We talked for awhile and she said she was feeling unhealthy, dirty and exhausted. She talked about how badly people were treating her when they passed by her panhandling on the street. Then she looked at me and said “I just don’t feel human anymore.”

It broke my heart to see Ashley losing herself. I spoke with her about the art group and encouraged her to come out to be among people who have experienced similar feelings. Ashley seemed hesitant but she showed up to art group the next week. I showed her around the art room and introduced her to the other youth but she was still looking depressed and exhausted and she sat down to sketch. As the night went on, a beautiful thing happened. Some of the youth sat with Ashley and got to know her. They complimented her art work and helped her find supplies. I was happy to see her making friends. Part way through the night, I noticed that Ashley was gone so I checked the music room. There were some youth and volunteers jamming together on the guitar, piano and drums. To my surprise, Ashley was playing the djembe. She had a huge smile on her face and was completely engaged in the music. At the end of the night, she told me what a great time she had and that she couldn’t wait to come back the following week.

To see the change in Ashley over the course of two hours was amazing. The youth in the art group are so kind and accepting that they make everyone feel welcome. That night, they made Ashley feel human again.

You Take Donations Don’t You?

We came in this morning to find a note from one of the outreach teams that was out last night.  The team had come across a friend in need and they gave him a bottle of water.  He wanted to pay for it, but the team assured him that it wasn’t necessary.  He then asked ‘you take donations don’t you?’  He then passed a loonie to our team as a donation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this among our community.  So many times, people will come into drop-in and need some item of clothing…a new coat for example to replace one that has grown too big or small.  They don’t simply take a new one, but they leave their coat because they know that someone else could use it.  They give back.  One of our friends came in a couple of weeks ago with a kettle to donate because they had been given another and they didn’t need two.  She said ‘your ministry has been good to me when I’ve needed things…I can give back this way.’

Time and time again…those with the least give the most…

-Kim

Hard to believe, but 2013 marks our 25th Anniversary!

So much has transpired since Susan Brandt and Katrine Coward filled  a couple of knapsacks with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drinking boxes, and walked the streets seeking to come alongside those who were neglected, abused and in need.  Now, after 25 years we affirm  the faithfulness of God and His care and concern for people experiencing poverty and homelessness!

Here’s what happened last year: 5,000+ visits to our drop in program; 7,600+ connections on the streets; 2,700+ contacts with street-engaged youth; and with five full-time and two part-time staff we leverage our resources with over 100 current, active volunteers on the streets, at our day programs, and behind the scenes.  PLUS an additional 50 volunteers that help on us on an ad hock basis.  What an amazing God – that He would enable us to accomplish so much for His Kingdom!

From humble beginnings we now lead the City in the number of street outreach teams and are well-known for being the people that ‘touch the homeless’ with care and compassion: foot care, chiropractic care, touch care and volunteers caring and interacting with sincerity and love.  Amazing!

STAY TUNED for upcoming events to celebrate our 25th year!!