What did your morning look like?

Going to work this morning, I came down the same hill at the same time and saw the same bus going up the other side.  I got on my usual bus with the same driver and saw the same people going about their routines too.  Before that, I got up, checked my email…watched the morning news as I had my coffee and said goodbye to my family as I do every morning.

 

Routine…predictability…we might be tempted to see it as boring…but it’s actually healthy!  Of course we like to shake it up every now and then to keep it interesting, but mental health experts say that routine and knowing what tomorrow will bring is a key factor in your overall health.  The stress of not knowing what tomorrow will look like can be seen first in a lowered  immune system leading to frequent illness, and chronic stress leads to changes in the very biochemistry of one’s body leading to conditions such as depression.

 

What did your morning look like?  Many of the people we see at OIM woke up not knowing where they will eat today, or where they will sleep tonight.  Many don’t know where they will be tomorrow, let alone in a week.

 

Routine…predictability…doesn’t sound so bad does it?

Street Outreach: An Encounter!

The Street Outreach team met Bess and Ken near Confederation Park near the first of September.  They came up to us asking for sleeping bags because they were sleeping outside.   Since we were on the way back to the office anyhow, we asked them if they would like to come and we could help them.  The tent they had was stolen the night before and for various reasons, they were having difficulty accessing resources.  They were from southern Ontario and moved to Ottawa with hopes of finding work and an apartment.  Before they left, we invited them to keep in touch.

The next week we met them on outreach again, and first saw Bess panhandling with a sign that said, “Need $ for a ticket to Owen Sound”. A quick glance around saw Ken across the street keeping an eye on her. We sat and chatted. The sleeping bags were working out great, they were both doing well and did not need any outreach items. We said goodbye and then went across the street and chatted with Ken. He mentioned that they were still having trouble finding a place because rent was much more expensive than they had anticipated. He told us that Bess had been pan handling with a sign asking for money for first and last month’s rent, but that it had not made very much money. He said that he was feeling guilty about the new sign because it is dishonest, but that it is making them much more money. We told him that the important thing was that the money was going to be spent on something positive, like an apartment. After a brief conversation we offered outreach items and then said goodbye.

We were well on our way back to the OIM office about ten minutes later when I heard someone calling for us. It was Bess and Ken.  They were running to catch up with us. Bess handed me something and asked me to return it to Karen, one of our outreach workers. Opening the envelope we saw five twenty dollar bills. Bess explained that she had met Karen the night before on outreach. Karen returned the next day and gave Bess the money and a sandwich.  Bess and Ken were feeling very guilty that Karen had given the money thinking that it was going towards a ticket to Owen Sound. Ken added that he felt that Karen might  get discouraged if she found out that they had been lying on their sign.

We were speechless!  We promised that we would return the money to Karen so that she could decide what to do with it. They seemed relieved. My fellow outreach worker told them “God will bless you for your honesty”. Ken replied “We already feel so blessed. He’s already blessed us so much.”

Bringing you up to date:  Bess and Ken have become our friends.  They have entrusted us with $1,000 to hold for them so they can pay their first and last month’s rent.  Last Friday, September 16th, they got their place!!  Now that they are set up, Ken is actively looking for work, and Bess is planning to finish her high school. She is sixteen.

BIG day at the Drop In

We receive many donations of clothing at the drop in and we invite folks to help themselves to whatever they need.  From time to time we are presented with genuine needs that go far beyond any donation.

Jimmy takes a size 15 boot and has difficulties finding this size anywhere in the city.  Bill has a rather large circumference and has the same problem.

I approached Bill and told him we could help.  If he would like, we could go to a big box store and he could get a couple pair of pants.  He declined, saying that his sweat pants were serving their purpose quite well, and that there was no need – perhaps I could find someone who was really poor and who needed it.  After some further conversation, he hesitantly admitted, well, he might be able to use some 52” waist trousers given that his other pair of pants were shorts (and he had been wearing them this winter!!)  He was too shy to come with me, but if I went to the box store, he would need 52” a (not 50”) waist.  I asked if we should do a measurement just in case, but we couldn’t find a measuring tape.

Final words, “Fifty-two.”

“No problem”, I replied, “You wait right here.”

South on Bank Street, and my two BIG questions (nice pun!) at the box store, “Do you have 52” waist pants and size 15 warm winter boots?” was answered in the affirmative.  Back to the drop in.

I discretely passed Bill the inside out bag with two pairs of pants and suspenders, and encouraged him to go try them on for size.  “Are they 52?” he asked. 

“Yes, they are.” 

“Then they will be fine, thank you very much.   Fifty-two’s will be just fine.  Thank you very much.”

“It might be good to try them, just in case.  Sometimes store measurements can be a bit off,” I proposed, and, after receiving a somewhat hesitant affirmation, I went off to find Jimmy.  Word got out that I had been looking for him, and he was waiting when I returned.  Before I told him about the new boots he mentioned that his feet were wet and cold from the snow, and size 15 were not common.  I told him that was just what I wanted to talk to him about.  He welcomed the news and we went to the car, and he tried on the boots right there. 

“Are these size 14?” he asked.

“No, these are size 15 – hey, here’s the tag,” and showed him the big ‘15’ on the box.

“Hmmm, nice.”

I passed him one of the boots and he asked for the other.  “My left foot is bigger,” he explained.

Long story short, the left foot was a bit tight, but the right fit perfectly.  He was very pleased and thanked me profusely.

Back downstairs to see how Bill made out. When I was only just in sight, he yelled, “Good one Ken!  Thanks to Lord too,” and explained how the pants did not fit properly – maybe an inch and a half too short of buttoning up. 

“Maybe get a 54 or 55 would be good.  Don’t be shy.  Sorry for the trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” I replied, “Better to find out now and make the exchange.”

South on Bank Street, and now just one BIG question, “Do you have 54” and Matt promptly searched for the right numbers.  “Do you have 55?” I inquired, “that might be better.” 

“If it’s just 1 ½ inch, then a 54 will fit just fine.”

Back again to the drop in – it was almost deserted by this time – and no Bill.  Anybody seen Bill?  He was upstairs getting his hair cut, so all was well.

“Got the 54’s,” I said, “No problem at all.”

“That will be great,” he replied.  “Thanks so much.  I am so sorry for your trouble.  Thank you.”

“Maybe you should just try these on to be sure,” I offered, confident that I had achieved my goal.

“As soon as I’m done.”

Twenty minutes later he came out of the washroom with a concerned look on his face.  “Ken, they only just fit.  Will they shrink?  What if I just hung them to dry?  What if the woman that sometimes helps with my laundry forgets, and puts them in the dryer?  They just barely fit now. And they’re 54’s (sigh).”

“That’s not so bad.  One of our volunteers has a cousin that takes a 60.”  He raised his eyebrows.  I’ll take them back and get the next size up.  Come to the office at noon tomorrow, and we’ll get the right size.”

“I’m so sorry about all this,” he said sadly, ”It is so much trouble.”

“Tomorrow you will have pants that fit properly. You will enjoy them for a long time to come.  It’s worth it to do this right. “

“Around noon then.  Thank you Ken.  Thank you.”

Drop In to our Drop In, New Year’s 2011

A sunny bright first week of January and many greetings of “Happy New Year” were offered from our friends at the drop in.  New Years is just so much better than Christmas.

In addition to the beautiful day, some of our folks were only just receiving their cheques from December (some glitch in the matrix of ODSP/OW) on this day, so it was doubly beautiful (maybe more).

Our numbers are down a bit because of the cheque thing (a typical first of the month pattern), but we have given up trying to estimate our effectiveness through the number of people served a meal.  Instead we count the number of positive interactions our volunteers have with our street friends – more than ‘the Big three’ of news, weather and sports. 

Downstairs, there’s a couple of euchre games on the go, people visiting with each other, relaxed, informal – a nice place to hang out. 

Let’s ‘drop in’ on a few of my encounters with our friends:

I met Bill who is 19 years old and his sister Chaucery (or so I thought, until Bill told me it was his mom), and we chatted.  Two years ago he ran from a fight only to have a severe stab wound in the skull: “See the mark?” he says as he points to the top of his head.  We talked of a few things, but he told me he didn’t want to talk about his father, one time Chaucery’s partner.  Then, after about twenty minutes,   he brought up the topic of his father, and how he had been so severely mistreated.  Usually, among people who have been mistreated as children it is their fathers who have been the primary causes of abuse.  He didn’t want to talk about it, but then he did.  He had been diagnosed with some condition of mental illness (before the knife wound and somehow associated with his father), he explained, and lives with his mom.  Their hydro had been cut off, and it was a good thing I wasn’t part of the blanket-blank agency, or they would have some choice words for me.  They were going to make it, the mom said, because hydro was not their heat source, and their landlord had allowed them to have an extension cord running to a power outlet in the hall.  “We have lots to be thankful for,” Bill reminded his mom.

On the way to the coffee urn, Wayne came in and asked if he could have a hamper to take home with him (before the appointed time for hampers) because the service technician was coming to his new place to hook up a phone that afternoon.  Wayne has undergone a remarkable recovery from alcohol, drugs and the street scene.  He has been clean for over a year now, and has every intention of continuing to improve his life.  After many, many attempts to obtain housing, he now has a place of his own.  I marvel at what he has accomplished against overwhelming odds, as well at his determination to keep on the ‘straight and narrow’.

 Jelica, our managing director, put together a few groceries, while Wayne showed us pictures of his two daughters and grandchildren.  “Wow”, I said, admiring the photographs and smiling, “You don’t look it, but you truly are a rich man.”  He quickly nodded assent and told a condensed version of the powerful reconciliation he recently had with one of his daughters – after being estranged from her for many, many years.

“Thank you so very much for the food,” he said, and put the pictures carefully in the front part of his knapsack, and the groceries in the back.  “I’m off to catch the 12:10 bus.”

As he climbed the stairs out of the building, my eyes met Jelicas’, and there was a simultaneous sigh of gratitude and wonder at this example of a transformed life.  More than words are needed to grasp the deep significance of what was happening all around us. 

It’s all a gift from God, and gifts of God.

These kinds of encounters happen all the time, each one purposefully and intrinsically orchestrated by our Heavenly Father:  each one a display of His splendor .  Mother Theresa coined it well when she said, “We see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

You should find out how you could be a part of this somehow.  Happy New Years!

Any Second Chances?

I spoke with Walter on the street outside our drop in and listened as he shared his frustration with the current state of affairs with housing in Ottawa – specifically how he has been unable to secure a place to live off the streets.  He is also pretty peeved about his inability to access meals in the downtown core, because of his past behavior.

He does not have any kind of track record of ability of keeping an apartment, and therefore does not have any references.  And, when he tells prospective landlords that he is able to pay because he is a recipient of ODSP (Ontario Disability Service Plan), it serves as a final nail in his coffin.  It appears that Landlords are not interested in housing people who are on disability, probably because they have experienced difficulties with others in the same situation.

But Walter is not the same person who was barred for three lifetimes from one of the service agencies downtown.  (Yup, you read correctly, three lifetimes!!!  What’s that?  I don’t know.)

The stigma that is associated with Walter stems from his past involvement with alcohol, addictions and violence.  But the thing is, Walter has not touched alcohol or drugs now for over a year!  Nothing.

Still, he is refused housing because he is on ODSP and does not have a reference from any landlord because he has lived only on the streets; and he is refused services because of events that happened six years ago. 

What kind of any chance do people like Walter have?  How can the stigma be broken?  Who will do some advocacy on Walter’s behalf?  Some people ‘turn over a new leaf’ in order to get what they need and then turn the leaf right back over, but this is not the case with Walter.  Is there any kind of ‘second chance’ today, when people can have a fresh start?

Walter’s determination to remain clean and sober, is an demonstration of courage and determination far above what I could imagine for anyone else in the same situation. 

What motivation or reason is there for Walter to sustain the significant life changes that he has demonstrated?  His journey over the past twelve months is inspiring!!

Long story short, Walter is going to drop by the office tomorrow.  Maybe he’ll find someone who will believe his story and do a bit of advocacy on his part: make a few calls, give some affirmation of Walter’s character and sobriety.  Then maybe someone will believe him.

If you would like to send some encouraging words to Walter through responding to this blog, I will make sure that he gets your note.  Maybe, just maybe, he will be encouraged through your words and our actions.  Cheers!

Gary – a story about Resiliency (and more)

Gary came down the stairs at the drop in, saw me and said, “I haven’t got your money yet. I know it’s been three years.  I’m working on it.”  Gary has been involved in a court case where his landlord stole things from his apartment before kicking him out.  Gary really likes what we do at OIM, so much so that he has committed some of the money from the settlement to helping the poor.  My protests that this is not necessary do not make any difference. 

We sat down and talked for quite some time.  He told me that the first time his father gave him a black eye he was six years old.  He never could measure up to his father’s expectations, and would expect a beating when he brought home a less than perfect report card.  He wet the bed every night, and every morning he would pay for it.

He ran away from home twelve times before he actually succeeded in making a breakaway when he was fifteen years old.  He never went back.

Odd jobs in many different places over his sixty-two years, but he never settled down for a long time in any one place.  He stopped drinking a year ago. No programs, he just quit.  

He said his father was a very successful man from all appearances.  No-one knew how he treated his family, and in those days, it was a well guarded secret.  A leader in his labour union and in the community, he was well respected and seen as a pillar in the community.

Gary told me he spoke with his father before his dad died.  He did what he could to make things right.  In one conversation, his father wondered why his children didn’t call him.  “Well dad, you need to remember that you beat them almost every day,” Gary replied, “You can’t really expect much after doing that for so many years.  Plus, we all remember how mom was beat.”

It’s remarkable how my friend has survived these many years.  He holds no ill will towards his dad, he has forgiven him.  Now, instead he helps other street friends when he can and is well respected.  In fact, one of our street friends came over while we were talking and asked for some advice.  In his own gentle way, Gary turned his attention to his friend’s inquiry and did his best to help. 

It was time for him to go to an appointment, and we bid each other farewell.

This story is unique to Gary, but not uncommon in the street community.  Young children suffer all manner of abuse at home, are forced to leave – fearing for their lives, descend into the pit of addictions and find themselves on the street.

Thankfully Gary found a way out before it consumed him, and now has chosen to give back. And, in his current maltreatment by his landlord, is standing up for his rights and justice.

I marvel at Gary’s and others’ fortitude, resiliency and determination. I’m not sure I would fare so well.

Live and Silent Auction – the details

Generally speaking the needs on the street are increasing and for many charities across Canada, there are dwindling resources as people are faced with financial crises of various sorts.  We are hosting a fund raising auction that I would like you to attend.  The details are in the rotating banner above, but if you are interested, I would like to share with you some of the events of the evening:

Greg Paul, well-known speaker and author will be our guest speaker.   Greg is from Sanctuary, Toronto, and in addition to his role as a pastor of a church in the downtown core, has authored two best sellers: God in the Alley and The Twenty Piece Shuffle.  Another book will soon be released.  Greg is a member of the National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness and a member of Street Level.

Dave Smith, a renowned philanthropist, businessman and entrepreneur in Ottawa has agreed to be our auctioneer.  Dave has a heart for youth, and has founded the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre.  Additionally, Dave has been instrumental in the process of bringing a residential detox program to Ottawa.

In addition to over 150 Silent Auction items, we have a number of live auction items.  The live auction items will include, but not limited to the following list:

  1. The Rideau Canal Story – a set of 8 customed framed prints celebrating the 150th anniversary of the building of the Rideau Canal, value $1400
  2. Stradivarius Violin (copy) & Two framed prints: Damsels with Stringed Instruments, value $1,000
  3. The OLD WEST Collection: 26 volumes, faux leather covers, time-life series, value $600
  4. Lunch with the Chief Vern White.  Value: priceless!
  5. Romantic Getaway #1, one night at the Lord Elgin, $100 coupon from the Keg, a camera, bath set.  Value $410
  6.  Romantic Getaway #2, two nights at the Auberge de mon petit chum, Wakefield, $100 coupon le Moulin Restaurant Wakefield, Book “Celebration of Love”, special “Basket of Healthy Chocolate”.  Value $500
  7. Big Girl’s Special, One month membership tanning package, Nine West designer sunglasses with Coach case, a gift certificate for cut, style and highlights, and SPA bath set.  Value $650
  8. Big Boy’s Special, One hour plane ride over Ottawa in Cessna 150, Complete car cleaning, DeWalt heavy duty drill, 40 pc socket set, 5 Guy tools, Jack Astor Restaurant Certificates, Haircut, Certificate Play It Again Sports.  Value $545
  9. 98.5 the JEWEL Advertising Kit, Forty 30 second spots on Ottawa’s own “the Jewel” 98.5 fm. Value $2,000
  10. Pitt Special SA2  A plane ride on one of eight ‘Red Baron’ biplanes in Canada.  A ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to ride the wind. Value: $450
  11. ROOM REDO – Upper Room Home Furnishings Gift Certificate $2,000 towards a consultation and furniture remake of a room of your choice in your own home.

Tickets are available by calling our office 613-237-6031.

Love to see you there.  Thanks for your support!

Years of Building

It sometimes takes years to build enough trust for some of our street friends to talk to us about their lives.  Red is thirty-six and we have spoken fairly regularly over the past eight years.

Most of our conversations revolve around things that are of concern to Red.  He is preoccupied with the spiritual world and speaks of his battles with demons, and even the devil himself.  Wisps of hair from his bangs fall down over one eye, both eyes glisten and he speaks of the devil coming at him with a gun, but he is stronger and uses his own power to beat him up.  That would be God’s power in him.  His world is complex and difficult.  He stays at the local shelter mostly, but has taken to the streets when that doesn’t work out.  He suffers from schizophrenia and his endless conversations with the voices that are inside his head lead to sustained self-medication.

This week we had opportunity to talk once again over coffee.  There were the usual demonic and satanic battles that he was waging, with strong testimony that he will not be overcome.  Then his tone changed.

He told me that one of the staff at the shelter want to talk to his mother who lives in the Maritimes.  He refused to allow this because, well, what would she tell her?  He said his parents know he is on ‘skid row’ and he doesn’t want to bother them about his own problems.  He told me his dad is a retired firefighter and he has a brother four years older than he.

We spoke quietly about his family relationships and about his drug use.  He has seen it all on the streets, the back alleys and everywhere in between.  The people at the shelter remind him to take his meds, which are working quite well for him at this time.  In fact, he hasn’t taken any pills (street drugs) for four days. 

Red doesn’t stay in any one place for any lengthy period of time.  He was on his fourth coffee, downed it and said it was time to go.  On his way out the door I wished him a good weekend, and hoped that when I saw him the next time he would be able to say he hadn’t taken any pills now for seven days!  He smiled and agreed.

Seven years.  I found out more about Red in the forty minutes we spoke together this day, than I have in seven years.  We can build on this.  We can talk more, and maybe… well, anything could happen.

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 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?