Injustice IV – Stonewalled

A heavy heart is mine as I write what will probably be the last blog about Tom until he is released.  There are several reasons for this, some (but not all) of which I will detail.

I had an appointment to meet with Tom on Monday, April 12 at 9:30 am.  On the Thursday or Friday before, he was transferred to the penitentiary in Kingston.  It would take me 4 – 6 weeks to be cleared for a ‘professional visit’ at that institution, or 1 – 1 ½ weeks to have ‘visitor’ status. I started the process immediately.  That was Monday.

On Tuesday, I was informed (through my own sources, not CSC) that he was moved to ‘another location’ (unknown).  On Wednesday I got a lead on another jail where he might be.  I am waiting for a contact there to confirm this.

The Parole Office will not meet with me, although I requested this several times.  I asked to meet with her and her Director, but was denied.  They have discovered that I have been blogging about this and are ‘consulting legal’ to see what implications there are for our meeting.  Stonewalled.   I have written permission from Tom, signed by him in jail before he was taken to Kingston, to release the information of his file to me.  It was witnessed by a prison chaplain at the jail who watched Tom sign (without duress or cohersion).   They are investigating whether it is enough for them.  So far, and into the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

They suggested I speak to their Media Response person, and I did so finally after several days and voice messages.  We spoke and I was informed of the process, the rules and regulations involved in a very general sense.  When I mentioned that Tom’s conditional parole was completed on May 4th, there was some surprise and a quick investigation into his case.  Affirmed.  Oh, in that case, he will walk on May 4th.

I am not a quitter, and if this is an example of injustice and wrongful accusation/detaining, then it should not be.  I have been advised by a lawyer (who is my friend) and an official from Corrections Services Canada that it might not be a good idea to continue to pursue this matter.

I asked my lawyer friend about possible ramifications if I continued to blog about Tom’s cause.  He replied that nothing would happen as I am only presenting Tom’s side of the story (with Tom’s permission).  He did mention however, that if I pursue it, it might be difficult for Tom.

The CSC official told me that it often does not go well with the individual involved (Tom in this case) after they have their story made available to the general public (!), and that I might consider ceasing to blog about this.

For Tom’s sake, I am stopping- but only because of my lawyer friend’s advice.  I will bring you an update when he is released May 4th – sooner if something significant occurs.

A final note to you at Corrections Services Canada whom I understand are following this blog:  I understand protocol, process and procedure, but please remember that you are dealing with a real person, with real feelings, who yesterday (April 14th) celebrated SEVEN (7) years of total sobriety.  Here at the OIM office, we were planning a big party to celebrate – cake and all – but Tom was alone in his cell.  Couldn’t even reach him by phone.  Don’t even know where he is right now.

But one day when he is released, we will celebrate together.  I would like to invite you to the party!

Injustice upon injustice III

I  am sorry to report that Tom is still in detention – the ‘proper’ name for jail, although there is nothing ‘proper’ about it at all.  The first night he was arrested on March 12, he slept on the shower floor.  Then, by association with a cell mate who was caught smoking weed, he did solitary for the next five days.

 The story continues.  For  the ’bottom line’ people, you should know there’s no happy ending here.  I have not been able to communicate with either the decision makers, or the information holders to obtain the whole story, so I have only one side of the story still – Tom’s.  Tom has given me permission to share this with you.

He has not been served papers or given information about his accusers.  It started out as panhandling, which was not a condition of his parole, but other reports have been set forth:  I present them to you as Tom told me in prison.

 One of the conditions of his parole is that he should not have association with people with criminal records.  Tom  was ‘seen talking to people’ – no names given, no place or date, no reference or identification  of his accuser.  He was ‘seen coming out of an alley (Bank and Cooper) with ’some people’. No accuser named, no identification of people he was supposedly with.

                He talks to people on the street all the time. You can’t not do that if you live downtown: it’s a “Hey, how’s it goin’?” kind of thing.  There is no alley at Bank and Cooper – we had our office there for ten years.

  1. He was accused of not following his correctional plan because he had not obtained employment.

For the past eight months he has been coming to the OIM office as a part of our work skills program.  He walks to the office and on the way says, “Hey, how’s it goin’?” to people he knows on the way.  He is punctual, a hard worker and willing to do whatever needs to be done.  He is reliable, efficient, a model worker and just pleasant to have around.  One of his workers has advised him that he should not consider taking employment until he is ready.  He was counseled to continue with the work skills program  with OIM, because it was a very positive influence in his life, and if he had to leave for some reason, it would not have the same ramifications as leaving a place of employment.

  1. Tom was incarcerated for reasons of “for public safety”.

No  substantiation, no identified accusers and no recorded or known  ‘incident’ that might suggest wrongful activity.  Another of Tom’s workers has gone on record and noted the positive progress Tom has made.  He has been  working with him on a life plan following parole time.

  1. Tom was supposed to have had ‘association with known drug dealers’.

He was ready and waiting for drug testing when he was arrested, but it never happened.  He has not been drinking  alcohol and never has had any issues with drugs. No drug charges on his record at all, ever. None.

 Tom tells me that he has been offered release if he agrees to three conditions:

  1. Cease to be a part of the work skills program at OIM
  2. Wear a collar that will give constant identification of his whereabouts at all times
  3. Respect a curfew

 He has refused to comply with these.  He mentioned the first condition as the deal breaker.  In his association with us at OIM,  he has found meaningful work volunteering (and then in work skills), moral support and a degree of friendship that has gone beyond acquaintance.  He says it feels more like family. 

Easter is just over and we’ve looked at the story of the passion of the Christ, his pain and suffering and then his resurrection and victory.  For my friend behind bars, it’s Good Friday all the time, with no glimmer of Sunday morning.   Not now at least.

Violation of Sacred Trust

“Of all people, you should know better.”  His words pierced my soul.   These words and this day will be burned in my mind forever.  Seven years ago, but it seems like yesterday.

I had just started with OIM and everything seemed like chaos.  I guess it was chaos for me, trying to balance everything, be fair, help people, and do intervention in a culture that was strange to me, potentially explosive – all the time.

About 200 people at the drop in on a hot summer afternoon.  I was watching two men: one of them was pacing the floor across the room strung out on drugs and aggressive.  Probably crystal meth, I thought.  Crystal meth was in abundance on the streets – not good.  It’s the kind of drug that can make you feel invincible, feel no pain (literally), and you can become aggressive.

The other man was using, maybe some blend of alcohol mixed with prescription drugs – he was having a heated argument, with no one, someone or anyone.  Have to keep an eye on him.

Another man comes up to me and engages me in conversation.  In just a few short minutes, he has told me some of the highlights of his unbelievably traumatic life.  His earliest memories seeped in torment, a childhood of abuse, loss and damage  so severe that it’s almost unimaginable.

Across the room the ‘pacer’ has a violent verbal outburst and I look to see who is the target.  Then immediately to my left the second man throws a wild punch into the air- trying to keep his invisible tormentors at bay.

The man in front of me says, “I can see you are too busy for me.  I’m going to go.”

Cut to the quick.  I quickly explain: the guy across the room, the guy to my left, I’m in charge, so sorry, I want to hear you, I am listening, but things are happening…

“You’re in charge here?  Of all people you should know better. I’m going to go, you have no time for me.”  He turned and walked out, ignoring my desperate pleas to remain and give me another chance that I really didn’t deserve.

Burned on my memory, I had done the greatest misdeed that could be done to someone who was in the midst of crisis – in a  moment of confession where all he needed was a friend to listen.  Too busy, preoccupied, otherwise engaged when I should have been engaged – with him.

People experiencing poverty and homelessness, living on the streets have two things they have complete control over, that they can choose to give or not: one is their real name, the other is their story.  If someone gives you their real name and their story, they have given you everything.

A violation of a sacred trust: a lesson I will never forget.

Street Youth Outreach

She cuts herself to deal with the pain of her childhood.  She’s lived a lifetime in eighteen years, and drinks regularly to cope.  We met her on the streets, and over time have become friends.

She lived at home in intervals: until the fights with her mom got so bad she had to run to the streets.  Mom’s moved away now, so the choices are fewer nowadays.  Hard times, especially in winter. 

Elgin Street, Monday night outreach learns she had been arrested for drinking in public at 8 am that morning, and she would be released at 10 pm.  It was 9:45. 

At the police station we introduced ourselves and asked if Amy could be released to us. Sure, no problem.

When the door finally opened, a bedraggled little girl emerged: bare foot, ripped jeans, dirty t-shirt, scared, sullen, disoriented.  She didn’t know what was happening.  Then she saw us.

Her countenance flashed from darkness to light like lightning sears the black sky.  That someone had come for her – unbelieveable.  Even more disbelief – that someone actually cared for her.   “Thank you.”  “Thank you.” “Thank you.”

A  sudden slap back to reality as questions flooded her mind.  How am I…? What am I…? Where can I…?  Who can…?  The uncertainty of street life rose defiantly and mercilessly – driving her back to those age old problems .  No shoes, no clothes, no coat, no place to go, no way to get there…

An interruption from outreach: “Hey.  It’s going to be O.K.  We can help.”

Words of comfort seldom heard bring a sense of calm.  Disbelief that these people wanted to be her friend, and have come for her.  For her.

Sometimes we are able to offer hope in a world of darkness.

Sometimes we see hope birthed in people minds.

It’s a critical cornerstone in building relationship.  A small thing for us, but huge for Amy.

Just a little thing: but it might be enough to change a life.

Justice II

Justice.  I stepped back for a moment at our drop in and marveled at the 200+ guests that were visiting that day.  In the midst of all the noise and clamour, I was amazed at what I saw: people in all directions, but without  distinction between our volunteers  and our street friends; people mixing and mingling with our guests, caring, listening, loving – it was a beautiful picture of a caring community.  In the midst of all the bustle and busyness, there was a sense of the presence of God.

Why this sometimes overwhelming sense of God’s presence, I wondered?  It must be because the people who come to us have been traumatized, abused and neglected. They are often innocent victims of abuse and violence that has made an indelible imprint on their lives.  Rejection has been their bread throughout life, and their brokenness has never had opportunity to heal.  For the most part, the damage that makes up their lives and their stories has not been something they could have done anything about.  Abused and violated as children, they have no responsibility for their hurt, and many will live (and die) with these issues unresolved.  Surely I thought, at least in part, this is why it seems that God has a special care for the ‘least of these’.

Some time after arriving at this understanding I was challenged in my thinking as I considered what the Bible says.  God does not care for people experiencing poverty or homelessness any more than He cares for anyone:  He loves all with a perfect love.  Unbiased, impartial, fair and just, He cares for all equally.

So why is there often a definite and real sense of God at work among the poor?  On more than one occasion I have experienced what Mother Theresa has described “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

It is not an issue of favoritism or partiality, but rather  an issue with the character of God Himself.  Over and over again in the Scriptures, we see that God’s justice is intrinsically fused together with his righteousness.   In fact, these two aspects of God’s character are so bound together that there is often no distinction between the two.  The words are commonly used interchangeably.

God who is just, is also righteous.  This is part of the very fabric of the character of God.

God’s character is violated when people are mistreated, marginalized and abused.  With no one to care for them, our street friends are moved along from one styrofoam cup to the next.  People sleep in doorways and alleys, behind garbage bins and scrounge for food where ever they can.  They are alone, lonely and isolated.

That this is true of thousands of people here in Ottawa, and in your city, is a cause for great alarm.  This is injustice, and is an affront to the character of God, a shame to those of us who can make a difference and an opportunity for those of us who choose to do so.

Justice I

Biblical Justice as it is demonstrated towards the poor.  What’s that look like?  First the Old Testament:

  1. Historically we see the development of the children of Israel beginning as slaves in Egypt through the Exodus to their coming into the promised land.  No real class distinctions.
  2. Canaan/ Promised Land:  The land was allotted to every Israelite, which produced conditions which developed into social differences and classes of distinction.  With a concern to prevent permanent poverty, God gave specific commands to His people regarding care of the poor: those sold into slavery were to be released (Exod 21:2), gleaning of the fields was allocated to the poor (23:19,21) with instruction that the poor were not to be exploited (22:22).  God was the Protector of the Poor and by His laws sought social justice for the poor.
  3. The period of the Monarchy brought economic development and prosperity for some but poverty for others.  Things worsened and the prophets took up the cause of the poor decrying forced labour (Amos 5:11,12), enslaving of fellow countrymen (Jer. 34:8-11) and the depriving of widows, orphans, and the poor of their rights (Isa 10:1,2).  Those who were socially strong were guilty of oppression (Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:11).  Hunger for land was driving the poor from their inheritance (Isa 3:15; 10:2;14:32)

 

God would not forget the poor (Ps 9:12; 40:17); He pities and comforts them (Ps 34:6; Isa 49:13), and is concerned for their well-being.

 

  1. Israel becomes more and more selfish, materialistic and self-centered.  The poor become increasingly oppressed by the rich (Prov 30:14; Isa 3:14); afflicted by the wicked (Ps 10:2; 12:5); subject to oppression and abuse (Amos 2:6; 5:12); were constantly in want or poverty (Prov 6:11; 11:24) and lacking the basic necessities of life (Job 30:3).

God speaks forth in Micah 6:8 “He has shown thee O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you.  Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God.”

Do Justice” – what’s that all about?  Here in my office, I am a 15 minute walk away from the Supreme Court of Canada.  When we think about justice we think of robed lawyers and judges making judgments that affect the lives of Canadians.  We think of decisions made passionately but passively in the halls of this great building.  Or perhaps we move east on Wellington Street to the Peace Tower and Parliament Hill where more judgments and decrees are pronounced.

Sound pretty complicated doesn’t it?  It’s not really that difficult at all.

Justice is something to be acted upon, an action word, a decision, it could be considered by some as a verb even.  Do Justice.  Do justly.  Do the right thing.  Treat people fairly.  Show the same respect to all.

Treat people equally and with fairness.

What’s so hard about that?

Random Act of Kindness Multiplies Itself BIG time!

The Backgrounder:  OIM sponsors the 8:00 am and 5:00 pm news on a local radio station, CHRI 99.1 fm.  For one of our 60 second spots, I interviewed a young lady (we’ll call her Rachel) from our Passion for Youth art program.  In this interview, she commented on how much she enjoyed participating in the program, so much so that she says that she dosen’t even think of drugs while she is  involved in the program.  This is quite remarkable, really!

The Story:  So Rachel came to our office to get some stuff and stays a moment for a visit.  She told me this story:

Part 1:  She was panhandling on the street when a kind lady offered to buy her some supper.  She agreed and the two of them had an enjoyable time together.  She felt special because a.) she was noticed, b.) the time over a meal brought a sense of dignity, and c.) somebody actually cared.

Part 2: Two days later, this same lady comes by and Rachel is at the same spot, panhandling.  She stops and chats, one of the first questions she asked was: “Was that you that I heard on the radio?  I recognize your voice.  That was great!”

Rachel’s face beamed with joy as she answered in the affirmative. Imagine, someone recognized her!!

This is huge!  We might get a kick of being on the radio, but for Rachel, this is so much bigger.  In her part in this little story, she was recognized not just a panhandler, or even as a person who might be ‘down and out’ for the time being.  She was someone who was recognized for making a larger, positive contribution to a good cause!  Mabye even informing and influencing the way that radio listeners think about people caught in the web of poverty and homelessness.

She was radiant as she recounted this story.

It might be hard to imagine just how much of an impact this would be for someone who calls the streets their home.  Think of it for a moment:  24/7 you are struggling to survive, just trying to make it to the next day; the past continually comes before your mind: harsh words (“You are such a loser! You’ll never amount to anything!  You are worthless trash!); every imaginable form of abuse (from abusive parents and relatives, residential school system, etc); multiple foster homes; struggling to survive, and well… you fill in the gaps.

THEN someone comes up to you in the midst of your despair and darkened world and brings a burning magnesium light of hope and glory, and says, “Hey, was that you I heard on the radio?  I recognized your voice.  That was great!”

You never can know the full impact of such positive words and affirmation.  It just might be enough to change someone’s life!

Haiti – All about perspective

Andre grimmaces as he describes his personal agony about Haiti.  His pain is evident in his countenance.  Twice in our conversation, he has to stop talking and choke back the emotion.

“We have so much here. We are so rich. We have so much.”

Haiti is an unfathomable tragedy. It’s almost surreal, and we are overwhelmed in our thinking by the devastation.  The magnitude of destruction and carnage is almost an incomprehensible reality.  I can’t imagine what people are experiencing or what they are going through.  Everything has been shaken, and people are filled with fear that there may be more to come. 

Andre’s words and compassion speak to me.  His concern is deepened by his own personal story.  He suffers from severe clinical depression, and there have been times when he will go for days without sleeping or eating.  Sometimes he is quite beside himself with anxiety and worry.  His family has ostricized him, even refusing to take him with them in their car to bury his mother.  He has overcome a cocaine habit, but still struggles to take his medication and maintain his own health. He is all alone.

He sits across the table from me, and I marvel at how he is moved with empathy for the Haitians. How someone so impoverished and traumatized in his own personal life, can be so moved with such a deep compassion for others, is an enigma for me.  I am dwarfed in comparison to my friend.  His selflessness, concern and thoughtfulness for others is miles above and beyond my own.

We walk past people like my friend Andre on the streets all the time and we often look down on them.  Why don’t they just get up and get a job?  Why can’t they be responsible for their lives?  Sometimes we might throw some loose change in a ball cap, but it’s more to alleviate our guilt and make ourselves feel better than to make any lasting change in their lives.  We categorize and generalize.   We become smug in our complacency, our materialism and self-absorbtion.  We miss it, and we miss out.

There are people that do care.  At OIM we currently have 91 active volunteers on the roster, and our Urban Intervention Training course (beginning January 30) is filling up fast.

One hundred percent of the time new volunteers come to us to ‘help the poor’ and ‘make transformational changes’ in their lives.

Another one hundred percent of the time: Three weeks after these same volunteers are involved in serving our street friends, they realize that it’s not about their ‘giving’ at all – instead it’s all about how they have become the recipients of blessing and  growth themselves.  One hundred percent of the time.

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!