A Presence on the Streets

Not long ago, one of our outreach teams was doing late night outreach. It was about 10:30pm when they entered the market area. Across the street they saw a man sitting in his sleeping bag, with a few men standing around him. It looked like a group of friends hanging out, and so the outreach team hesitated to interrupt. But, they decided to see if the men needed anything. The men grabbed some supplies from the team and then quickly walked away – leaving the one man who had been sitting in his sleeping bag. The man said “You got here just in time – they were going to beat me up again.” The man was old and frail, and said he is often beat up and robbed.

Another time on outreach, our team was walking towards a woman who was sitting in an alley way. Two men walked by her, and poured something on her hear. We ran up to her, and could tell it was urine they had poured on her.

It is understandable that often our outreach teams return from their walk of the streets and feel disheartened and helpless. But we remind them that despite the awful things they witnessed, they were there. They were the reason the man was not assaulted…they were there to clean the urine off the woman. The streets can be a scary and awful place to be. But our outreach teams, if nothing else, provide a safe and trusting presence on the streets.

And that’s pretty amazing.

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To be a presence on the streets, join our volunteer team by taking our volunteer training. CLICK HERE

 

– Moira, Youth Outreach Worker 

A Chance Meeting

When I meet a youth on outreach for the first time, I am always aware that it may be the only time I ever see them.

The lives of street-engaged youth can be so insecure and unpredictable that our paths may never cross again. Knowing this, I try my best to make some sort of connection and pray that I have helped the youth in some way.

I met Jasmine in the summer of 2014. She was standing on bank street and told me she was staying in a shelter after becoming homeless after fleeing an abusive relationship. We talked for a little, and then I went on with my route. Months passed and I didn’t see her again. I wondered about her…was she still at the shelter? Had she returned to her abusive partner?

Then, about 7 months later I received this text:

final text

 

Since sending me this text, Jasmine has become a member of the Passion 4 Youth Fine Arts Program. She is there every week and always has a bright smile on her face.

I took a picture of this text and saved it so that if I every wonder if these brief outreach meetings are meaningful, I know the answer.

Shane’s Story, Episode 5: My Own Place

Shane’s Story is a eight episode blog post where Shane tells her story in her own words.  Each week in December, on Mondays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. you can click on both the radio spot and then read the Episode of this special gal’s story. Tweet it to your friends – it gets better as we get closer to Christmas, and Shane’s special Christmas wish to each of you. Hold tight! it is going to be a great ride! Merry Christmas!”

Listen to a part of her story by clicking the ‘play’ button below, then read the rest of her story in this post:

I got my place last spring.

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The door of Shane’s room the day she moved in. Notice the hole where the door handle should be.

I met this kid panhandling and he lived in the building. I told him I really needed a place. I told him I had a dog and really need somewhere safe and warm to keep him. He told me there was a room available in his rooming house. It was beside his room, and the place was really disgusting.  It was really gross. It’s a building full of bachelors, of addicts and dealers but that’s what you get. There were spiders, cockroaches, bedbugs – but there’s no house centipedes though, and I’m pretty happy about that. None! The room though was an absolute pigsty. There was grime to the point that I had to scrape it off with a knife. There was something that kept coming up off the tile that was really gooey and sticky. Really sticky. You had to scrub it off with hot water.  I don’t know what I was cleaning up there, but it was pretty bad. Once I got it tolerable, I put my stuff in there. It took like two weeks to get it at least decent. That’s like without cleaning the walls or without cleaning the window, or checking under the bed box to see what garbage is under there. I still don’t know. It’s a secret (laughter). The underneath of my bed – I don’t want to know. (laughter)

It’s weird sharing a shower and a toilet with like 20 other people. They pee all over the floor. I have to wear my shoes into the toilet, you have to take toilet paper with you and bring it back with you.

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The floor of Shane’s room.

I’m paying $470 for a tiny little infested room that’s not even up to code. Like one of my windows is not really a window – it’s a board with a nail holding it in place. I had to make my own ‘fixes’ – they wouldn’t put caulking under the box for my bed and the bugs were crawling in and out of there. ‘No, don’t do that to me. I don’t want bugs near my bed’, so I finally got some white duct tape and taped it. They (landlords) don’t really do much.

Bedbugs? Oh yea. Landlord only sprays one room at a time, so each time the landlord sprays one room, the bedbugs that survive just over to the next person’s room. He sprays that room and they crawl upstairs to where it’s safe. They just keep going. We just push them around really. I’m waiting for the time they push them back into my room, ‘cause I’m highly allergic. My face will swell and it’s bad. I had to go to the doctor a couple of times, and get hard core allergy medication.

They’re not in my room now. I had to go out and buy powder that’s safe for animals. I put that on the floor around my bed, and if they come in, they’re dead.

You brush it into the baseboards, and if they try to get in there and hide, they die. It’s pretty bug proof.  Cockroaches though, I don’t know how to get rid of them. They just keep comin’. From my dresser too- I don’t know why ‘cause in there there’s only clean clothes. They’re not in my pantry though. Not even a nuclear bomb will kill them.

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A swollen bed bug bite on Shane’s arm.

Remembering Homeless Veterans

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People hurry by the large monument every day, most never pausing to look or even acknowledge it. One lonely man, white haired, in torn and dirty clothes stands alone at the base of the steps leading up to a large stone coffin. Tears running down his cheeks, his jacket showing signs that they are real, a well-worn beret clamped in his hands. People avoiding him, his actions make them uncomfortable. Slowly he places the beret on his head, adjusting it so it sits perfectly. His posture changes, he stands erect. He marches 2 steps forward, slams his right foot onto the cement and slowly raises his right hand in a perfect motion. His fingers touch the edge of his glasses and he offers a silent prayer mouthing thank you as he slowly lowers his arm to his side. Executing an about turn he marches away from the coffin. Still weeping but managing to control the tears and is quickly engulfed in the flow of strangers.

Who is this man?

He is a symbol of what we cherish the most; our freedom. But he is also homeless, a veteran of our military now reduced to living on the streets because the help he desperately needed was either denied or wasn’t made available to him. My friend John lived in a nightmare with things he was asked to do while serving our nation. Things that he refused to talk about until one cold day just after OIM’s Easter Dinner. He told me about driving a truck in some far off country, the pain still vividly haunting him as he relived the horrors and the stern warnings about not stopping for anything if the convoy was assaulted. He spoke of the methods the Taliban used to try and force them to stop, of how they would sacrifice woman and children for to achieve their goals. He spoke of the memories that came screaming back every time he looked at his little girl and how he eventually lost his wife and her to the lack of treatment. His pain was real, not something created for attention.

The man at the coffin is also George, a veteran who was forced to retire before his prime because of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) whose battles continue daily as he struggles to survive. He faces ridicule because, unlike the war vets, he fights not only his demons but the stigma of being forgotten because he has never gone to war.

This man is Jim, a warrior now forced to survive in a wheel chair whose battle is now staying alive as he faces countless medical challenges. Whose heart is bigger than anyone I have met. Whose love fills the air around him like a beacon, but who is, sadly, ignored because of the image people see.

Who are these people? They are men that I am proud to call friends, brothers, someone that I share something in common with; we are all veterans. They have been forgotten because the reminder of what we stood for is too painful to recognize. They are the walking wounded. They are the marginalized, the ridiculed, the scorned, the forgotten. Take the time to get to know them, have a meal with them, thank them for their service. Remind them that the sacrifice they were willing to make will not be forgotten, they will be remembered, and not just on Remembrance Day but every day of their lives.

The next time you find a man, or woman, weeping at the monument as they pay their respects. Put an arm around them; support, them, remember to say thank you.  When you are asked what a veteran is remind people that a veteran is a man or woman, who signed a blank cheque, payable to their country, Canada, for everything up to and including their lives. They were a special group of people willing to die , to ensure that Canadians can live free. Only two people have been willing to die for you: Jesus on the cross for your salvation and a veteran for your freedom.

– written by Ken Byars, a Canadian veteran and a dedicated  OIM volunteer

What a difference a year makes….

outreach workerSeptember 27, 2013 was a very special day for Eva: it was the day she moved off of the streets into her own place. It was a small room, but it was hers. And it was the first time in years that she had a place to call her own.

Eva left home in her early teens. Eventually, she became homeless and addicted to drugs. As a young woman on the streets, she was quite vulnerable. But she learned how to take care of herself and when I met her on outreach several years ago, I quickly discovered that she was one of the strongest young women I had ever met. Despite having to be in “survival mode” on the streets, she still had a loving and generous spirit.  She would often point out others who needed help, or tell me places to go where she knew I would find more people needing outreach. She often joked that she should do outreach, because she knew how to find people.

I soon learned that Eva was artist, and in fact, she was one of the first youth to join the art group. One time at art group I remember talking with her about her future, about getting sober and going back to school. She told me that she would never stop using drugs. When I asked why, she told me that last time she tried to get sober she became suicidal. Using drugs was her way of coping, and she was scared to take away that coping mechanism.

But a year ago something changed. She started making small changes in her life, which led to big changes like stopping her drug use, reconnecting with friends and family, and starting to think more about her future and what it could be.

This September marked some big landmarks for her: not only did she celebrate one year of living in her apartment, but she also re-enrolled in high school for the first time in years.

September 25th marked another incredible moment: it was her first night doing outreach as an OIM volunteer. Together, Eva and I walked the streets of Ottawa handing out sandwiches, socks and drinks. Most of the people we met on the street had to look twice at Eva, often saying “Hey it’s you!” or “I knew you looked familiar!” before congratulating her on becoming an outreach volunteer.

They were so proud of her.

And we are too.

I’m so excited to see what the future holds for Eva.

Her new outlook on her future? She plans on becoming an addictions worker.

Sam’s Story

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Sam is a street artist who I met several years ago. He created the beautiful work of art above.

I asked him  to do a wood burning workshop with the youth from the art group. Sam shared his story with the youth, and we were all blown away by what he had to say. Sam gave my permission to share his story here, but he asked that I use his real name. He wants people to know his story and what he has learned. 

 

Sam grew up in the Land of Nanabijou (Sleeping Giant), Fort William First Nation. His childhood was abruptly disrupted at a young age when he was taken from his mother and his Ojibway community and placed in St. Josephs School for Boys. He spent 5 ½ years in this residential school, where he was subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The trauma he experienced at this school was unthinkable, and as a result, he suffered from horrific nightmares during his adulthood. These nightmares could only be silenced by alcohol, which led to 45 years of addiction. He spent time in prison and then ended up on the streets of Ottawa. He said that during these years on the streets he harbored anger towards his abusers that was slowly destroying him.

He thought that by bringing his abusers to justice his anger would vanish. But even after testifying in court and seeing his abusers sentenced, the anger persisted and the nightmares continued.  There were many events that transpired that led to Sam’s sobriety…hitting rock bottom and nearly dying, losing friends to addiction, building a relationship with an Elder, re-embracing his spirituality and Ojibway culture…

But Sam stressed that the most important thing was letting go of the anger he was harboring and offering it up to the Creator.

When he made the decision to quit drinking, he prayed to the Creator for protection. He asked the Creator to keep negative people away from him while he was withdrawing and most vulnerable. He said that during these few days of heavy withdrawal, he was shaking uncontrollably. He held a pencil in his hand and with every shake he would draw a stroke on the paper. He said that focusing on the pencil marks helped him forget about the withdrawal.

The Creator answered his prayers: he has been sober now for 5 years.

 

 

Caution: P4Y Poetry

The Passion 4 Youth Fine Arts Program was fortunate enough to have Bruce Narbaitz come in and do a slam poetry workshop with the youth. Many of the youth had never tried poetry, and some were nervous to share their poetry with their peers. To be completely honest, I was nervous to give slam poetry a shot too! It’s an intimidating thing to get up in front of people and share poetry.

But Bruce made everyone feel very comfortable. He placed some objects on a table: a sleep mask, a toy Chewbacca, a piece of police caution tape, and a pirate flag.

He encouraged everyone to take 5 minutes and to write anything about one of the objects.

The results were absolutely amazing.

Check out one of the youth’s poem that was inspired by the police caution tape. This youth is commenting on how she feels about her interactions with the police while panhandling.

 

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Aakuluk

When I approach an Aboriginal person while on outreach, I suddenly become very aware of the cross embroidered on my outreach vest. The Aboriginal peoples have been so hurt by Christians that I often fear that the symbol of the cross represents danger and mistrust, and I worry about how I will be perceived.

I had this fear when I approached Sherry, and middle-aged Inuit woman who was sitting on the sidewalk panhandling. To my relief, she greeted me with a smile and asked me to sit with her. She spoke to me about her life, her family, and her love of art. Then she asked me to pray with her. She asked that I pray for the strength to give up alcohol. I prayed with her, and when we were finished she looked at me and said “Naakuumik.” She told me this meant “Thank you.” She then spent the next 15 minutes or so teaching me several words in Inuktitut. I was a terrible pupil, as languages do not come easy for me. She teased me about my terrible pronunciation. Then she got out a small piece of paper and wrote out some words phonetically for me. You can see this in the picture below.

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What a blessing to have spent time with Sherry. What a miracle it is, that after all the pain she and her family have experienced at the hands of Christians that she has not lost trust in people, or faith in prayers.

As I walked away she shouted “Aakuluk!” I looked at my card  – “Love you.”

Choosing Compassion

compassion quoteIt’s not uncommon for the youth I work with to tell me about the negative experiences they’ve had with police officers. Most of the youth deal with police on a daily basis, as police monitor the downtown core, discourage loitering and dole out tickets. I’ve heard so many stories of mistreatment by the police that unfortunately I’ve actually become quite jaded towards the police and I often expect the worst from them.

Last week however, one of the youth was in a crisis situation so I made the decision to call 911. Two officers arrived and assessed the situation. The circumstances were complicated (mental illness, homelessness, addiction etc.) and there was no easy solution. Both officers expressed their frustrations to me, grieving about the “system” which often fails to help the youth, leaving the police to deal with the consequences. They told me that there was not much help they could offer to this youth, that their “hands were tied”.

Once I heard that phrase, I expected them to leave. But then one of the officers did something that surprised me: she spent the next 2 hours with the youth, trying in every way possible to help. She listened to her, empathized with her, offered support and advice and even advocated for her.

This officer could have left the situation once it was no longer a crisis. But instead, she made the decision to help as much as possible. And this made all the difference. This youth, for the first time in her life, has now had a positive interaction with the police. This is a big deal.

And I realized something: in the helping profession, whether it’s policing, social work, the medical field…we all get jaded and frustrated with the system. We all feel like our hands are tied and we have no control over the situation.

And sometimes that’s true.

But, we ALWAYS have control over the compassion we show. We always have a choice to act with love.

I said it was a complicated situation with no easy answer.

But maybe the answer is compassion, and that’s not that complicated at all.

No compassion or care for the mentally ill at the Ottawa Hospital

I have known Skye for 3 years. She was one of the first street-engaged youth I met while doing outreach. I remember our first meeting fondly: I was still new, and somewhat terrified, and she reached out and was incredibly welcoming and kind to me.

But when Skye came into my office on Friday, she was not the same kind and gentle youth who I had come to know. She was having persistent and overwhelming thoughts of hurting herself and others. The thoughts she was having were scary and disturbing and she was worried she would act on them. We talked about the different resources she could go to, but within moments, I could tell it was too late to make an appointment with a counselor.

Skye was having a mental health crisis and she needed immediate help.

She agreed to go to the Civic Hospital emergency room but she was reluctant to go alone. She did not think the doctors would take her seriously, as they have refused to help her in the past. I agreed to go with her for support.

hospital hallwayI assured her that she would get some help, and we would not leave until she felt safe.

I was hopeful when we were directed right away to the psychiatry department. The psychiatrist introduced himself and asked to interview Skye alone. I told her I would be just down the hall if she needed me.

Within 2 minutes, I could hear Skye screaming. I ran towards the interview room and saw her violently banging the furniture and walls. She was screaming because the psychiatrist had told her he was calling the police due to the violent thoughts she was having. Skye, like most street-engaged youth, is terrified of the police. She was screaming and punching herself in the face. I calmed her down, reminding her she had not broken the law so she would not be arrested. She calmed down and we waited for the police.

 

The police arrived, and did a brief assessment of her mental state. Skye told them about her violent and suicidal thoughts. The police then spoke privately with the psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist came back to us, and explained that he believed the best course of action would be for Skye to do an outpatient program at the Royal Ottawa Hospital: First, a program to deal with her addiction, and then a program to deal with her mental health issues. The programs sounded helpful, but Skye expressed that she could not wait until Monday for the program to start. She needed help right away.

“What if I kill someone tomorrow?” she asked the psychiatrist.

“Well, that might happen.” replied the psychiatrist.

I was absolutely shocked by his response.

“You are responsible for your actions and you need to take responsibility for them” he continued.

“That’s why I’m here, I need help! Why won’t you help me?” Skye yelled. At this point, Skye was furious and left the hospital to go cool down in the parking lot.

I then spoke with the psychiatrist. I explained that I believed the programs he recommended would be helpful for Skye, but that she needed more immediate help. The doctor proceeded to list off his several years of experience and education, and assured me this was the best course of action. I stressed that Skye was still expressing that she was going to hurt herself or someone else, and how could he not admit her for that?

He told me that if she hurts someone, that would be a police matter.

I argued with the doctor until I realized that he was not going to change his mind. Although I’m sure the doctor believed he was helping Skye, how could he let her leave after admitting that she was at risk of hurting herself and others?

When I got to Skye who was in the parking lot, she was still upset. She was pleading for the police to help her, even going so far as to ask them if she stabbed herself, would they help her then? The stunned police officers had no response.

I assured her that together, she and I would create a plan for the weekend in order to keep her safe until she could enroll in the Royal Ottawa program on Monday.

Before leaving, the police said “If you are in trouble tonight, if there is an emergency, call us.”

This is an emergency, I thought.

So we left the hospital, with Skye still feeling unsafe in her own body.

I left thinking: Would this have happened if Skye was not an addict? Would they have taken her seriously if she was not street-engaged? Would they have treated her differently if she didn’t have piercings and tattoos?

I have always believed that if a youth is having a mental health crisis and nothing is working, the hospital is there to take care of the youth and to ensure their safety. This belief has been completely shattered. Instead, it seems that we have a system that is more interested in intervening once damage has been done or a crime has been committed, rather than listening to the pleas of a young woman, desperate for help.