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.

The Problem with Focusing on Problems

Meet Nicky: homeless,  alcoholic, mentally ill.

Nicky joined the art group last year.

She told me that most of her childhood had been spent in the offices of mental health workers, who were trying to “fix” her.

When asked “What’s wrong with you?” Nicky could answer with a lengthy list.

Nicky was used to this familiar approach that her workers would use:

Identify the problem 1) Analyze the causes 2) Decide on goals to fix these causes 3) Make plans that will achieve the goals 4) Implement the plan.

Sounds like a good plan, right?

But every time, this plan led to Nicky feeling two things:

1) Powerless to solve her own problems (a reliance of professionals), and

2) Hopeless… like there was something inherently wrong with her.

That’s the problem with focusing the problem: it doesn’t get rid of the problem.

At P4Y, we use a Strength-Based Approach. Rather than focusing on the deficits of youth, we focus on their strengths (and believe me, they have TONS of strengths!) , and build on them. We and others have found that big changes occur when you focus on strengths. Rather than feeling powerless and hopeless, the youth feel empowered and hopeful.

After working with Nicky to identify the strengths she saw in herself, as well as the strengths staff and volunteers see in her, we made her a small card (pictured) for her to carry around in her wallet. The words represent her personal strengths. The idea is for Nicky to remember that she has numerous strengths that she can use when she is faced with a problem.

Nicky is now feeling motivated and empowered.

Let me reintroduce Nicky:  high school grad,  compassionate, empathetic, insightful, resilient.

 

Nicky SAI pic

Housing in Ottawa: What we don’t see…

When Laura arrived at art group, she was excited to share her good news–she got her own apartment!

After a year or so of couch hopping, she finally had her own space. It was a small room in a rooming house, but she didn’t mind. She was just excited to have a space to call her own.

housing 2This excitement faded quickly the day she moved in when she saw that the repairs the landlord had promised to do before she moved in had not been completed….or even started. In fact, the room had not even been cleaned. She took pictures of her room on the day she moved in, and I was horrified by what I saw: holes in the wall, garbage and dirt on the floor, a hole where there should be a door handle, tape holding the door together….Certainly not a place where anyone would feel SAFE. 

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But the worst was yet to come…..bed bugs.

bed bugs

Laura arrived at art group with welts all over her body. She says her room and mattress are completely infested with bed bugs and the constant biting makes it hard to sleep.

This is the reality of housing in Ottawa. There is just simply not enough affordable housing in this city. And youth like Laura are forced to take what they can get.

How do we expect these youth to thrive when they do not even have somewhere safe to sleep?

 

 

 

 

 

The beautiful thing about Laura, is that she continues to look at her future optimistically. She is not letting this experience hold her back.

Check out the beautiful painting she was working on last night.

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I’m constantly amazed by the strength and the resilience youth like Laura show.

 

 

Ottawa Home and Garden Show. Why?

OIM has been given a booth at the Ottawa Home and Garden Show, March 20 to 23 at the Ernst and Young Centre.  Why?

A friend of the ministry donated this 10’ x 20’ exhibitor’s space so that people who are thinking about renovating, redoing and re-fixing their own homes might take a moment and consider people who don’t have any home at all.

Our booth will have an area where visitors can see some of the art work that our Passion 4 Youth artists have created; we will be showing the 7 minute OIM DVD and also another shorter DVD featuring interviews from three of the youth from the program; we will have a visual aid of a home (on Bristol board) where visitors can buy a brick for a donation of any amount, and we can collect funds for new space (which we desperately need).

Then we’ll top it off with not one, but two (and maybe three) surprises that you can only discover if you come by and have a visit with us.

The Ottawa Home and Garden people are expecting over 20,000 visitors to the show this year, and it is a privilege to represent OIM there.  We have scheduled volunteers and staff for the entire weekend, and you will want to see how this works!

Please consider this your special invitation: ‘Come on down’ and visit us!

The Small Things Guy…

Following from last week, my friend ‘Jesse’, the ‘small things guy’.

So last week at the drop in, I had to call the police and ask them to remove Jesse as he would not cooperate and leave when I asked him.  The reason?  He was drinking (no surprise) openly (not allowed) and blatantly (not allowed) and was not showing respect to the church where we house our drop in (the biggest offense), neither did he respect the staff and volunteers who make things work.

I was hurt – OK, so I know it’s not about me – but it pained me that my ‘friend’, who in his last letter from jail called me his ‘Best Friend’ walked and stomped all over me (not literally) and our friendship (I thought).

He left the premises last week only when Ottawa’s finest escorted him out – no problem.

So my week goes on and I think about Jesse a lot, and our friendship, and wonder how badly it’s been violated.  Then I’m looking through my shirts and I find one that I think Jesse would like and bring it to the drop in, thinking I would meet him there today.

On the way it struck me that Jesse would not remember even one of the details of our encounter last week.  Nothing.

Staff called to tell me he had arrived at the drop in and I came shortly afterwards.

We connected.  I gave him a shirt.  He liked it. I told him I loved him, and he knew that.  I told him he was not respectful last week and I had to call the police.  What?? he said. Didn’t remember a thing.  Truly.  We hung out for a while and he said he would help me with the memorial service to come later that day.  It was a new day. Fresh start. My Best Friend.  Again.

So what to do?  Life goes on.  Hold things lightly.  Hold others with a firm grasp.  Never let go of hope.  Never give up on people.  Love unconditionally – people need to be loved.

Question: What about the seventy times seven plus one? Does love ever draw the line?

PS (and unrelated): It’s not too late to join our Urban Intervention Training for new volunteers: next session Feb 6. 2014

New Perspective on Home

I attend St. Albans Anglican Church in downtown Ottawa. We are lucky to have space in the midst of both the Market, nearby Centretown, and Sandy Hill. We feel as though we are surrounded by busy city life, with event constantly taking place and people coming and going.

It also means our church body lives with neighbours experiencing poverty and homelessness, in fact our church body, itself, has members who find themselves living in shelters or on the streets. It is a stark reality of urban life, and one our congregational is learning to navigate with sensitivity and compassion. It certainly helps that Centre 454, a social service, is located in the lower half of our church building. The folks who work and volunteer there are the same as those you would encounter at OIM–deeply caring and passionate people.

Though we have the pleasure of housing Centre 454 and partnering with them in their ministry, it can be difficult to know how to incorporate our church’s youth into this part of our life together. We have a small but energetic group and as leaders who see Jesus’ strong dedication to social justice we know it is essential to be able to invite our young men, women and children into experiences that can foster understanding.

As a staff member at OIM I knew about our One Homeless Night program, which invites youth to walk for a night in the shoes of one of their peers experiencing homelessness. Though our size did not lend itself to this activity we truly wanted our youth to experience the lessons and principles that this activity offer.

We invited OIM’s Youth Outreach Worker to join us for an evening of discussion, and walk of ‘new perspective’. We traveled around our own neighbourhood, of Sandy Hill, in the rain, trying to see with new insight the individuals and stories of our very own street community. Some of the stories were difficult, and our youth struggled to understand, but more often than not they rose to the occasion with questions and concern. It was unbelievably valuable experience, and one we brought to a close by packing gifts for the Passion 4 Youth participants and, of course, prayer.

It was imperative that we not only see and understand, but that we follow with action.

I hope next year our numbers will grow, or that we might partner with other churches for a full overnight One Homeless Night event. For now, I am grateful that OIM, a place care for dearly, was able to bless my youth with a new perspective for their own homes, and to challenge them how they might invite inclusion and create spaces of safety and support for their neighbours.

 

Selina,

OIM Staff

If you’re interested in organizing a One Homless Night event with your youth group or school visit our One Homeless Night page for more information.

“Tessa’s Home” Episode 5: The Birth of Hope

Tessa’s Home is an 8 part series running until December 27th.  To listen to the audio backgrounder on CHRI radio, click below. Miss previous episodes? Click “Recent Posts” on the right sidebar.

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

 

Tessa continues her story…

I got into housing right after, but my place wasn’t that great. It was my ‘place’, but it wasn’t my home – I’d been in and out of ‘places’ of several kinds, but it was never home.   It was between two drug dealers; one sold cocaine and guns, and the other marijuana and cocaine.  That wasn’t the place I wanted my kid, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there, so I gave up my son to CAS and I went back to the streets. It was the hardest thing I ever did.

I remember being really distraught, and I was downtown in front of McDonalds on Rideau, and Outreach was there.  Two outreach workers from OIM came by and I was drawing in a little sketch book.  “You like to do art?” “Yea, I love to do art.” “We just started up an art group two weeks ago.” “Oh really?”

In the weeks to come, the same outreach worker was always bugging me about coming, but I never did. I guess when somebody tells you about something, you get this picture inside your head of what it’s like, and it wasn’t like that at all. 

So one day he came by ( and I don’t even think it was an outreach night) and said, “You coming? It’s tonight.”  I said, “OK, fine! I’ll come.” And he came and met me and I went.

I loved it.

After they introduced me to what it was, and told me about the mentoring and said they could help me with goals that I had, I thought maybe this could be helpful (and in my mind, thinking, ‘for now’). 

So like, I’ve been going there for three years, and I have missed like, four nights.

Getting this positive reaction for something I did, was not something I often got… Going through school, I had this art teacher that told me that I just didn’t have it (to be an artist). 

In the Passion 4 Youth art group I made goals to do stuff, and it eventually led me to getting my son back.  I set goals with Malley (my mentor) and she would ask me, ‘What are we working on this week?’ and ‘How’s the fight for your son going?’ and ‘What are your goals towards that?’  After working on that for a pretty long time, I got my son back, and brought him to the art room.  Everyone was really happy about that.

As Christmas approaches, please consider making a donation to help us with our Street Outreach Program.  Please click ‘Donate Now’.  Merry Christmas and thank you.

 

“Tessa’s Home” Episode 4: Disappointments on the Way Home

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 connections, Facebook and Twitter. Comments welcome! #TessasHome

 

Tessa’s continues her story….

After my dad died, my head was really messed up because of it and I ended up hitchhiking across Canada. 

 At this time, I was 17 years old. Me and a friend made it all the way to Calgary Alberta in 5 days. I spent a few months out there, and eventually made my way back home to Ottawa.

From Calgary, I had had a pen-pal, who I was corresponding with regularly, who lived in Ottawa, and when I arrived back, we decided to meet. When I did, we were inseparable, and I had found, who I thought was my soul mate.

For about a year we were inseparable, (so I was 18 here) and when I found out I was expecting I went to his work (he worked at a coffee shop).  I waited my turn in the line, went up and said, “I would like to a medium ice cap and a side of ‘I am expecting your baby’”.  He looked at me in disbelief and we arranged to meet.

After that weekend I went to see him at his place, and he was gone.  He decided to move somewhere far away and cut off all contact with me.

Being very young and headstrong, my fear was soon overcome by excitement, and joy, but I remained homeless and sleeping outside until I was 8 months pregnant, and to this day, I haven’t heard from my first son’s father.

My beautiful little boy is now four years old, and I also have a one year old, both boys, and anyone with children knows how wonderful and amazing and life changing they truly are.

Please consider a Special Christmas Donation to help us continue our outreach program to people on the streets.  Your donation will help us help others, giving hope and a future where there is none today. Click “Donate Now”.   Thanks for your support!