Street Youth Art Show

Our street youth art program, ‘Passion for Youth’ is making an impact on young people’s lives.  Last year we had nine street-engaged youth in our pilot program and some great things happened over the ten months we were together: four kids moved from the streets into housing, three obtained employment, one finished high school and two came to faith in Christ.

Currently we have thirteen kids involved in our art program (had fourteen, but one moved to Vancouver) and things are progressing well. Volunteer mentors meet with the kids monthly to set and work towards personal life goals, and already four of the kids have achieved their goals: they have entered specific programs to reduce their drug use, and two of these have found jobs!

This coming Monday, June 14th, the kids will be showing their artwork in a special art exhibit, and YOU ARE INVITED!  Here are the details:

Dominion Chalmers United Church

255 Metcalf Street, Ottawa (Lisgar Street Entrance)

6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

$5 admission charge (to go towards the art program. You may make an additional donation if you like).

Desserts will be served and you can come and talk to the kids about their art work, the program and more.  Max, one of our youth, will be sharing some songs and music on the piano/guitar and the kids have created a ‘hands-on’ art exhibit where you can be creative and do your own art piece.  The youth will supervise this and help you along if you need some assistance.

So come out and support this worthy endeavour.  Come and bring some encouragement and hope to these youth who are trying to achieve a higher quality of life.

Who knows?  You just might find some of your own hidden talents!

The Power of Volunteers

 As we work among people experiencing poverty and homelessness, we have discovered an unusually powerful component that has become one of the foundations of our outreach – volunteers.

It never ceases to amaze me how people will leave the warmth and comfort of their homes and families and brave all elements to ensure that the relationships they have established with their friends on the streets or at one of our drop in programs, are maintained and strengthened.  Truly amazing.

Our street friends notice!  They are students of human behavior.  They watch people all day, and can quickly tell the difference between an imitation and the real thing.  Volunteers are in this latter category.  If there were such a thing, our street friends would each qualify for an honorary Ph.D. degree in the study of human behavior.  They know when someone is ‘out to help’ for selfish, personal reasons or because they genuinely care.  This is the power of a volunteer.

We have our Urban Intervention Training program three times a year, and a volunteer social typically occurs at the conclusion of these training sessions.  It gives the new volunteers an opportunity to meet with people who are experienced in the area, and it also provides increased opportunities to meet new people with similar interests.

Tonight was great.  Our BBQ social was a great success.  People were talking and laughing while meeting new friends and hearing our stories.  The food was great, but the friendships – ah- that’s the thing.

We model genuine transparent relationships with each other and then take it to the streets.  Seasoned volunteers, new graduates, staff and work skills participants all pulling together to move this mountain called ‘homelessness’, and making a difference – one person at a time.

Ever wanted to be a part of a group that together was doing something so much bigger than any of us could do alone?  Come and join our team of volunteers.  You can make a difference!

Downtown Ottawa

“Urban Intervention Training” is the name of our volunteer training program which we host three times a year.  It’s a full Saturday, followed by a weeknight session for each of four weeks.  The last evening consists of a walk in downtown Ottawa, where experienced staff/outreach workers take our new volunteers and show them the sights of the city.  It’s not an interactive evening with our street friends, but rather an education for volunteers to help them understand a little of the culture of our city.

Parts of our walk are not too pretty.  Groups of people milling about outside shelters, the drug deals going down, the pushers and the takers, many ‘faceless’ homeless that someday might be new friends to our volunteers.  It’s about light penetrating darkness, caring for humanity, justice and advocacy and a host of other issues swirling all around and calling out for attention.

Last night I lead a group of new volunteers in a walk downtown.

Here’s a look at the streets of the Nation’s Capital from the perspective of some people who have already spent considerable time in a fast track to learn about poverty and homelessness.  Here’s how they responded:

Q: What were your observations?

  • It was really enlightening.  As a person with a disability, I wouldn’t have a chance on the streets.
  • It was a nice night – I can’t imagine what it would be like if it were raining or snowing.
  • A lot of bridges have fences around them.  They are inaccessible.

Q:  How would you survive?

  • If I had to do it on an on-going basis it would be physically and mentally draining.
  • I saw the fences, the restrictions, and the attitudes reflected by that message.  I was torn between thinking, ‘It’s too bad to have fences,’ and ‘Why are they there in the first place?’
  • I felt very unwelcome and scared.  I spent the whole time trying to figure out where am I going to sleep?  Where will I be safe?  Where could I find peace and quiet? I was caught between those thoughts – especially because I am a woman.
  • I don’t know.  It was very unwelcoming: Don’t stop here. Don’t come here.  Bars and fences everywhere saying, not you, not here.

It is a dark and unwelcoming world, but one that needs to first be seen and then be addressed.   The final question, “How can we help?” was succinctly answered by one of our new volunteers:  “It’s not about fixing anything. It’s about caring.  It’s about coming alongside, it’s just to ‘be’.”

In many respects we are very limited in what we can do.  On the other hand, we can make a significant difference in people’s lives through our caring, our touch and our ‘walking alongside’.  It’s all about people and all about relationships, dignity and respect, and caring enough to go beyond our own comfort zone.

Ready?  Let’s go?

A Changed Life

Sam was always going to go to detox in Thunder Bay  – some day.  His mother would send money and Sam would spend it on booze.  His mother would send more money for a bus ticket, but the temptation was too great.  Once he even made it to the bus station, but ran.

 He failed to follow through – we don’t know how many times. Many years worth, at least.  He’d tell his ‘failure’ story over and over again.  He wanted to change, but couldn’t.

We would see him on a weekly basis, often several times a week.  One favourite haunt was the coin laundry downstairs.  He would come with Stacey and Milo, hang around for a while and off to the next stop.  Our words of encouragement seemed to fall on deaf ears.  It was disheartening and discouraging.

Then last fall he disappeared completely.  Gone.

When someone disappears it might mean several things: death, jail or the hospital are the ‘big three’.  No  one had heard from him – not even Stacey and Milo.

Three months later he shows up, clean and sober.  His mother sent him some money, he finally made a decision, and followed through.

Remarkable!

Ten months of sobriety now, and counting – his life has changed.

If you’re interested in another perspective on this story, check out http://bit.ly/cSmznf

It takes a community to change a life, and for whatever part we had to play in this story, we are grateful and thankful.

It’s a pretty good reminder: You never know when something you say, or some random gift of kindness, or prayer for help will make the difference in someone’s life. 

It’s also a good lesson on life: Never give up.  Never.

Tom is back!

Tom is back, and is doing well.

He came to see me last Friday and has been ‘in and out’ of the office all week.  He has hit the ground running and has made some great steps since getting out of jail: he has located a nice apartment in a good area, currently furnishing it, bus pass, happy to be alive and, since Tuesday, free from parole, the system and his past mistakes.

He is thinking about going back to school.  He is considering what kind of job he might get – although he is quick to tell us that he will be back volunteering with us next week.

At the drop in yesterday, Erin (our work skills coordinator) invited him to come to the office when he had a chance to talk.  Well, at 8:03 this morning, he was here.  He sat in the chair and said something like, “I know there’s a lot of work to do here. I’ll come by next week and straighten out all the mess of shelves that happened since I left and I’ll clean it all up.  Don’t worry about it.”

Erin quickly told him that wasn’t the reason for her request.

“Oh?  What?”

“Well, I want to be sure that you come by here next Tuesday, because that’s your birthday.  We are going to get a cake to celebrate with you, but we want to make sure that you are here.  That’s what I wanted to talk about.”

There were moments of silence as Tom stared from under a furled brow as he thought about this.  “Thank you,” he said.

“We’re so happy you are out of jail, and connected with us again.  We love you, and want the best for you.  Plus, we don’t want to eat your cake without you,” Erin replied softly.

So, there you go.   Oh,  just one more thing.  When Tom first came back, and talked with me in my office, he said something that stuck with me.

We talked about how it sucked to be in jail for no good reason, guilty until proven innocent (or rather released because they simply could not detain him any longer), and he said: “Well you know, maybe the Lord had me in jail to keep me from getting into trouble somehow on the streets.  You never know….”

That’s pretty good.

Wish I had thought of that.

Tom Called

Tom Called (see previous blogs re. Injustice)

While I was away in Vancouver I received the following email from our front line receptionist at OIM:

Tom called! 

He is at Fenbrook Institution in Gravenhurst. 

We were only able to talk a brief time as he was in a room with his prison assigned PO (that’s what he called her) and was on an office phone. 

 He said that he had been trying to reach you for awhile but that for some reason was unable to call through.  He had requested that your name/number go on his call out list but it never seemed to work for him.  I’m not really clear as to why and it was difficult to get a lot of information as someone was listening at his end so I did not want to press for info. 

Bottom line, he sounds really good!  He says he’s due to be released in two weeks and will make his way back to Ottawa asap.

I’d say that’s good news. 

Interesting isn’t it that ‘it never seemed to work for him’ to get my (OIM’s) number on his call list (!).

Last week his total world belongings were picked up by our staff and we were able to find a place to store them.  His place of residence was kind enough to allow us to hold them for him, although they could not hold his room.  Fortunately he doesn’t have to ‘start all over’ when he comes back.

I’ll keep you posted.

His parole is finished next week, so we’ll be sure to keep you updated, as he will be a free man after all this time (and able to talk freely, and come to the ‘forbidden’ OIM office).

Thanks for all your thoughts, prayers and kind words!  It’s good to know you are not alone.

Two Different Worlds

Two Different Worlds

In Vancouver for the Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness meetings this past week, I took opportunity to cross the water and go downtown.  Outside eating a bagel breakfast in Yaletown, the city was waking.  I saw some BMW’s, Jags and even a Rolls Royse Silver Shadow coming and going in preparation for the day.  One billboard for condos particularly struck me, with the scale of prices listed, starting at only $499,000 to $6 million.  I wonder what the condo fees are for a six million dollar condo.

Things changed as I headed for the East Side.  The route I took didn’t gradually change from rich to poor, it was paff! – Poverty all at once.  Extreme and systemic this poverty was unlike any I had ever seen in Canada.  Similar elements everywhere, but all dwarfed by the overwhelming intensity of concentration. 

People experiencing homelessness and abject poverty, everywhere, in overwhelming numbers.  Laying on the streets, sometimes beside grocery carts that looked like they were just filled from the town dump, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to look forward to were ‘just there’.  Folks with mental health issues mumbling to themselves, ranting incessantly, many just staring into nothingness.  Milling in small groups or lined up along the walls of buildings at the back edge of the sidewalks, people seemed to be waiting for something or nothing.

I found myself at Carnegie Centre, corner of East Hastings and Main at the Carnegie Community Centre.  It was a library, a drop in, and a multi-service facility.  Some fellows were playing pool downstairs, small groups of men drinking coffee and reading free newspapers.  Outside was a patio with a five foot rod iron fence around it. I bought a coffee and sat with the guys on the patio.  So far, at the Centre it was ‘regular’ and expected, but what happened next was not.

Outside the patio, on the street, the wheelers and dealers were doing business.  I have never seen intensity of drugs and dealing drugs with such blatant disregard for anything or anyone.  I watched for over an hour as people came and went, rolls of money changed hands, pills or packages exchanged and notes taken – who was fronted what.  Dealers would swagger over with John Wayne walk and ‘in your face’ make deals and bargains: its business, working the streets, its Wall Street, East Hastings and Main Street style.

I stayed too long.  The layers of depravity and disregard for human dignity were overwhelming.  Working girls paid their pimps, got some drugs and stagger away to the next trick.  Addicts trying to get more drugs on front, with pleas and promises of pay back. No concern or care – just business.

I walked outside and stood on the corner.  In just minutes I was ignored and in the midst of the whole scene.  Fifteen feet removed from the patio view, an entirely different set of players – the same game.  Across the street the same thing.  I walked to west to the next corner – more.  Further west to the recycling depot where people lined up with shopping carts of looted bottles and cans – more.  I crouched and leaned against the wall and watched – same performance, different players.  It was time to go.

Two blocks further and business, tourism and commerce ruled once again.  Back to the Beamers, Jags and Porches.  Prosperity and blessing.  Construction and gentrification. 

The impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics still imprinted on downtown Vancouver, but something very different imprinted on my heart and mind.  I am still reeling in the aftershock.

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.

Injustice upon injustice – it’s called Life on the Streets

Some things set me right over the edge, mostly it’s a different story with a similar theme: injustice (see Justice III, Feb 26/10).  Here is yet another:

Tom is a recovering alcoholic that will be celebrating seven years of sobriety in two weeks.  He works his 12 step program and is determined to stay clean.  He came to visit us, then volunteered, and then entered our work skills program.  He comes to the office four days a week to help: no job too big, no job too small, he does them all – with a cheerful heart.  He has a record but his probation ends in two short months – and he works hard at keeping clean.  He won’t even cross the street  without a walk signal.

Clean. Squeaky clean.  Pleasant, kind, hard-working, and a delight to be around. We have high hopes for Tom.

So one day, he doesn’t show up. A day, then two and more and then a week and we wonder where he is.  No way to contact him.  Finally we find him – in jail. 

He is in jail right now, been there just over two weeks for “parole violation”.   For “panhandling”.  Reported to his Parole Officer (P.O.) by an “anonymous” person who called it in.  Over fourteen days in jail (and counting) with no help.  No lawyer.  No hearing.  No explanation.  Just “there”.

I called the P.O. and left message after message with no response.

Tuesday of this week the P.O. goes to see Tom in jail to tell him he can’t get out until next Thursday.  Sorry, no.

How can this be?  What about his rights?  Good question.  Looks like Tom doesn’t have any.  An ‘anonymous’ call is enough to land him in jail.

Right now, I don’t have the complete story. But I know enough to know there’s something wrong here – very wrong.

So, today I called my lawyer.  Let’s look into this.  Lawyer will call the P.O. and make an inquiry.  Let’s find out what’s happening here.  Let’s get to the bottom of this.  I have an appointment tomorrow at the jail.  Somebody has to do something about this.

This is a sad story.  Sadder that it happens all the time.  Sadder still that most of my street friends’ rights violations (this appears to be one of them) go unnoticed, undetected and unresolved – particularly so because they don’t have anyone who will help.  They get lost in the “justice system” – or the justice is lost in the “system”.  Maybe it’s just “the system”.

ANYBODY INTERESTED IN DOING SOME ADVOCACY??  Get ready for rejection, apathy, unanswered messages, high levels of frustration getting around red tape, and white hot rage when you see injustice heaped upon injustice heaped upon injustice – oppressing people who are already broken and helpless.

Naw… it’s hoping for too much that somebody somewhere might respond to this plea for help and say, “Hey, I can do something.  Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

(Let me get back to you on this next week.  Friday morning, 1:01 am)

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.