One of our Kids – at the art show

The first time I met Kaylin she was on street outreach two years ago. I noticed her sitting on the sidewalk on Bank Street with a torn up hat placed in front of her and holding a sign that said “Anything would help, even a smile”.

I noticed that Kaylin was crying. When I asked her what was wrong she said that I group of tourists came up and took out their camera to take a picture of her. She asked them not to take the picture, but they ignored her and snapped the shot anyway. Then, without a word, the tourists just turned and walked away.

Kaylin felt humiliated, as if she was not a real person, “…just part of the scenery”as she says.

 Since that day our relationship with Kaylin has grown much closer and last year she joined our youth art program. She really didn’t want to paint because in her words, “I stink at painting”. She decided to make jewelery instead. At our first youth art show people were astounded at her beautiful creations. Encouraged by these compliments Kaylin showed up for art group the next week and said “I think I want to try painting now.”

It’s been  5 months now, and Kaylin shows up faithfully every week and pours out her heart on the canvas.  In fact, she has painted more pictures than anyone else in the group.

She arrived early to help set up the tables and the paintings for our second youth art show just last week. As we were setting up one of our staff asked Kaylin if she was excited about the putting her art work in the show. She said that she was happy but also very nervous because she did not think that anyone would be interested in coming to see her work.

“It will probably only be my mom who comes and that’s it”.

When we opened the doors at six o clock there was already a group of about 15 people waiting to come in. Within the first 30 minutes the room was filled with people who were amazed at the creativity displayed by the youth in the program. 

I looked at Kaylin and she had a big smile on her face, “I guess it’s more than just my mom” she laughed. 

By the end of the night we had over one hundred people who attended. The highlight of the night for me was walking out to the garden area we had displayed some of the art work.

Kaylin was standing next to one of her paintings and she was surrounded by visitors. When I moved closer to hear what Kaylin was saying I realized that she was telling them her life story. She was telling them about how she had struggled with drugs, but that she was doing better now. She was sharing her thoughts about what was needed in order to help homeless youth.

 

As she explained the meaning behind her favourite painting, I looked at the faces of everyone standing around her. They were hanging on her every word, totally locked in and listening to everything she had to say. 

In that moment, I thought back to the first time that I met her. Just a piece of the scenery?

Not anymore.  Kaylin was the star of the show.

Jason Pino, Youth Outreach Worker

Youth Art Show

It was an amazing evening! Thirteen street-engaged youth presented their art work at Dominion Chalmers United Church, and over 110 guests came to see some fantastic works of art.  The hall was laid out to show the art, and overflowed into the adjacent garden.  Guests were amazed at the high quality of art, and the only disappointment was that the art was for viewing only (not for sale).

The youth had the idea of setting up a large table area for guests to be creative with pastels and paint.  It was a hit!  The youth supervised the table and gave helps and hints to guests that were only beginning to discover their own talents. Seven or eight guests at a time, and it worked well.

One of the youth came into the hall from the garden.  She found some flower petals that had fallen from the plant, some strands of grass and wisps of dried grass, and she made a ‘natural’ creation on canvas with the pieces.  “Look, it’s from the garden!” she said as she bounced across the hall to show her friends.

That’s one difference with street artists: they can find use in what is usually discarded.  Most of us would see these items in our own gardens and think, “Time to rake and compost.” This young girl saw something different: she saw something that was redeemable, useful and beautiful.

It’s a microcosm of what is happening with our kids in the art program.  What some consider ‘discards’ or ‘societal throw-aways’ are really diamonds in the rough -kids who have neither had a chance in life nor any positive reinforcement.

Sometimes we can speak words of hope and sometimes we can see hope being birthed.

This is what is happening with these kids.  It’s truly beautiful.

I sat beside the ‘garden artist’, and encouraged her creativity and talent.  She was quiet when I spoke these words of hope into her life, but seemed to be listening intently.

Later on in the evening she approached me and proudly displayed her ‘real flower on canvases.  It was finished and she thought I would be interested.  I mentioned that the way she had finished the centre of the flowers was very appropriate (it really was genius), and her smile beamed brightly.

It the kind of thing that just might change a life!

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.

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.