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For us or for them?

I sat at the table with three guys at the drop in this week, just starting a hot game of euchre, when Rod asked if he could please ask a question.  Everybody looked.  “Sure,” I said. 

Rod looked at me intently.  We were in relationship for a while now, long enough for him to feel comfortable: “Why don’t you pray here at the drop in before meals?”

“Good question,” I replied and went on to explain that whereas we were a Christian agency, that we did pray before each drop in, that many times our volunteers prayed with people throughout the day, and that the servers prayed over the meal before serving, that we did not pray publically before meals because there would be a small percentage of our guests for whom that would be a problem.  Some of our folks have been abused by ‘religious’ people, whether at residential schools, or their home towns or somewhere along the story path of their lives. Any kind of prayer for some of our guests, would make them feel very uncomfortable. For the sake of the few, we decided to forgo this common practice.

We continued to talk and enjoyed a good conversation about prayer, people and respect.  The whole table became involved  in fact, and the other guys felt free sharing their opinions as well (it was the first time for one of the guys to open up and talk in front of me).

The boys had been having some conversations about how other agencies require them to ‘be a part’ of a worship experience for about 40 minutes, then listen to a sermon for another 30 minutes, and then they were allowed to eat.  They felt pretty strongly that there was something wrong with this system, and some definite lack of respect for people who were hungry and wanting something to eat.

I defended the particular agency to the guys, because we all know that there is just too much to be done in this world to help others, and people are doing what they think is best when they run a program.

There was talk then about how the worship/preaching/eating  group never asked them what they wanted.  You couldn’t play cards, and there was no time to visit or talk really, because the music was too loud during ‘worship’, or you couldn’t speak during the sermon time.  The food was really good and always fresh, and when you’re hungry, that means a lot.  The whole table agreed that the food was great.

I started to be at a loss for words right about then, but really came up with a big zero when Rod leaned across the table, and thoughtfully (and sincerely) asked me, “Do you think they are doing this for us or for them?” 

Are we doing this for us or for them? 

Million dollar question!  A question that deserves serious consideration, or meditation, or maybe even some prayer time.  Who are we doing this for?  Is it to make us feel better, less guilty, more ‘loving’? 

Or is it because ‘the love of God compels us’ to reach out to others?

Wisdom from the streets calls us to examine ourselves, our motives and our hearts.

Now everything has shifted: it’s not about the worship/preaching/eating group – it’s about me.

OIM Relocates Drop In

Some time ago, we learned that our weekly drop in program would be interrupted for a period of three to six months while a construction renovation occurred at our current downtown location.

 Just two weeks ago, Jelica (OIM’s managing director) informed me that the scheduling for the renovation was imminent.  We would have just three weeks to find a new location, go through the necessary steps with our new ‘landlord’ (which might take several weeks or even months to get approvals), move our supplies, inform our street friends, set up and continue to provide needed services.

 There were some specific caveats involved that severely restricted our options: we needed a downtown location, a place which could accommodate a minimum of 120 people (and up), a serviceable kitchen, a large space for eating our community meal as well as additional spaces for foot care, touch care, hair care, chiropractic care, and clothing distribution.  We needed a space that would allow all these services to be a part of the larger group, and at the same time, is separate enough for individual care.

 In a perfect world, we would also like to be in a pleasant venue with natural light, clean and modern washrooms, and maybe even a garden.  We were looking for a world class venue that would suite the people that we are working with.  Someone said, ‘Put a person in a prison like environment and they’ll act like a prisoner.  Put a person in a world class venue and they’ll act like a world class citizen’. 

 This is not a simple list of items, but it is what we need.  These are the needs of our operation, and became the criteria around which we directed our search.

 The day after the news of our immediate need, I gathered staff for prayer and waiting on God.  We met that morning, again that afternoon, and the next morning.  We didn’t need ‘a space’; we needed the ‘right space’, and so made inquiry of the Lord.

 Good news!  In less than one week we had an offer of ‘the perfect space’ for our needs!

 Dominion Chalmers United Church has very graciously opened her doors to host our drop in until the renovation is complete – mid July!  In every sense, it is the perfect space!

 Woodside Hall is where we have hosted our annual community dinners and accommodate 160-200 guests; there is ample room for services, with our volunteers having their ‘own space’ and feeling like they are a part of the larger drop in at the same time; we have access to D.C.’s private garden which Is accessed directly through Woodside Hall; the kitchen is perfect for our needs, and there is parking!  In every respect, this is a perfect fit for our present needs. 

In less than one week from the time of the announcement of the imminent need to relocate, it was all looked after.   Thanks be to God (and thank you Dominion Chalmers)!

You can check out photos on their website:  http://www.dc-church.org/

Gladness and Sadness

Our Christmas Dinner was held this past Tuesday, January 18.  Three weeks after Christmas and people who received their cheques before Christmas are ready for a hot turkey dinner.  Seems to work for everyone.

Two settings of eighty people each, tickets are distributed and it works well.  This year we had an East Coast Trio that did well: one of our Newfoundland guys said, “I close my eyes and I’m back home.”

Volunteers cooking, serving, cleaning, visiting – with our friends from the streets sharing words of thanks and appreciation.  One Christmas treat bag each, along with one sock filled with more treats. The other sock was inside the first one – I asked.

So, near the end of the second setting I leave through the kitchen door to return my camera to the car.

I noticed someone standing, well leaning, on the wall outside the main door, just out of view of anyone inside.  He was standing on one foot, his leather dress boot in one hand, while at the same time, he is putting on a fresh emptied sock from the gift table.  I looked away to preserve some of my friend’s dignity, and my mind was flooded with thoughts filled with emotion.

I didn’t notice any used socks around when I returned: I wonder if he had any socks on at all.  The leather dress boots had seen better days, and then only inside, but the winter had turned them white with salt, and there was enough water to penetrate the leather right to the bare feet.

What could happen to a person that he would not have socks?  This is sadness.

Then, what could be a better Christmas present than a clean, fresh, warm pair of socks?  Can’t get much better than that!  That is gladness.

Sadness and gladness all wrapped up in a simple exercise of putting on a pair of socks.  The sad story behind this we may never know, but we could imagine there’s a lot of stuff hidden in that story.

Then we have to consider the bigger picture of a bunch of volunteer stuffing socks with candies, hoping to bring a little light into someone’s life – if only they knew just how appropriate their gift really was!

A small thing really, for most of us – but a pretty  large thing for our sockless, water soaked, leather booted friend.

You have to wonder if all the preparation of the meal, the music, the gift bags (and sock bags), the venue, the volunteers, and so many countless deeds of kindness that went into the whole Christmas dinner in January… was so that one man, who had cold, wet boots, could have warm feet for just a wee while.

And know that Someone cared.

BIG day at the Drop In

We receive many donations of clothing at the drop in and we invite folks to help themselves to whatever they need.  From time to time we are presented with genuine needs that go far beyond any donation.

Jimmy takes a size 15 boot and has difficulties finding this size anywhere in the city.  Bill has a rather large circumference and has the same problem.

I approached Bill and told him we could help.  If he would like, we could go to a big box store and he could get a couple pair of pants.  He declined, saying that his sweat pants were serving their purpose quite well, and that there was no need – perhaps I could find someone who was really poor and who needed it.  After some further conversation, he hesitantly admitted, well, he might be able to use some 52” waist trousers given that his other pair of pants were shorts (and he had been wearing them this winter!!)  He was too shy to come with me, but if I went to the box store, he would need 52” a (not 50”) waist.  I asked if we should do a measurement just in case, but we couldn’t find a measuring tape.

Final words, “Fifty-two.”

“No problem”, I replied, “You wait right here.”

South on Bank Street, and my two BIG questions (nice pun!) at the box store, “Do you have 52” waist pants and size 15 warm winter boots?” was answered in the affirmative.  Back to the drop in.

I discretely passed Bill the inside out bag with two pairs of pants and suspenders, and encouraged him to go try them on for size.  “Are they 52?” he asked. 

“Yes, they are.” 

“Then they will be fine, thank you very much.   Fifty-two’s will be just fine.  Thank you very much.”

“It might be good to try them, just in case.  Sometimes store measurements can be a bit off,” I proposed, and, after receiving a somewhat hesitant affirmation, I went off to find Jimmy.  Word got out that I had been looking for him, and he was waiting when I returned.  Before I told him about the new boots he mentioned that his feet were wet and cold from the snow, and size 15 were not common.  I told him that was just what I wanted to talk to him about.  He welcomed the news and we went to the car, and he tried on the boots right there. 

“Are these size 14?” he asked.

“No, these are size 15 – hey, here’s the tag,” and showed him the big ‘15’ on the box.

“Hmmm, nice.”

I passed him one of the boots and he asked for the other.  “My left foot is bigger,” he explained.

Long story short, the left foot was a bit tight, but the right fit perfectly.  He was very pleased and thanked me profusely.

Back downstairs to see how Bill made out. When I was only just in sight, he yelled, “Good one Ken!  Thanks to Lord too,” and explained how the pants did not fit properly – maybe an inch and a half too short of buttoning up. 

“Maybe get a 54 or 55 would be good.  Don’t be shy.  Sorry for the trouble.”

“No trouble at all,” I replied, “Better to find out now and make the exchange.”

South on Bank Street, and now just one BIG question, “Do you have 54” and Matt promptly searched for the right numbers.  “Do you have 55?” I inquired, “that might be better.” 

“If it’s just 1 ½ inch, then a 54 will fit just fine.”

Back again to the drop in – it was almost deserted by this time – and no Bill.  Anybody seen Bill?  He was upstairs getting his hair cut, so all was well.

“Got the 54’s,” I said, “No problem at all.”

“That will be great,” he replied.  “Thanks so much.  I am so sorry for your trouble.  Thank you.”

“Maybe you should just try these on to be sure,” I offered, confident that I had achieved my goal.

“As soon as I’m done.”

Twenty minutes later he came out of the washroom with a concerned look on his face.  “Ken, they only just fit.  Will they shrink?  What if I just hung them to dry?  What if the woman that sometimes helps with my laundry forgets, and puts them in the dryer?  They just barely fit now. And they’re 54’s (sigh).”

“That’s not so bad.  One of our volunteers has a cousin that takes a 60.”  He raised his eyebrows.  I’ll take them back and get the next size up.  Come to the office at noon tomorrow, and we’ll get the right size.”

“I’m so sorry about all this,” he said sadly, ”It is so much trouble.”

“Tomorrow you will have pants that fit properly. You will enjoy them for a long time to come.  It’s worth it to do this right. “

“Around noon then.  Thank you Ken.  Thank you.”

Drop In to our Drop In, New Year’s 2011

A sunny bright first week of January and many greetings of “Happy New Year” were offered from our friends at the drop in.  New Years is just so much better than Christmas.

In addition to the beautiful day, some of our folks were only just receiving their cheques from December (some glitch in the matrix of ODSP/OW) on this day, so it was doubly beautiful (maybe more).

Our numbers are down a bit because of the cheque thing (a typical first of the month pattern), but we have given up trying to estimate our effectiveness through the number of people served a meal.  Instead we count the number of positive interactions our volunteers have with our street friends – more than ‘the Big three’ of news, weather and sports. 

Downstairs, there’s a couple of euchre games on the go, people visiting with each other, relaxed, informal – a nice place to hang out. 

Let’s ‘drop in’ on a few of my encounters with our friends:

I met Bill who is 19 years old and his sister Chaucery (or so I thought, until Bill told me it was his mom), and we chatted.  Two years ago he ran from a fight only to have a severe stab wound in the skull: “See the mark?” he says as he points to the top of his head.  We talked of a few things, but he told me he didn’t want to talk about his father, one time Chaucery’s partner.  Then, after about twenty minutes,   he brought up the topic of his father, and how he had been so severely mistreated.  Usually, among people who have been mistreated as children it is their fathers who have been the primary causes of abuse.  He didn’t want to talk about it, but then he did.  He had been diagnosed with some condition of mental illness (before the knife wound and somehow associated with his father), he explained, and lives with his mom.  Their hydro had been cut off, and it was a good thing I wasn’t part of the blanket-blank agency, or they would have some choice words for me.  They were going to make it, the mom said, because hydro was not their heat source, and their landlord had allowed them to have an extension cord running to a power outlet in the hall.  “We have lots to be thankful for,” Bill reminded his mom.

On the way to the coffee urn, Wayne came in and asked if he could have a hamper to take home with him (before the appointed time for hampers) because the service technician was coming to his new place to hook up a phone that afternoon.  Wayne has undergone a remarkable recovery from alcohol, drugs and the street scene.  He has been clean for over a year now, and has every intention of continuing to improve his life.  After many, many attempts to obtain housing, he now has a place of his own.  I marvel at what he has accomplished against overwhelming odds, as well at his determination to keep on the ‘straight and narrow’.

 Jelica, our managing director, put together a few groceries, while Wayne showed us pictures of his two daughters and grandchildren.  “Wow”, I said, admiring the photographs and smiling, “You don’t look it, but you truly are a rich man.”  He quickly nodded assent and told a condensed version of the powerful reconciliation he recently had with one of his daughters – after being estranged from her for many, many years.

“Thank you so very much for the food,” he said, and put the pictures carefully in the front part of his knapsack, and the groceries in the back.  “I’m off to catch the 12:10 bus.”

As he climbed the stairs out of the building, my eyes met Jelicas’, and there was a simultaneous sigh of gratitude and wonder at this example of a transformed life.  More than words are needed to grasp the deep significance of what was happening all around us. 

It’s all a gift from God, and gifts of God.

These kinds of encounters happen all the time, each one purposefully and intrinsically orchestrated by our Heavenly Father:  each one a display of His splendor .  Mother Theresa coined it well when she said, “We see Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

You should find out how you could be a part of this somehow.  Happy New Years!

Add a Homeless Person to Your Christmas List – II

Merry Christmas!  Just a quick note today, on the eve of Christmas eve, to invite you to do a last minute gift purchase – for someone experiencing homelessness – for someone you don’t even know.  Click on the banner above for more info.

AND, if you would visit www.chri.ca, you can listen to the podcast of the interview I did with the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson.  This is not a political maneuvering or ‘nail him to the post’ interview, but an opportunity to hear our Mayor’s heart regarding the less fortunate in our city: how at an early age, he learned to care, what he is doing now, and some ideas how citizens of Ottawa (and beyond) can become involved.

Take opportunity today and make a donation.  We’ll be sure it gets to where it’s needed most!

Any Second Chances?

I spoke with Walter on the street outside our drop in and listened as he shared his frustration with the current state of affairs with housing in Ottawa – specifically how he has been unable to secure a place to live off the streets.  He is also pretty peeved about his inability to access meals in the downtown core, because of his past behavior.

He does not have any kind of track record of ability of keeping an apartment, and therefore does not have any references.  And, when he tells prospective landlords that he is able to pay because he is a recipient of ODSP (Ontario Disability Service Plan), it serves as a final nail in his coffin.  It appears that Landlords are not interested in housing people who are on disability, probably because they have experienced difficulties with others in the same situation.

But Walter is not the same person who was barred for three lifetimes from one of the service agencies downtown.  (Yup, you read correctly, three lifetimes!!!  What’s that?  I don’t know.)

The stigma that is associated with Walter stems from his past involvement with alcohol, addictions and violence.  But the thing is, Walter has not touched alcohol or drugs now for over a year!  Nothing.

Still, he is refused housing because he is on ODSP and does not have a reference from any landlord because he has lived only on the streets; and he is refused services because of events that happened six years ago. 

What kind of any chance do people like Walter have?  How can the stigma be broken?  Who will do some advocacy on Walter’s behalf?  Some people ‘turn over a new leaf’ in order to get what they need and then turn the leaf right back over, but this is not the case with Walter.  Is there any kind of ‘second chance’ today, when people can have a fresh start?

Walter’s determination to remain clean and sober, is an demonstration of courage and determination far above what I could imagine for anyone else in the same situation. 

What motivation or reason is there for Walter to sustain the significant life changes that he has demonstrated?  His journey over the past twelve months is inspiring!!

Long story short, Walter is going to drop by the office tomorrow.  Maybe he’ll find someone who will believe his story and do a bit of advocacy on his part: make a few calls, give some affirmation of Walter’s character and sobriety.  Then maybe someone will believe him.

If you would like to send some encouraging words to Walter through responding to this blog, I will make sure that he gets your note.  Maybe, just maybe, he will be encouraged through your words and our actions.  Cheers!

Youth Art Show II

The evening the kids have been preparing for had finally arrived.  It was time for the ‘Passion for Youth’ art show at Dominion Chalmers.  There was sufficient space for each artist to choose five pieces of their work to show, and it was a challenge for some to decide.  Hustle, bustle, the staging of sofas and tables from the art room on the second floor, the preparation of the interactive art table where guests could be creative, coffee, tea and snacks set near the entrance all combined to accelerate the excitement and anticipation.

In the end, all was readied.  The stage was set, the players were ready, last minute adjustments to the easels were complete, the live entertainment arrived ( Max and August), and the mood was  set. 

Guests enjoyed the ambiance, the artists and the art work.  Ahh, the art work.  For some of our guests, the time had finally come when the art work that was ‘for display only’ at our auction, was finally available for bidding.  There were pieces of art work that captured hours and hours of devotion, had become a  labour of love, and were now revealed to the public.

But there was something here far greater than what initially captured the senses.  There was a clear demonstration of a Master Artist at work with figures of moving clay.

The real demonstration of art was that of the artists themselves.

Initially, many of these youth never had any idea that they could create anything beautiful at all.  The images of childhood that are so familiar to us were either non-existent or so overshadowed with such painful memories that it would have been better not to have had them at all.  Years of repeated abuse served to reinforce their belief and image they would never amount to anything.  They were told as young children that they were losers, worthless  and discarded and treated as less than animals.  They had eaten from the garbage bins, slept in the bins or wherever they could, experienced cold and discomfort that are beyond description.  They were survivors, despite it all.

Tonight was different.  People they didn’t even know told them over and over again, that they had created something beautiful.  So beautiful in fact that they would like to buy the items and remember the artists.  The youth were the ones encouraging the younger guests and showing them how to hold a paint brush, how to mix the colors, how to ‘let themselves go’ and be creative.  Photos were taken.  The young artists were congratulated for work well done, praised for their choices of color or texture, and one small bit at a time, I believe some changes began to occur.

Maybe the voices of the past were wrong.  Maybe I’m not useless, after all, someone likes what I have created.  Maybe there is something good about me.  Maybe this is not the end.  Maybe, just maybe, I can do something good.  Maybe there is something good about me.

That was the real exhibition of art.  It wasn’t the paint on the canvas, or the music that filled the air: it was living, breathing, young people experiencing hope and a promise for the future.  And, maybe, just maybe, that might be enough to change a life.

Life on the Streets I: Walking

I arrived back in Ottawa late last night and drove through the downtown area on the way home. I saw a man walking with a garbage bag over his shoulder and as I approached, I wondered if this was someone I knew.  It was.

Eddie is somewhere around forty years old and has been habitually homeless.  He doesn’t use alcohol or drugs but he does have some mental health issues, and a major story that has brought him to where he is tonight.  He is friendly, can carry on a conversation most of the time, and is one of our friends. 

I want to take you to just one part of Eddie’s life:  Eddie is a walker.  He walks.  And walks.  And walks some more.

He is constantly on the move, from one styrofoam cup of coffee to the next, from one doorway or abandoned building to another when he is ‘moved along’.  He is allowed to most of the social service agencies in our city, but really does not access them.  He has trouble, as I mentioned earlier, with mental illness.

OK, so I want you to imagine for a brief moment what it would be like to be Eddie. Not the voices inside his head, or the trauma that has formed his life, but something simple, that we can all ‘get’.  The walking piece.

People who are experiencing poverty and homelessness are always on the move.  Police, business owners and citizens all say, ‘Move along.  Go Somewhere Else.’ (I have not ever located this place called ‘Somewhere Else’, but I have a suspicion that it must be pretty full by now).

Walking.  No where to go, just walking.  Heat from the concrete, frostbitten toes, soles from the donated runners separating from the tops and flopping, wet, damp, wet and even frozen. Not sure of your welcome anywhere, but a basic understanding that you are welcome nowhere (many good citizens tell you this, but the voices in your head confirm repeatedly). Some degree of danger, because when you are alone and on your own you are an easy target.

We might imagine some discomfort in our own walking experiences perhaps, but realize there is no reprieve here.  No let up.  No stopping. You can’t get another pair of shoes and dry socks.  There are no boots available, just used donated runners – when you can find a size close to your own.

Where would you go?  Can’t go for coffee, ‘cause you have no money.  Restaurants are out.  Drop in programs, maybe, if you are safe.

You just keep on walking, walking, walking.  Endless walking.  Keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, but there is no end.

Welcome to one part of Eddie’s world.

Any ideas?

Restoring the cities, walls and people

At our drop in staff and volunteers meet early for some words of encouragement and a time of prayer.  The brief passage of Scripture was found in Isaiah 58:10-12.  From those verses came the focus question of the day: “ Is there a way we can ease someone’s troubles today?”  We decided to look for opportunities to do this.

When we opened the doors at ten o’clock, Cleary came in, sobbing.  She told us how one of her closest friends had died of a heart attack at the age of 48.  We consoled her as best we could and she was glad to receive such support. One of the staff sat beside her, held her hands and listened to the stories of her friend’s life.

As the day progressed Cleary went upstairs to the clothing section for a visit. In a few minutes we heard angry loud voices and saw that another of our ladies, Laura, was very agitated.

She told the story of how once again, that nasty lady Cleary, had grievously wronged her.  Cleary had apparently yelled at Laura in the clothing section, telling her to get out of her way!

We took Laura aside and tried to help her understand Cleary was having a bad day.  We explained about the loss of her best friend and how this was such a difficult time.  As the conversation continued, there was a softening in Laura, an understanding that was not there a few minutes ago.

Laura supposed that perhaps she had not heard Cleary properly – even admitted some loss of hearing in one ear! 

Just then, Laura’s eyes locked on someone or something immediately behind us.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Cleary appeared.  We wondered if we would now have to break up a fight between the two women. 

What a surprise to see what happened next.  In that moment of time there was birthed a miracle.  Two ladies, whose hearts were once hardened in anger and resentment towards each other, caught up in their own worlds of pain and misunderstanding, suddenly saw and understood the pain and trouble the other woman was experiencing.

In a moment, Cleary tearfully apologized for her inappropriate tone of voice and demeanour.  She was surprised and saddened to hear that Laura had a hearing problem.  So that was why she had not moved earlier. She was so sorry. 

Laura apologized for her words and bitterness that she had earlier directed at Claudette.

The two women folded into each other’s arms in tears, forgiveness and a new  friendship.  All the anger and anxiety and hostility was washed away as two souls embraced. 

You might be interested in the verse that was shared at the beginning of the day.  “Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.  Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.” Isaiah 58:12

Amazing or what?  It’s a powerful reminder that there is a God who is deeply concerned with all of the needs, sorrows and troubles of all of His children.