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Gary – a story about Resiliency (and more)

Gary came down the stairs at the drop in, saw me and said, “I haven’t got your money yet. I know it’s been three years.  I’m working on it.”  Gary has been involved in a court case where his landlord stole things from his apartment before kicking him out.  Gary really likes what we do at OIM, so much so that he has committed some of the money from the settlement to helping the poor.  My protests that this is not necessary do not make any difference. 

We sat down and talked for quite some time.  He told me that the first time his father gave him a black eye he was six years old.  He never could measure up to his father’s expectations, and would expect a beating when he brought home a less than perfect report card.  He wet the bed every night, and every morning he would pay for it.

He ran away from home twelve times before he actually succeeded in making a breakaway when he was fifteen years old.  He never went back.

Odd jobs in many different places over his sixty-two years, but he never settled down for a long time in any one place.  He stopped drinking a year ago. No programs, he just quit.  

He said his father was a very successful man from all appearances.  No-one knew how he treated his family, and in those days, it was a well guarded secret.  A leader in his labour union and in the community, he was well respected and seen as a pillar in the community.

Gary told me he spoke with his father before his dad died.  He did what he could to make things right.  In one conversation, his father wondered why his children didn’t call him.  “Well dad, you need to remember that you beat them almost every day,” Gary replied, “You can’t really expect much after doing that for so many years.  Plus, we all remember how mom was beat.”

It’s remarkable how my friend has survived these many years.  He holds no ill will towards his dad, he has forgiven him.  Now, instead he helps other street friends when he can and is well respected.  In fact, one of our street friends came over while we were talking and asked for some advice.  In his own gentle way, Gary turned his attention to his friend’s inquiry and did his best to help. 

It was time for him to go to an appointment, and we bid each other farewell.

This story is unique to Gary, but not uncommon in the street community.  Young children suffer all manner of abuse at home, are forced to leave – fearing for their lives, descend into the pit of addictions and find themselves on the street.

Thankfully Gary found a way out before it consumed him, and now has chosen to give back. And, in his current maltreatment by his landlord, is standing up for his rights and justice.

I marvel at Gary’s and others’ fortitude, resiliency and determination. I’m not sure I would fare so well.

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?

Life on the Streets I – Walk

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.

Bedbugs or Brutality?

I walked past Jim sleeping outside the convenience store on my way to the bank.  He was OK, probably tired from a late night.  The doorway of the building he was laying across was vacant, and he was ‘out of the way’ at least, from pedestrians and cars.  No danger.  No alarm.

This is Jim’s ‘area’, I guess you could say.  He would pan outside the supermarket, play his guitar for donations (or not), and generally was easy to get along with.  He knew how to do his ‘work’ and got by – as best a person could get by, homeless style.

I have wakened Jim on occasion to see if he was OK, or needed something, or if I had something for him.  Today everything looked good, so I let him sleep.

He comes to the office regularly, and we have gone out of the way to help him with recording some of his songs, created CD’s for him to market and so on.  He appreciates the help, but he is pretty entrenched in his lifestyle for any radical change – at least for now.  So, we do what we can, and wait for the day when he wants to make a change.

Back to the street.

On the way back from the bank, one of Ottawa’s finest has pulled the black and white over the curb just in front of Jim’s spot.  A young constable, mid twenties, has the task of ‘moving Jim “along”.  ( I have yet to discover where ‘along’ is.  For sure it’s not here and not now).

It doesn’t look pretty.  Jim is shaken up from his peaceful sleep, rushing to gather his things to the tune of “Hurry up.  You need to move – NOW!” and other such pleasantries.  Jim slips his foot out of his oversized running shoe and shows the peace officer his feet – black and blue and cut.  “I can’t move fast – look at my feet”, Jim shouts at the policeman, who by now is donning his black leather gloves. 

I stay and watch as a witness, in case something goes awry, but it gets cleared up.  “Cleared up”.  Sounds good, clean, and neat, but it’s far from anything even remotely connected with clean or clear.  It’s messy.

I am grieved whenever I see this happen, and it happens all the time. Some business owner, or not – maybe it’s just time for a ‘sweep’ of our streets from city hall – whatever… it’s dehumanizing, degrading, condescending and sometimes brutal.  It’s about the wielding of power and the power of injustice.

Jim has tried to get housing, but it’s not an easy option for him.  He had to leave his last place because of the bedbugs.  Lots of them – hungry too! 

At the very least, there aren’t any bedbugs on the streets – just the police.

What’s worse?

Getting a Place of Your Own

Harry has been desperately searching for shelter since he was released from jail three months ago.  He has been squeaky clean – no drugs or alcohol since his discharge.  He is pleasant, kind and often helps others with their troubles.  (Oh yes, he’s still a bit rough around the edges, but we are proud and happy to see how he is managing things at this time).  The one major glitch in his life right now is finding a place of his own. 

I spoke with him at some length and he gave me the ‘Housing 101’ summary.  I took note of his thoughts and feelings about what it is like to have your own place.  Three phases: On the streets; Looking for Housing; Finding a place.

ON THE STREETS

You are nothing.  Nobody wants to know you, know who you are. You’re the bottom of the shoe.  You feel like a ‘low life’, limbo, and you are always wondering the ‘what if’s’: what if this, what if that.  You feel like an empty shell, like you are just spinning your wheels.  You feel depressed, deprived, miserable, and angry – angry at yourself.  You get depressed, real depressed.

LOOKING FOR HOUSING

Agencies, housing help, your worker… it’s all the same story.  It’s one long headache.  Living in a bad area is worse than homelessness – people always knocking on your door, buy this/that… there’s no stopping it.  So ANGRY!

Me: ‘How hard is it? One to ten?’

TEN!  It’s not about money. If you’re starting over, you need money, references, someone to vouch for you.  Twenty years ago, if you had the money, you were ‘in’.  Not today!  Used to be:  “Oh, on ODSP (Ontario Disability Service Plan)?  OK, just fill out this form.”  Not now.  It’s fill out this form, that form, get references, who will vouch for you? When something comes up, we’ll call you.’

It doesn’t happen.  Not any more.  Getting housing is like winning the lottery – about the same chances.

WHEN YOU FINALLY GET HOUSING

It’s about 100,000 pounds off your chest.  Your mind is at ease, all the pressures are gone, complete turnaround.   If you got no place, and then you get a place, you lose the anger, you can relax.

It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s yours.  You go to the door. You have the key.  You open the door and shut the world out behind you.  Maybe you have a TV here, a bed there, a little table – it’s your place, your domain…

When you finally get your own place, you can begin to think about what to do next.  You have more patience, you can start to plan.  You’re not on the edge, not jumpy.

You get a place, you see things different; you answer different – there’s no more anger in your voice.

You can put your feet up and say, “I’m home and this is mine.”

Getting a place can make the difference between success in reintegration and re-offending. We’re doing what we can to make Harry’s search successful.