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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.

Live and Silent Auction – the details

Generally speaking the needs on the street are increasing and for many charities across Canada, there are dwindling resources as people are faced with financial crises of various sorts.  We are hosting a fund raising auction that I would like you to attend.  The details are in the rotating banner above, but if you are interested, I would like to share with you some of the events of the evening:

Greg Paul, well-known speaker and author will be our guest speaker.   Greg is from Sanctuary, Toronto, and in addition to his role as a pastor of a church in the downtown core, has authored two best sellers: God in the Alley and The Twenty Piece Shuffle.  Another book will soon be released.  Greg is a member of the National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness and a member of Street Level.

Dave Smith, a renowned philanthropist, businessman and entrepreneur in Ottawa has agreed to be our auctioneer.  Dave has a heart for youth, and has founded the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre.  Additionally, Dave has been instrumental in the process of bringing a residential detox program to Ottawa.

In addition to over 150 Silent Auction items, we have a number of live auction items.  The live auction items will include, but not limited to the following list:

  1. The Rideau Canal Story – a set of 8 customed framed prints celebrating the 150th anniversary of the building of the Rideau Canal, value $1400
  2. Stradivarius Violin (copy) & Two framed prints: Damsels with Stringed Instruments, value $1,000
  3. The OLD WEST Collection: 26 volumes, faux leather covers, time-life series, value $600
  4. Lunch with the Chief Vern White.  Value: priceless!
  5. Romantic Getaway #1, one night at the Lord Elgin, $100 coupon from the Keg, a camera, bath set.  Value $410
  6.  Romantic Getaway #2, two nights at the Auberge de mon petit chum, Wakefield, $100 coupon le Moulin Restaurant Wakefield, Book “Celebration of Love”, special “Basket of Healthy Chocolate”.  Value $500
  7. Big Girl’s Special, One month membership tanning package, Nine West designer sunglasses with Coach case, a gift certificate for cut, style and highlights, and SPA bath set.  Value $650
  8. Big Boy’s Special, One hour plane ride over Ottawa in Cessna 150, Complete car cleaning, DeWalt heavy duty drill, 40 pc socket set, 5 Guy tools, Jack Astor Restaurant Certificates, Haircut, Certificate Play It Again Sports.  Value $545
  9. 98.5 the JEWEL Advertising Kit, Forty 30 second spots on Ottawa’s own “the Jewel” 98.5 fm. Value $2,000
  10. Pitt Special SA2  A plane ride on one of eight ‘Red Baron’ biplanes in Canada.  A ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to ride the wind. Value: $450
  11. ROOM REDO – Upper Room Home Furnishings Gift Certificate $2,000 towards a consultation and furniture remake of a room of your choice in your own home.

Tickets are available by calling our office 613-237-6031.

Love to see you there.  Thanks for your support!

LIfe on the Streets 3: Panhandling

We see people panhandling for loose change all the time in our cities.  It’s commonplace.  We have come to adopt certain attitudes towards panhandlers and developed our own patterns of giving (or not).

We make assumptions about those who would ask us for a handout, and we have prejudices about the different approaches people take when asking for money.  However we respond, we walk away and the next person on the sidewalk is hit for a donation.

Generally, those who ask, ask unashamedly, without reservation, boldly, maybe even arrogantly.  Some have learned to hit the right buttons and tell one (maybe of several) stories that have brought them success in the past. It looks so easy, like anyone could do it.

That’s what it appears to be right now, but it wasn’t always like this.

What about the first times?

What would it be like to have no other choice but to ask others for help?  When you have exhausted all of your options?  You ask people for money: not your family or friends (that ended long ago), but complete strangers (who generally are opposed to what you are doing). 

All of your resources are gone and you have hit the wall.  You have no other options, so you do what you have to do to survive.  Pride is long gone and the memory tapes of ‘loser’,’ useless piece of ____ ‘, useless bum’ –  that were ingrained into your thinking from childhood come to the resurface, are reinforced and become your reality.

The first few times it would be hard – maybe the first few thousand – but it becomes a part of who you are.   Blame, shame and desperation have become your daily portion.  

There’s  no way out.  It’s your life now, and you get used to it.  You get better at it.  You harden yourself to the shame, and do your ‘work’. You know where to go, what to avoid, work the angles, develop the stories, and push yourself farther and farther away from who you once were.

Panhandling, it’s pretty simple.  Easy.  Straightforward.  Right?

 “Hey mister, any spare change?”

Life on the Streets 2: Invisibility

I can become invisible in three seconds.

In the time it takes for me to move to a standing position on the sidewalk to sit on the curb beside someone who is experiencing homelessness, I am invisible. 

No one sees me (or the person I am now sitting beside); people look at their watches or their pda’s as soon as they catch a glimpse of us;  attention is diverted quickly to anything that is in a different direction.

You can try it sometime if you want to risk it, and it will be nerve wracking to say the least, but don’t worry,  you’ll be OK as soon as you stand up and continue on your way.

But what if you couldn’t stand up?  What if you just didn’t have the wherewithal to sluff off the years or abuse and mental torment?  What if you could not muster the stuff to rise from that place of invisibility and anonymity and no-one-ness? What if you had to stay there? What would that be like?

I know some high level leadership training courses that have a segment where the student has to either sleep in a shelter or panhandle until she ‘earns’ ten dollars.  At OIM, we have provided opportunities for people to attend ‘One Homeless Night’ where a participant spends the evening on the streets (8 pm to 12 midnight) with only $1.50 and then sleep in a church basement as part of an ‘out of the cold’ shelter experience.  Other programs like these have been run with varying degrees of severity, and in some measure, participants can experience a certain degree of ‘homelessness’.

The common denominator in all these examples, is that at the end of a certain period of discomfort, hunger or embarrassment, you just go back home to the suburbs where a caring family, nice warm home and bed await.  (Notwithstanding the stop at the first fast food joint for a period of ‘catching up’ on some serious eating).

What if there was no choice?  What would it be like to find a place to stay when the shelters are full? Who can you trust? Where can you go?  Where will you use the bathroom (after you are identified as homeless)? Where is safe?

Give this five minutes of your consideration, then give us some feedback.

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.

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?

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.