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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?”

100% Success Rate at OIM!!

 ‘So what kind of success rate do you have with people?’  I looked at this person while a whirlwind of thoughts raced around in my head, almost like the dog chasing his tail.

My friend was thinking there might be a 3%, or maybe 5% success rate – where a person who lives in abject poverty, on the streets, ‘recovers’ and breaks the cycle of poverty, gets a job, an apartment, a family and all the other trappings that accompany the ‘Canadian dream’.

My mind flashed to people that I knew on the streets: people that had been sexually abused for many years as children and who had articulated these abuses only after living with them in silence for over 20 years;  I thought of others who were trapped in the dark cycle of drug and alcohol addiction which started as self-medication to deal with the beatings received from father, mother, step-parent or whoever; then of the teenage girl who brought her new born baby to the drop in for help, looking for someone – anyone who might show her real love, because in her experience people had only used her as if she were a piece of meat, a commodity that could be sold, rented or used.

All this raced through my mind in just a few seconds, with my friend waiting for an answer to his probing question.

‘One hundred percent,’ I replied, ‘We have a 100% success rate.’

His mouth dropped open in disbelief.  ‘What??  How??’

‘Each time we hand out a sandwich, or sleeping bag, or pair of socks, we build relationship with people who have never had relationship before.  It brings someone a step closer to a time when a light will come on and they will make better decisions and life choices.’

Some agencies count their ‘success’ by the number of plates served at a shelter or drop in (not withstanding that many folks will have five helpings!), or the number of people who attend a chapel service in order to receive a meal ticket, or the number of youth who will participate in a ‘project’ so as to make them eligible to receive services.

We count the number of positive interactions we have with our street friends at our drop in services or on the street through outreach.  It’s all about relationship (and 100% success).

NEW!! Chiropractic Care at the Drop In

Just a few weeks ago we initiated chiropractic care at our drop in.  What an amazing outreach!

Dr. Greg Payne from Ottawa came to us last fall and offered his services to our guests at the drop in.  He took our Urban Intervention Training, and just a few weeks ago, he came with his portable adjustment table and a heart to serve the poor.  Calm and unassuming, Dr. Payne spends time with each of our street friends who are suffering in their bodies, and makes appropriate chiropractic adjustments.

What a hit!  Our street friends have warmly accepted the treatments and the kindness of the good doctor.  More than ‘treating patients’, Dr. Payne genuinely cares for each of his new patients.

No hassles.  No appointments.  No penetrating ‘interview’ about the history of each injury.  No fees.

I sat and watched for three or four of the treatments. Dignity, respect, compassion and help are the mainstays of this new development at Ottawa Innercity Ministries.  When things slowed down somewhat, I took time to visit with the doctor and noticed the sign up sheet had two columns: ‘New patients’ and ‘Returning Patients’.  Interesting that the ‘Returning Patients’ had more names – probably about twenty-eight in all.

Words of appreciation warmly spoken.  One man just could not believe that he could feel so much better immediately after his first treatment!

Some of the participants moved right from the chiropractic table over to the Touch Care area and enjoyed a relaxing light back massage.

I marveled at the beauty of it all: people sharing their gifts and talents and abilities with those in need.  At the other side of the room, two volunteers were doing foot care and Rudy was faithfully cutting hair at the entrance to the room. 

We have been given so much.  When I see how others ‘Pay it Forward’, it strikes a chord deep in my own heart.  It just seems so just, so right, so good to pool our resources and do what we can to change our own, and others’ worlds.

How do you think you could do your part, with your own gifts and talents?  Call me.  We can talk.

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!