Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Homlessness is pepetuated by hopelessness

After five years of working at the Drop-In, three of which were on the "Intox" floor, I believe that homelessness is closely related to, and perpetuated by, hopelessness. Every day at work I wake up guys at 3, 4, and 5 a.m., who go off to work for $10 per hour. I'm just guessing, but what I think goes through the heads of many of our clients is something like this: "OK, today is payday. So do I sock away my entire $400 cheque today and for the next three or four paydays so that I can have first month's rent and damage deposit for my own place, or should I buy smokes and a couple of cases of beer to drink with my friends tonight? And maybe I'll get a hotel room for a couple of nights, so I won't have to put up with snoring, with stinky feet on both sides of me, and the possibility that staff won't notice when someone tries to steal something out of my backpack during the night."

In Calgary the boomtown, where rents under $800 per month are few and far between, this is a powerful rationalization for the kind of wheel-spinning, self-destructive behaviour I see in so many of our clients. I'd like to ask anyone complaining about panhandlers, stupid drunks and crackheads, and lazy street people, if they have ever made a phone call to their MLA or alderman calling for affordable housing and a higher minimum wage; have they ever demanded more money or land be allocated to treatment centres in Alberta?

In the face of unreasonable prices, people despair. They turn to the escape to be had in drugs, alcohol, and gambling - and the revenues of the latter end up mostly in provincial coffers, I'm ashamed to know. The social costs of these addictive behaviours are enormous. We see the loss of invaluable talents, skills, dreams, and ideas, as men and women drift from one temp job to another, unable to imagine the possibility of meaningful work. If we are ever to reduce homelessness, then hope needs to be brought a little closer to earth, rather than seeming like pipe dreams up in the sky, for the down-and-out on our streets.

Roger G.

Roger G. is a night supervisor at the Drop-In. This article originally appeared as a letter in FFWD magazine a couple of years ago.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Do It Now

On March 31, 287+ individuals will go to sleep in the safe, warm environment of a temporary emergency shelter. While it’s not a place to call home, it does provide a mat, blankets, washroom facilities, food and a place to come in out of the cold. In the morning, after they awaken, they will be transported back downtown and spend the day as they have for the past three months since the shelter was opened in December. Some will go to work. Some will take courses at the Mustard Seed or Bow Valley College. Some will come to the second floor of the Drop-In and while away the hours, playing cards, watching TV, volunteering, talking to friends and staff, sharing a meal. Some will spend the day in the library, or wandering the streets looking for somewhere to go.

That evening, when normally they would be checking in to be transported up to the shelter, they will have no where to go. No where to sleep. No where to get in from the elements. No where they can legally rest their heads.

On April 1, 2007, the temporary shelter in the old Brick building on 16th Ave. N.W. will be closed. A page in the City’s plan to temporarily house the approximately 300 adult men and women for whom there were no emergency beds will be closed and with that closure, the lives of 287+ people will be in flux, once again.

As a means to avoid a crisis in the event of winter weather, Council has committed to opening temporary emergency shelter space, should the temperature fall below –15 degrees Celsius. Council has also given administration the green light to find a suitable facility (and begin securing the necessary land use approvals) to establish a temporary emergency shelter for the winter of 2007/2008.[1] Given that the homeless count for 2006 was 32% higher than 2004, it is a prudent step on the part of Council and City administration. At the rate of growth in Calgary’s homeless population, were the count to be taken on May 10, 2007, the homeless population in our City will have increased by 16% or approximately 1,040 people over last year.

Unfortunately, regardless of the temperature, a proposed temporary emergency shelter for any period of time is of little consequence to the 287+ men and women who will be left without shelter on April 1. For them, the pressure of finding safe, secure and legal sleeping accommodation is a life or death issue. However, in a city with an almost zero vacancy rate, where the average monthly rent is significantly above the poverty line under which the majority of homeless individuals exist, finding a safe, legal place to sleep is almost impossible.

They can’t sleep under bridges or on park benches. We’ve got a bylaw to ensure they don’t.

They can’t sleep at any of the existing shelters. The reason the temporary emergency shelter was opened was because of the over-capacity in the existing shelters. The Drop-In currently sleeps 1100 individuals per night, and has been at or near capacity for the past year.

They can’t go home. They don’t have a home.

They can’t change their circumstances overnight. The factors that drove them onto the street are still the factors that keep them homeless. No affordable housing. A dearth of facilities and treatment programs for addictions. Limited resources to help with those who, due to mental diseases cannot live without assistance. Divorce and break-ups. Family violence. Sexual assault. Poor decisions. Limited life skills and/or education. Etc.

Where do they go?

It is inconceivable that a City as prosperous and socially conscious as Calgary can turn a blind eye to the plight of these individuals. And yet, we do. Except of course, unless the temperature drops below the magic –15 degrees Celsius.

There is nothing magic about a night on the streets, whatever the temperature. And yet, we do nothing.

On April 1, 287+ men and women will have no where to sleep, and we expect them to be law abiding citizens. We expect them to not pitch a tent on the river bank, to not sleep in vacant garages or huddle in doorways or lay on park benches. We expect them to be compliant and to not break the laws we've imposed to create a civil society while we act without civility towards them.

We’re pretty clear on what they can’t do. Isn’t it time we got clear on what we can do? Rather than continually stating, homelessness is not a municipal problem, it’s the responsibility of the Province, isn’t it time we said, “Homelessness is our problem. Homelessness is wrong. When one person sleeps out in the cold, the quality of life for every Calgarian is affected.”

Talking about the number of affordable housing units we’re building, soon, or what we plan on doing in ten years will not impact the plight of the 287+ individuals with no place to sleep on April 1. These individuals have no where to go and they’re not just magically going to be absorbed into non-existent housing in Calgary because the problems they face in trying to secure suitable and affordable housing are not going away either.

It’s time to demand Council and the Provincial government turn up and pay attention to the problems our citizens face today so that we can all sleep safely and soundly in our beds on April 1, 2007. If you have not called your Alderman or MLA to ensure they are actively seeking a viable solution that will ensure these individuals have no other choice than to roam the streets, Do It Now. Time is of the essence. Be loud. Be vocal and give voice to the dire circumstances of the 287+ individuals and the 3,436 who were counted as homeless on May 10, 2006. They need our help.

[1] Amy Alexander, Issue Strategist/Homelessness Coordinator, The City of Calgary

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Calman -- A short story by Dave C.

Hey Birtle, you are supposed to write a character sketch; write about me. I know I died last month, washed up on the banks of the Red River, but I live on. You still think about me, that says something. People who did not know me are probably thinking that I, along with the taxpayers, am better off. A wasted life; another homeless bum who met his end.

I never had the things that most people value. My parents died when I was young. A boarding school became my home. There I learned fear and shame. Without the skills or the confidence necessary to maintain a stable lifestyle, I remained on the fringes of society, taking odd jobs as a farm laborer, construction worker and janitor. It felt good to work but I was too shy to make friends. On Friday nights, we would go to the bar but it always felt like everyone was watching me. I would get drunk to shield myself from the scrutiny of others and after a while, my fears became a reality; I was not welcome.

My health was never good. Heart problems limited the physical labor that I could take on. With no friends and no family, I drank to pass the time and dream of the life I never had. I did not envy the cars, houses and fancy clothes; I envied the hugs, smiles and acceptance that I had witnessed but never experienced. No matter where I went or what I did, I felt I did not belong.

Disability income does not pay very much. The eviction notice came and I walked out to face my greatest fear. I no longer had any place to hide.

With less than a dollar in my pocket, the clothes on my back, and the items I could stuff into a small duffle bag, I set off for skid row. No matter how bad things were, I never imagined I would sink this low. They are the lazy bums; I am just unable to work. I tried, I honestly tried, but nothing ever fit.

I called you Birtle because you once lived in the town where I was born. By the time we met, I had lived on the streets for five years and you were the rookie at the shelter. In those five years, I had not amassed any possessions but I had gained a life.

I remember the day I entered the shelter, everyone stared but it was different. I sensed curiosity rather than scrutiny, warmth rather than hostility. Someone offered me a cigarette. Later I realized it was his last one. They wanted to know my name and they did not care where I came from or what I had done. We played cards and we laughed (I actually laughed). They told me where to get food, where to get clothing and which workers I could trust. While they never actually said it, they told me that I belonged. In losing an apartment, I had gained a home.

The people I met were not the sub-human derelicts which society depicts; we were simply people. We were scared, we were beaten but, in many ways, we were more human than the so-called regular, respectable public. There were no airs, no hypocrisy; an overwhelming sense of honesty prevailed. While we were the poorest of the poor, we gave and shared unconditionally. For the first time in my life, I knew acceptance and love.

All my life I searched desperately for something and when I gave up the search, I found it. Society teaches us to use external yardsticks to measure our lives but I have learned that these yardsticks are meaningless. When we look for love, we fail to see it; when we measure life, we waste it.

It does not matter what society thinks. My community has existed in every culture since the beginning of recorded time. Politicians and economists derive models and programs to fix us; the general population seeks to ignore us. We have always been here and we will always be here. I am dead now but my life was not a waste. I have laughed and I have cried. I have loved and I have received love. My name was Calman and I live on in the hearts of many. I live on in your heart Birtle because you looked into my eyes rather than at my clothes.

Dave C is a Supervisor at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. Prior to joining the Drop-In he worked in the homeless sector in Winnipeg where this story is set. No matter where he is, as this story demonstrates, Dave is a gifted writer and a compassionate human being.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Snow falling. Hope passing.

Only in Calgary can you enjoy all four seasons in one day. Yesterday morning spring arrived with refreshing rain and its promise of the earth’s rebirth. By noon, summer’s heat bore down as people stripped off protective layers of clothing to expose pale skin eager for the sun’s rays. Fall’s chill descended by early evening. The sun disappeared behind sullen grey clouds and by nightfall, sleet had turned to snow. It’s been snowing ever since. The wet, heavy kind that’s awful for driving but perfect for creating snowmen and other wonders of winter.

If you’re homeless, winter is not a wonder. Driving is seldom an issue and seeing the snow as an opportunity to take part in a recreational sport is not on the list of “Ten things I must do to survive the winter”.

When you’re homeless, the snow is an enemy. It soaks through clothing and shoes, results in frostbite and the possibility of lost digits. Snow and cold lead to aches and chilblains and the relentless search for a warm, safe place to hang out in. Snow brings colds and under grey skies, good humour evaporates as desperation and depression descend with the snow clogging the roadways.

The snow is not welcome when you’re homeless.

But then, the homeless are not welcome in most areas of the city.

Mostly, the homeless are considered a problem. A crisis. A situation that must be dealt with. Like the pristine snow blanketing the city, we search for ways to sweep the homeless out of view. With each new carefully drafted chapter of “Ten things we must do to end homelessness” we hope that out of sight will lead to out of mind and the problem of the homeless will be solved, or at least disappear.

Outside, the snow falls and soon it will disappear. It’s inevitable.

Getting off the street, finding a home, rebuilding lives; that’s not inevitable, at least not for some.

There is no shovel big enough to end homelessness

The homeless are not something we can shovel out of the way, nor sweep away. They are not a statistic or a number that quantifies their presence but says nothing of the individuals populating the carefully constructed graphs depicting the growth in homelessness in Calgary. i.e. May 10, 2006 Homeless Count: 3436 representing a 32% increase since the count of 2004.

The homeless are people. Individuals. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and nieces. The homeless have names. They have stories. They have a past and while the future may not look too bright for some, they all share in the dream that somewhere there is an answer to their homelessness. Someday they will find a way to change their lives.

Some lives end before change happens

Every day at the Drop-In we work with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and nieces. We work with people who have lost their way. Some are trying to forget their pasts, some can’t forget it. Some believe there’s a better tomorrow waiting for them, someday. Some believe it’s impossible.

Every day at the Drop-In we participate in changing lives. We witness lives moving out of despair into hope. And we experience failure.

Two men were murdered Saturday night and with their passing all hope that their lives could change died. They will never have the possibility of a better tomorrow.

One of the men was an inspired artist. He was talented. Gifted. He had intermittently been a client of the Drop-In several years ago. Mostly during those times when alcohol overtook his ability to weather the storms of life and he looked for refuge in a bottle. When he stayed with us, he would draw. On scraps of paper. On paper towel. On anything staff gave him. Beautiful black and white sketches honouring his heritage. He didn’t talk a lot, but through his art, you could catch a glimpse of the awesome soul within. Complex. Intricate. Beautiful. Wounded.

Hope is a long and winding road

Today, the snow falls and the artist is gone. His talent. His many gifts have passed with him.

Any hope he had of finding his way out of the darkness is gone with him. Any hope his family had of their son coming home is gone.

While we sit and write reports, check our numbers and carefully graph our formulae of where and what to do with the men, women, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who populate our streets, hope dies. Every day.

For those experiencing homelessness, the road is winding, the future grim. At the Drop-In we accept those who come through our doors exactly where they’re at. We provide them a safe, stable environment. We do not tolerate drugs or drug dealers. We do not condone violence and weapons. Our clients cannot be safe when they fear for their lives.

We believe that in helping people stay alive, in providing them the essential services needed to not succumb to the indignities of being homeless, they will have a chance to find the spark that will ignite their imaginations so that they can begin their journey home. In time, they will find the courage to take those first steps into a life that is a reflection of who they are meant to be, not who they’ve been labeled since losing their way.

No matter the weather, our doors remain open

In this city of over a million people, one man’s death will not remain in the headlines long. Like the snow quickly disappearing under the sun’s rays, his memory will blend into the past as he becomes a statistic in the homicide record of the city.

Yet, there is still hope for those who walk the streets in search of a better day, as long as we remain constant in our belief that what we do makes a difference. We believe that providing support to those who have lost their way on the road of life will affect how they get up tomorrow. As each person picks up the dream of beginning the long walk home, we believe they will be strengthened by the knowledge that no matter the season, no matter the weather, when they needed a place to rest, the Drop-In’s doors were open.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

You can make a difference

It was a busy day at lunch on Friday. We didn't have enough volunteers to serve clients at their tables which meant everyone had to line up to receive their meal and juice. Our preference is to serve people at their table -- it's an opportunity to be of service and, for homeless individuals who are often forced to line-up for almost everthing, it's an opportunity to feel 'normal', to be treated with dignity and to feel like they 'count' as individuals. While clients can't choose what they want for lunch or dinner and it's not necessarily restaurant fare, the food is wholesome and the smile served up with each plate makes a world of difference to the person being served.

Bring your group in to volunteer

Volunteering is a great opportunity for organizations and groups to work together towards making a difference.

Get your team together to volunteer one day a month, (or more!) at the Drop-In. (You can even sponsor a meal with our Buy, Cook, Serve program -- call Larissa at 263-5707 to find out more.) Groups can be as large as 28 or as small as 5. Your group arrives at 11:45 am, (5:45 pm for dinner) dons aprons, gloves and hairnets and get to work behind the counter preparing the plates with food, or on the service side carrying plates to clients. 12:30 to 12:45 lunch is over. You leave with the appreciative applause of the individuals you served ringing in your ears and the knowledge you've made a difference lifting your spirits as you carry on with your day. Helping serve lunch or dinner is a great opportunity to give back to the community. You help us serve our clients with dignity and respect and touch the hearts and minds of everyone at the Drop-In.

For groups coming in for the first time or people who have never visited the Drop-In, we can also arrange a tour. Each tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour and provides an overview of our services and programs, as well as insight into homelessness, its causes, effects and challenges. The feedback after a tour ranges from, "Wow! I didn't realize the Drop-In did so much more than just sleep and feed the homeless." to "I didn't know you had so many employment related programs or that you had such a high level of transitional services to assist people towards getting back on their feet." to "This is amazing. I had no idea."

Serving those who need a helping hand

The United nations describes poverty as "the denial of opportunities and choices most basic to human development -- to lead a long, healthy, creative life and to enjoy a decent standard of living,freedom, dignity, self-esteem, and the respect of others." In a city as rich and vibrant and booming as Calgary, there are those who cannot afford a roof over their heads. There are those who cannot get by without a little help from their friends.

The Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre is part of the social fabric of our city. We provide homeless individuals, the working poor and those living in poverty the necessary supports to be safe, to catch their breath and to regain some stability in their lives. We provide them a supportive environment in which they can figure out 'What next?' And, we provide guidance and tools that help them take the steps they've identified that will make a difference in their lives.

In a perfect world, no one would ever need our services. Everyone would have a place to call home.

In today's reality, we sleep 1100 people a night and serve 3500 meals and snacks a day.

In a perfect world, everyone would have the ability and the skills to live creative productive lives.

In reality, some people need more help than others. Approximately 35% of our clients have an addiction -- sometimes, it's the addiciton that drove them to the street. Sometimes, the addiction was acquired as a means of coping with the numbing stress of being homeless. Approximately 35% of our clients have a mental disorder. They may have tried living on their own, but didn't thrive. Their mental disorder inhibits their ability to live without support of some kind.

With a little help from our friends

Volunteers and donors make a difference every day at the Drop-In. Volunteers and donors extend our services and provide the essential monetary, practical and physical resources we need to help our clients find their hope, their belief in themselves and their way out of homelessness so that they can live, "long, healthy, creative lives". From a toothbrush to the smallest financial contribution -- every little bit counts.

You can make a difference.

Give us a call (263-5707). We appreciate your help.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Creating Community

I have been working at the Calgary Drop In for over two years now. Through this time I have connected with so many folks who come from a varied life journey. Each individual has a story to share and they seek a place to find community and feel safe from the streets.

There are people that work full time, yet do not make enough income to be able to afford their own place to live so they stay at the Drop In. With the rise in rental properties in Calgary, it is difficult for someone to afford the cost of renting and having the luxury of their own space. The minimum wage is just not enough to support someone to live on their own.

The Drop In offers many wonderful workshops to help them learn the skills to work towards independence. Our labour office helps people gain skills in a variety of jobs that require different skills. We also offer programs to help people improve their employable skills so that they can gain better jobs.

There are women and men who are battling addictions, while working on a program to stay sober. They come to the Drop In to access our support services to assist them on their recovery journey. It is often a challenge to stay sober when you do not feel you have enough supports in place to help you. It takes a strong person to walk away, and stand tall to say "enough". "I want more from life". When they choose to come to the Drop In, and reach out for help, they are taking a major step forward in making changes in their lives. There are many wonderful staff members at the Drop In who work with people wanting to make changes, and sometimes this involves "tough love". But for those who are really making the effort to make positive changes, they know that there are others who are part of the Drop In community who will help walk the journey with them and share community resources to help them recover.

There are seniors who stay with us rather than being alone. They find comfort in our seniors program with outings, sharing a game of cards, and being part of a community here. We have a building for our seniors so that those who are able to live on their own can have their own space. There are many wonderful folks living at Bridgeland apartments who gather for potlucks and share in celebrations. There are many seniors who return to the Drop In to volunteer their time in our clothing room, or help in our laundry services.

There are young adults, who have challenges with their families and can't live at home. They come to the Drop In and network with others to learn of educational programs and participate in our life skills workshops. They work in our computer labs to gain computer skills or participate in our Wood Shop to learn woodworking skills to help them find a job.

For every individual that travels through our doors and stays the night, you can bet there is a story with them. It is important to take the time to sit and listen. To give them a voice so that they can feel part of our community and not alone. Everyone needs to feel connected and at the Drop In people can network and find a place in our community.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Homeless not Jobless

In a recent survey of our client base, we asked the question, What is your employment status? The results:

  • 40.2% of the respondents answered they work more than 32 hours a week.

  • 16.8% work at a scheduled part time job of 10 to 32 hours per week.

  • 32.7% work casual day labour.

Our clients may be homeless, but they’re not jobless.

Who, then, are the clients of the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre?

Statistically, 90% of our clients are male. The majority are 36 to 45 years of age (58%) and 21% are 26 to 35 years old.

But that’s statistically.

Emotionally, physically, 100% of our clients are individuals who never had a dream of being homeless but who find themselves in that predicament today. Sometimes because of bad choices. Sometimes because of an addiction or poor mental health. Sometimes because of poor life-skills learned in abusive or neglectful homes. Sometimes because of pure bad luck.

Regardless of what drove them to the street, the majority of our clients are not homeless because they don’t have a job or don’t want to work.

They’re homeless because our society has continued to grow and prosper while they have fallen behind the curve of our economic prosperity.

They’re homeless because the cost of housing and availability of affordable housing in Calgary are diametrically opposed.

In another survey question, we asked: How much do feel you can afford to pay in rent?

51.4% answered $400 to $800.

Rental units in Calgary within that cost bracket are few and far between, and as soon as a landlord hears the phrase, “I currently live at the Drop-In Centre” from a potential tenant, discrimination sets in and the once open door is closed.

The faces of the homeless are as individual as the issues that drive them to the street. Regardless of why a person arrived at the Drop-In, however, the fact is, homeless does not equal jobless.