Friday, April 27, 2007

To be great in the future, we must act great today.

Ten years ago, no one could predict that two jet liners would be purposefully flown into the World Trade Center and change the lives of people around the world. In its aftermath, no one could predict Canadians would need a passport to cross the longest undefended border in the world. Ten years ago, we could not predict that oil would rise above $50 dollars a barrel, let alone 60. Ten years ago, we could not predict Calgary’s economic boom would result in such a dramatic rise in homelessness.

Ten years ago, the Drop-In operated out of an old building and managed a transitional housing centre at Centre 110 and a satellite shelter. We had been offering counseling services for 2 years and the Labour Office (casual and permanent job placement) had been operating for 6 years. Ten years ago, we had also shifted from an 18 hour day to 24 hours per day, 7 days a week service model.

Ten years have made a remarkable difference in what we do and how we do it. However, no matter how well we plan or how well-intentioned our planning is, changing times dictate changing paths. Ten years ago we couldn’t predict that our new facility, sometimes called the Hobo Hilton by outsiders, designed to house 500 individuals, would have to expand to accommodate over 1100 a night. Ten years ago, we would not have seen the need for an in-house nurse, career training initiatives, and computer labs. But, the changing face of homelessness has dictated that we focus on identifying pathways out of homelessness, not just sleeping and feeding those without a place to live.

Ten years ago, we could not predict the future. We could, however, predict that whatever we did, our focus would be on sheltering the less fortunate members of our society with dignity and respect. We could predict that whatever service or program we provided, our focus would be on our clients, their needs, their challenges, and on reconnecting them with their hopes and dreams and possibilities for a better future.

Today, we still cannot predict the future. We can, however, predict that in the future some faces will disappear from the homeless landscape in our city and new ones will appear. Not because they want to be homeless. No one wants to be homeless. They will appear because no matter how hard we fight to bring an end to homelessness, or change the length of time someone is homeless, until we stop the systemic causes, we will not stem the flow. The factors that contribute to homelessness today, will be there tomorrow if they are not dealt with appropriately.

The causes leading up to someone losing their home are complex and varied. Homelessness can be triggered by bad decision-making, poor life skills, a history of poverty, women fleeing violence, mental disorders, addictions or an inability to cope with life’s ups and downs. It can be caused by a breakdown in families, a lack of discharge planning from mental institutions, hospitals and prisons. It can be the result of government planning, or lack of government planning. It can be a wrong turn, the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one.

Last Monday, I attended the Community Summit on Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The people at the table where I was seated ranged from business executives, to social services providers. The man next to me was involved in an addictions recovery centre. At one point during the presentations, he turned to me and said, “Well, guess you’re out of a job in a few years time.”

“Wouldn’t that be lovely,” I replied. “It would mean we’d achieved our goal. Do you believe it’s possible?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said, his head nodding affirmatively to emphasize his support of the 10 Year Plan.

“Great,” I replied. “That means if we can end homelessness in 10 years, we can set the same goal for addictions.”

He sat back in his chair, his eyes registering shocked disbelief. “Absolutely won’t happen,”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” and he paused as he searched for an appropriate answer. “They’re completely different. Addictions have been around for centuries. They’re even mentioned in the Bible.”

“Does their longevity make them right?”

“It’s not about right or wrong,” he said. “It’s part of the human make-up. Addictions are much more complex than homelessness. The issues are life long.”

“But aren’t many of the contributing factors the same?” I asked.

“Yes,” he slowly responded. “But you’ll never end addictions.”

Too bad. I like the idea that something that affects over 35% of homeless individuals could be ended. I like the idea that something that places enormous stress on resources, productivity and our health care system can be stopped. In January 2007, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reported that abuse of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs cost Albertans $4.4 billion in 2002. In Calgary, that translates to approximately $260 per capita. Homelessness costs approximately $40 per capita.

In the Welcome from the Chairman comments of the program for the Summit, Steven Snyder, Chairman, Calgary Committee to End Homelessness wrote, There is incredible enthusiasm, momentum and determination in our city to solve this issue once and for all.”

I’m glad. I’d like to see homelessness end for everyone.

Homelessness, however, is not ‘an issue’ that can be solved like the implementation of a corporate downsizing to stem the bleeding on the bottom line. Homelessness is a societal distress signal. The smoke is rising and we are being engulfed in the fog of believing homelessness is the cause of our distress.

Our distress is based on how confident we feel in the predictability of our future. Whether or not there are visible homeless begging for change on our city streets, if addictions continue to rise, if family violence continues to force women and children to flee their homes, or condominium conversions and redevelopment force low income earners to leave the security of their homes, our society will continue to be at risk and our future less rosey.

Focusing on homelessness as a singular issue that needs to be taken care of, once and for all, allows us to escape addressing the bigger issues we need to address to ensure we live in an inclusive society that welcomes diversity and celebrates individuality, regardless of economic position, cultural practice or creed.

When we attempt to manage homelessness as if we have the answers that will stop those experiencing it from feeling marginalized and under-valued, we contribute to the mindset that states, homelessness is wrong. If it’s wrong, than those experiencing it are in the wrong and we are labeling them criminals in their time of need. In our collusion, we are letting ourselves off the hook of investigating what each of us has done, is doing, or isn’t doing to contribute towards a society in which we all have value and share in values that create harmony, not discord. When we focus on homelessness as the issue we take our sights off what we can do to create a better future for everyone, in spite of our pasts.

I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that if we direct our energies to ending homelessness without addressing the deeper societal issues that have driven its rise, we lose the opportunity to create a community worthy of everyone who calls our city home. We lose the opportunity to be great.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Stretched to the Max

Early Sunday morning, April 1st, the temporary shelter known as, The Brick, was closed. The weather was nasty. Snow fell throughout the day, the temperature never ventured above -8C and, with a push from the wind chill factor, plummeted to -16 that night. The City said their hands were tied; Provincial Legislation prohibited them from implementing Disaster Services unless the temperature was –15 or below, and the windchill factor was not part of the equation. (It has since been determined that this is not a Provincial cap but a municipal one.)

The Drop-In was at over-capacity but turning someone away meant leaving them exposed to the brutal elements outside. We kept our doors open. By Monday morning, April 2nd, in response to the public outcry, City emergency services scrambled to find a place for the homeless who didn’t make it to the Drop-In’s doors and had been left out in the cold. Frantic calls throughout the day finally resulted in EMS announcing they would set-up emergency cots at their building in Whitehorn.

At the Drop-In we heard about the Whitehorn shelter on the 6 o’clock news and promptly contacted EMS and the other agencies involved to arrange for transport of clients. By 8 pm, 371 people stood and waited in our first floor lobby for the bus to arrive, to no avail. It never appeared.
Many calls later, the sad but undeniable truth was announced to the people standing in the lobby. Any individual wanting to go to the Whitehorn shelter would have to walk the fifteen blocks from the Drop-In to the Seed. At –19, this was a hardship most could not survive.

The photos depict the scene in our lobby at 8pm. Pictures, however, cannot show the desperation our clients and staff felt that night. The lobby is approximately 2500 sq. ft. – the size of an average home in Calgary that houses 4 people. The lobby has no mats, no cots, no washroom facility except in the Intox area, which was already over capacity. We had no choice but to let as many people as possible stay inside and camp out on the concrete floor of the lobby.

There was nothing dignified about the arrangements that night. Other than blankets, the individuals who could not get to the buses, or could not find somewhere else to sleep lay on the cold concrete and did what homeless people have to do everyday, make do with what they’ve got and be thankful they were not left out in the cold.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Homeless And Now Gone, But Not Forgotten

Yes we have all seen them, the drunken bums on the street corner, begging for a dime for a cup of coffee. Sometimes we even put some money in their cap or cup, but we walk away knowing that we are just contributing to their next six pack; or their next hit from crack cocaine. But how about the other 90% of the homeless? The people you pass in the street every day, the people that look just like you or me? Everyone of them has a unique story, and there are many different reasons that someone ends up on the streets.

Sometimes the most unlikely people find themselves in this situation. And sometimes really bad things happen. That fact came knocking on my door last week. Let me explain.

Diana Peterson died, and to the best of my knowledge she never stayed at the Calgary Drop-in, to the best of my knowledge she never even visited Canada. She lived a slightly wild life, but she loved her family, and would do almost anything for them. Hurricane Katrina ripped away what few possessions Diana had. Much has been written about FEMA, and how they failed. They did not fail for Diana. They relocated her, put her in a large apartment, paid the rent, and even furnished the place!

FEMA also helped Diana find a job. OK, it wasn’t a great job, but it was enough to get her back up on her feet. Most people would have loved this second chance. Actually for Diana this was her best chance ever. She had spent years chasing rainbows that had always ended in disaster. This was her one great opportunity to break out from a bad situation. This was the chance of a lifetime.

Diana loved her kids, and when her son Roger seemed to be in trouble in Washington state, Diana did what every mother would do, she went to him.

She had no money other than enough to buy the bus ticket, but being the caring mother, she had to find her son. On arrival in Olympia, Washington, Diana became part of the homeless system. No money, no place to live, she had no options; ‘the street’ was the only place to go.

Diana died last Sunday; she died from complications with pneumonia. She died alone, no friends, no family, with no one around her that cared, but the doctors and nurses. Her family had no idea that she was sick, they had no way to find her, they tried sending emails to the organization that they thought was helping her, but they received no replies. She died lonely. Diana was not a bad person, Diana was someone you would have walked by on the street and not have tagged as homeless. She was just like you and me.

Unfortunately Diana did not share any information with her family, no one knew where she was, or the dire situation she was in. Diana had a great support system, the family was there for her, but she opted to not use it. The world has lost a good person.

Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone.

Oh, I guess I should explain the reason for this article, Diana was my sister-in-law.

Simon Barrett

I am angry

Today, a TV reporter phoned wanting to do a story on homeless individuals who have been affected by the cold. Well, the trite answer is, every homeless person is affected by the cold. The reality is, some are affected more than others.

For those living in transitional housing such as the clients on the 4th and 5th floors of the Drop-In and at Centre 110, they know where they'll be sleeping every night. They don't have to line up. They don't have to spend the day worrying about whether or not they'll find a place to sleep that night. They have an assigned bed. A place just for them.

Transitional housing accounts for approximately one-third of our shelter space. For the other two-thirds, worry as to where they'll sleep each night takes up an enormous part of their day, especially when it's cold.

I agree with the reporter. Putting a human face on the physical cost of homelessness is important. I just wasn't prepared for the reality of what I found when I asked the staff for help in identifying individuals who would be willing to talk on camera about their experience of being homeless and cold.

The reality is chilling.

Collin (I have used pseudonyms for everyone) lost both feet December 31st due to complications of frostbite. Happy New Year.

Darius lost the toes on one foot and two fingers.

Micheal lost fingers on both hands.

Tina had frostbite but it's believed she will not lose any digits or limbs. We hope.

Jarred too is expected to recover without loss of limb. For the time being, he's whole. At least until the next time he's forced to sleep outside due to over-capacity at the Drop-In and other shelters.

Kurt was not so lucky. He lost the toes on both his feet.

And we argue about who is responsible for homelessness and how are we going to end it in ten years.

For these individuals, homelessness, with or without the loss of limb, has not ended. They don't have the luxury of sitting around a board room table weighing the cost of homelessness against the benefits of affordable housing that will be built in future years. They're hanging out at the Drop-In, trying to fit the pieces of their lives back together. Trying to incorporate this new state of being into their current reality as they struggle to rid themselves of the label they had, Homeless, and the new one they've just acquired, Disabled. They're struggling to figure out how they'll work again. How will they find a home. Be independent. Dream. Get away from the drudgery of spending each day struggling to make sense of the non-sensical. Where did their limbs go? Where did their future go? Where did their freedom to make choices go? What happened to their lives?

No one can give these people back what they've lost. Time will never heal the psychological wounds inflicted upon them. Time will not heal lost limbs.

Sure, they'll move on. Possibly. Perhaps. Maybe.

They'll need help. Definitely.

But who will give it?

At the Drop-In, we do not have the capacity nor the facility to treat the wounds buried deep beneath the skin. We have a nurse on staff. He was hired last fall when management realized that despite lobbying, no funds could be found in the health region to support an in-house nurse. Our staff nurse can treat the visible wounds. Provide triage and bandaids and clean wounds and give support. But he cannot treat the wounds buried deep beneath the skin. He can clean a stump, but he cannot clean out the mental refuse that clogs the thinking and feeling of someone who has suffered the indignity and sorrow of being homeless and then lost a limb in the process.

I am angry.

Committees are struck. Temperature initiated housing policies are set in place to determine when the City will respond to the homeless crisis.

What does the weather have to do with being homeless? The weather didn't cause homelessness. And it definitely will not cure it.

And yet, we sit back and watch the mercury falling with the fervent passion of an astronomer gazing at the stars waiting for the next big bang in space.

Collin doesn't care what is written in the stars. He can barely look up from the desperation of his new reality. His life is now determined by the confines of a wheelchair. Every day he pushes his way across the second floor of the Drop-In searching for answers, feeling the pain in his missing feet. Every day he struggles to understand the nonsensical past where there is no sense to what has happened to him, other than that someone, somewhere, was unwilling to open a door that might have kept him out of the cold long enough to get off his feet so he wouldn't lose them.

I am angry.

Everyday hope is crushed beneath bureaucratic insistence that homelessness is some other agency's responsibility. Some other government bodies domain. Everyday fingers and toes and lives are buried beneath the weight and cruelty of homelessness and all we can do is talk about affordable housing, in the future.

People are being hurt. Today. Right now.

Our mayor is in Mexico, and while I'm sure it's a well-deserved break from his duties, for the thousands of people who have no place to call home in our city, there is no break from the cold and no break from the crushing hopelessness of homelessness. Their lives are at risk. Today. Right now.

When do we stop being part of the problem and become active participants in creating solutions that work today?

When do we start treating homelessness as something that happens to people rather than something that happens to 3,436 statistics duly noted on the register of the Homeless Count?

When do we make a difference to people whose lives have led them to believe they don't make a difference to anyone, including themselves?

WARNING -- Lives in Progress

Photo: Mike Sturk
The other day one of my students was telling me about a notice posted near the Bow River in Calgary (the Drop-In Centre where I work is next to the river). Today, he brought a copy of this notice in for us to see:

So long as the CALGARY DROP-IN CENTRE is allowed to harbor drug addicts and chronic criminals it will be EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TO TRAVEL THE RIVERSIDE BIKE PATHS between CENTRE STREET and the ZOO.

These are not "homeless" - they get welfare cheques in Saskatoon, Vancouver and (even) Calgary! They are TRANSIENTS BY CHOICE, and PREDATORS BY NATURE.

- a message from a concerned East Villager who knows.

This message is extremely sad to me. For those of you who don't know, Calgary is a BOOMING city. With the increase of wealth, the divide between the wealthy and poor has grown exponentially. Low-income housing is non-existent and rental properties are scarce. The Drop-In Centre is a place of HOPE in the city. I feel very thankful that so many of the clients I work with every day see value in the services it provides. The average client stays at the Drop-In Centre for 6 months. They are thankful for warm meals, hot showers, clean clothes, and a place to sleep for however long they need it.

Contrary to popular belief, those who access the services at the Drop-In are not all drug addicts, criminals, unemployed or predators. Yes, there are some who have made choices that have brought them there. Yes, some have mental illnesses and some are addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling. But in my experience with the people I work with daily, that is not the "norm," nor is it even the majority.I see people who are an inspiration. They have a desire to LIVE, to survive and overcome the obstacles in their path.

I see people who have a wealth of knowledge and experience and who have a lot to teach me ... they have a lot to teach US! Every life that I have encountered has changed my own.

To the writer of the above poster and to those who share his opinion, I want to invite you to spend a few days at the Drop-In Centre with us, to talk with the people who live here and to experience their stories and to be impacted by their lives. I want you to experience the beauty that I see every day in learning from those around me, especially those who have a different experience than my own.

Katie S. is an instructor in the Career Training Initiative at the Calgary Drop-In.