Thursday, June 14, 2007

You ask "Why?". I ask you, "What Are We Prepared To Do?"

Today I received an email from a woman who asked really tough questions. I wanted to share her letter as it provokes deep thinking, and it asks the question so many ask, "Why?"

At the bottom of her email, I have also included my response. "Why?" is always a tough question to answer. For every answer, there are a thousand more paths we can take to find another "Why?" Perhaps, rather than ask why, we need to look at, What is it in our society that has left so many people at risk of being abused by homelessness? What are we prepared to do about it?

Hello Louise,

Today, I have found your booklet in my mail box. After reading it, I could not keep myself from writing you and ask you “Why?”

“Why do thousands of immigrants from different countries come to Canada, to Calgary and manage to find job and place to live?” “Why do many of them hardly speaking English finally find employment and pay taxes?” “Why do many of them having degrees and being doctors, economists, teachers, engineers in their countries, agree to work in the kitchen, in retail, in construction?”

In your appeal for support you are telling that all these homeless people have their own story, but you don’t tell any.

However, I can tell you a lot of stories about people who come to Canada hardly speaking English and who found a job in construction for 22$ per hour, I can tell you stories about doctor who works in the library, about math teacher who works in the retail store, financial director who works in construction, about people who go study again and work part-time, who struggle for new and better living in their new country.

Answer me, Louise, “Why people who were born here, who didn’t have to leave their friends, their parents, their language, who mostly look strong and fit, can not find job and place to live?”.

I live in the downtown, and in our building there several apartments are vacant right now. Single apartment costs about 900$ per month. So why do these people can gather in a group of four and rent it? If they find employment in construction, like many immigrants do, it won’t a problem for them.

I admit that people can find them themselves on the street for different reasons. One of my friends who came to Canada as a refugee was living in Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Center for some time, but it was for short period of time, than he found a job and left that place.
Being from Eastern Europe I have been to many countries. I have not seen so many panhandles and homeless people like in Calgary in any of 9 European counties I visited. In many European countries panhandling is prohibited. So, maybe we should use their experience in it?

Maybe the answer is simple, Maybe drugsand alcohol is the only thing that interested them in this life. And maybe even Drop-In centers with their support help them continue this way of living.

What do you think Louise?

Below is my response:

Thank you for your thought provoking letter. I'm challenged to find the 'right' answer and so am going to write what is true in my experience of having worked here for just over a year.

One of the things that struck me in your letter was your comment that many of the immigrants who come here are doctors, economists, teachers, etc. In their experience, they have had the advantage of education, of life-skills that are focused on self-improvement, rather than self-destruction. For the majority of our clients at the Drop-In, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is lack of education and life-skills. Many of them never received an opportunity to believe in themselves, to recognize their own competencies by succeeding at school, university, trade school. While the immigrant doctor may take a job working in construction and recognize it as a 'step-down', for many of our clients, working in construction is a step-up from where they've been in life. And it's a tough step to take without life-skills. The jobs they do find provide subsistence living, with little margin for independent living.

I agree. There are those for whom the 'street life' is a way of life they've adjusted to, become accustomed to and thus go from day to day surviving in this life without giving a lot of consideration to making plans to get out of the life. It's not a great life, but it is the life they know. Fear of change. Of facing what has brought them down keep them from looking up.

There are those for whom their addiction is what has led them to the street. And they can't see a way out of it because their addiction blocks them from seeing there is a future better than their past.

There are those for whom mental disorders hinder their ability to cope with life outside and so stay inside the Drop-In. For these individuals, we do not have the capacity nor ability to meet their needs. But, as there are no programs or facilities in the province that will do it, we do it as best we can. It is not a great solution. It is what must be done to ensure they are safe.

For others like your friend, the Drop-In is just a stepping stone on their journey. Unfortunately, these days the stepping stone is becoming more and more of a platform as they struggle to find a place to live that is affordable.

Yes, there are apartments out there for rent that four people could share. One of the challenges our clients face is that as soon as a landlord hears they currently reside at the Drop-In, the landlord is more than likely to take another applicant. Given that the vacancy rate is so low, it's easy to find renters. Why not pick someone who is not labeled 'Homeless'?

You ask, “Why people who were born here, who didn’t have to leave their friends, their parents, their language, who mostly look strong and fit, can not find job and place to live?

I admit it is a complex question. One of the things I believe is that no matter how fit they look on the outside, if they are homeless, then they are not fit on the inside. They do not believe they make a difference, let alone can make a difference. Approximately 50% of our clients have jobs -- homelessness is not about jobs, nor in many cases housing. If it were, everyone would be working and living in their own home. All of our clients once had a home, a way of life different than what they are currently experiencing. Homelessness is not about 'my home', it's about my life.

At the Drop-In, we do attempt to provide people programs and resources that will help them move beyond the challenges of homelessness back to 'main street'. And we do have successes. The sheer number of people entering through our doors, however, keeps increasing as the lure of Calgary's wealth attracts people from across the country. We manage the increased number of people needing our services with limited resources, resources that have not increased with the growth of the homeless population in our city. It is a challenging situation.

While there is some truth in your answer, Maybe the answer is simple maybe mostly these people the way they live. Maybe they are just not well organized and self-disciplined to come to work on time, to follow the shifts. Maybe This kind of “freedom” is more close to their hearts, there is also a misconception of what is true for the individuals existing in this life. There is no dignity in being 'homeless'. There is no room for mistakes. No safety. No security. There is no sense of self-worth, of belief in the limitless possibilities of your life. There is no place to go to kick back, relax, just be without someone interfering, crowding you, taking up the same space. There is no privacy in homelessness. No aloneness. Homelessness is on display for everyone to see. We see it every day on our streets. We see it in our parks, along the riverbanks, the bike paths, the walking trails. Homelessness is everywhere. When you are homeless you are labeled, and you learn to walk with the label.

There is something very numbing, very nullifying about being labeled, Homeless. In the process, you lose all sense of yourself. All belief in your abilities. The shame of being homeless pushes you further back and you lose track of where you were going until you come to believe this is the only place you can be.

Do we at the Drop-In contribute to 'the homeless problem'? We do not invite people to the Drop-In. They come because they have no where else to go. I believe we give people hope. We give them an opportunity to catch their breath, to find their balance so that they can move on, out of here to somewhere better. The Drop-In is not the solution for anyone. But what is the solution? Thus far, no one has come forward with a solution that works better. And so, we continue to greet people who walk through our door, where they're at. We continue to provide opportunities for them to discover where they want to go. The rise in individuals experiencing homelessness is not unique to Calgary. It is apparent all across Canada.

Is what we do perfect? No. Are there better ways? Probably. Does what we do work? Yes. We serve people in need. We provide them shelter, food, and the opportunity to search for different pathways in their lives. When there are enough rehab spaces and treatment facilities for people with addictions, assisted living spaces for those with mental disorders and facilities for senior's who have lost their homes, the Drop-In will no longer be needed. When family violence no longer forces women and children to run for their lives, or divorce no longer tears families apart, or sexual abuse no longer rips apart a child's innocence, destroying their self-worth, homeless shelters and services will no longer be needed. That would be an awesome day.

Until then, we must continue to serve those in need so that we provide a safe place for them to come until such time that they can find a place of their own to call home.

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