Friday, November 30, 2007


I went to a hockey game last night. I was invited by a friend whose company has a private box. Needless to say, the private box was spectacular. Food, wine, careful attention to our every need.

I'm not much of a hockey fan -- but sometimes it is fun to go and experience life on the other side of opulence. That rich, phat place where anything is made possible by the unlimited supply of the coin that fuels our economy.

Quite the polar opposite of the environment at the Drop-In. That place where there isn't enough money in the world to mend the broken psyches of those who have fallen so completely on the road of life.

Money doesn't heal addictions. Money doesn't mend broken spirits.

Only people can do that.And for those who have lost their footing on the cold hard pavement of the facts of life with no coin, money has no value except to buy you more of the poison that flows into your veins with the incessant monotony of a tap that will not quit dripping.

At a couple of points last night, two players whipped off their protective gear and got to the business of pummeling each other out. The fans went berserk. Screaming. Hollering. Yelling. Cheering the pugilists on, the crowd rose as one. Arms punched the air. Feet stomped the concrete concourse. The arena went wild.

I've seen behaviour like that at the shelter where I work. Two men duke it out. A crowd gathers goading them on. Mayhem ensues for a short while until staff quickly step in and pull them apart.

In the hockey arena, the referees step back and wait and then enter the fray only after an appropriate time has passed when they consider the crowd's hunger for the drama unfolding on the ice has been satiated. The players are sent to individual boxes to cool it off. When their time is up, they get back on the ice and go at it again, confident that their untempered display of aggression will be rewarded by the crowd should they go at it again.

Sometimes, at the Drop-In the police are called and the fighters are arrested and sent to individual cells to serve their time, until such time as they are released to go at it again. They have no confidence it won't happen again. Theirs is a violent world. A world in which the only thing they carry is their attitude and the aggression they hold up like a shield to fend off anyone who dares to question their right to go at it again.

There's a world of difference between the men who got out on the ice and fought last night, and the men who fight in the real, hard world of getting by day by day in a shelter. Two separate worlds. Same humans.

In one, the human beings are compelled by their nature to assert dominance in the field, on the ice, in the arena of life where their actions become part of the excitement that fuels the game. In the other, the men are acting out the same drive to be dominant, to protect whatever turf they can mark, to defend their position -- right or wrong. They are morally condemned by the same world that condones fighting in the hockey arena as a socially acceptable tradition of men being men. One ends up in the penalty box and earns a million bucks. The other ends up in an 8x8 cell and earns a record that's criminal. Go figure.

The question is: Where on earth do we get off on rewarding fights in the arena and penalizing those who fight in the arena of life where every toehold is a hard won battle of spirit over the drive to numb the pain of living on the edge of desperation?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fear of the unknown

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation to a group of teachers on a Personal Development day. There were 16 of them, and one of them was late. We sat in the boardroom chatting while we waited. One woman's cellphone rang. It was the missing teacher.

"Come to the building and ring the buzzer," the teacher who answered the phone said. "That way you won't have to park across the street in the parking lot and walk to the building alone." And she went on to give precise instructions on what to do and where to go.

Now, that walk across the street from the parking lot is in full view of the building. It is monitored by cameras. It consists of walking out the gate of the parking lot, ten feet to the roadway, crossing the road, and walking through the gates to our building and up the 50 feet of driveway to the front doors. Staff and volunteers do it every day. We have never had an incident of a staff or volunteer being accosted on that short walk.

I was curious. "What is it you fear might happen to her if she walks from the parking lot to the building?" I asked.

"Oh, I'm not really afraid," she replied with a smile. "It's just scary to walk across the street by yourself down there."

"And what makes it so scary?" I probed.

"Well," and she hesitated. "Look at the people around. Who knows what might happen?"

"What do you fear might happen?" I asked again.

She replied that old stand-by, "I don't know."

Most times, we do know. We're just afraid of saying, or facing the truth.I know what this woman feared. She feared her friend might be raped or or knifed or murdered crossing the street to the shelter. She feared her friend would feel fear crossing the street. Whether or not the fear is real, the feeling of it is scary. I asked her if that was the case.

"Well.... It's possible." she replied.

"Absolutely," I agreed. "But can we talk about what is the fear you're feeling in this instance? It is ultimately, part of what my presentation is all about."

The woman graciously agreed.

"Who are these people you fear?" I asked the group.

Several people spoke up and said, "But I don't fear them."

I disagreed (politely). "You walked to the building in a group and when one member came alone, you made sure she didn't have to walk across the street alone. I remember the first day I walked into the building for an interview. I was terrified. I stood in the lobby and wondered what on earth am I doing here. This is a scary place."

"Oh, I'm not scared being in the building," the woman with the cellphone said. "I just don't like walking into it."

"The people inside are the same people who are outside," I replied. "What's the difference?"

"Well, there's no staff out there. Anything could happen."

"Yes. Anything can happen. Who and what are you to trust? Your instincts or your fear of the unknown?" I looked around the group. "And what I want to do today is challenge your thinking so that we can dispel your fear of the unknown. Who are the homeless?" I asked.

The words came out. Addicts. Mentally challenged. Runaways. Working poor.

"Those are all labels," I replied. "The labels help us make sense of something we don't understand. The labels help us separate from who 'those people' on the street are, and ourselves. They help us maintain our difference. But, if we peel away the labels, what do we have? We have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, next door neighbours, the old guy down the street who spent his life savings caring for his wife and lost his home. Peel away the labels and we have everyday people lost on the road of life."

On that morning, I trusted myself to ask tough questions of a group of people who came into the shelter to learn about something they didn't understand. To do that, I had to ask them to question their fears, to confront them and to step into them.That woman was afraid of having her friend cross the street, not because of the people, but rather, because of her fears of the unknown.

Now -- I don't think it's a good idea to walk in this neighbourhood after dark. And I do acknowledge if you've never been in the Drop-In before, coming here can be scary. But, to let fear limit learning, to let it keep you from walking across the street -- that is fearful.

I believe it's important to be vigilant. But, to fear 'simply because', is not healthy. We expend too much energy fighting the unknown and lose our ability to recognize when our intuition kicks in warning us of people and circumstances we need to fear.

On that morning, 16 people walked away with an understanding of what they fear. As I told them at the end, "What separates us and people who are homeless is an address. What we share is fear. We fear them. We fear what has happened to their lives. We fear the street. We fear what it is that takes human beings so far from home. And we fear that it could happen to us too."

Heads nodded around the room.

I continued. "They fear the street too. Fear is the predominant emotion on the street. Fear is real. It's up to us to stay real with our fears and not give into our imagination's desire to drive us into fear when we are safe."

For those who are homeless, our fear of them surrounds us every time we meet on the street. It breathes into and out of our pores. In our fear, we lose the ability to understand, to hear what they're saying, to look at them through different eyes.

Being homeless is not a game. It's not a cakewalk. It can be deadly -- not for you and me crossing the street, but rather, for those whose lives are eroded day by day by the fear that permeates their lives every day on the streets they walk.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The world beyond

Every Tuesday night I work with a volunteer at Project Forward. The purpose of Project Forward is to provide clients financial management tools and life skills that will help them deal with their barriers to re-integrating back into mainstream society.

Last night, one of the clients who attended is a man in his late twenties. Tall. Slim. Like so many other clients, homelessness caught him by surprise. He's a father. A Licensed Practical Nurse by training, but the sudden onset of 'cervical dystonia', a neurological disease believed to have been caused by a reaction to the drugs he was taking for bi-polar disorder caused the basal ganglia in his brain to mis-function. He can no longer work. Where once he could lift a 180 lb. patient with ease out of his wheelchair, suddenly he was weak, unable to control the activity of his limbs. His speech became slurred. His neck twisted, his head tilted down towards his shoulder and spasms rocked his body.

"My bi-polar disorder was causing me to do bizarre things," he said, his head tucked into his chin, his hands gripping the arms of his chair to keep them from shaking. "It was awful for my wife and kids and then, when I started taking the drugs to help me with my bi-polar, this happened. My marriage broke up. I can't work. I've applied for government assistance but I can't get it until I see a neurologist. I can't get an appointment with a neurologist for two years. My family want me to come home but my kids are here. I don't want to leave them and so I wait. Here."

He motions with his head to the room around him. We're on the sixth floor of the Drop-In. In the boardroom. A quiet place one floor up from the fifth floor where he has a transitional bed. "I'm grateful I don't have to worry about where I'm sleeping every night," he says. "But I sure wish I wasn't forced to take handouts."

He gazes out the large plate glass windows that overlook the river valley and the hillside beyond where we sit in the boardroom. The river is dark, its water's glistening with reflected light. On the hillside, lights twinkle. The sky is indigo blue. Deep. "The view sure is beautiful up here at night," he says with a smile.

He always has a positive thing to say. "It's all I've got," he says when I mention his attitude. "If I don't keep thinking positive I'll drown in this place. I can't let that happen."


French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote, "Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats."

For this man, life became a shipwreck because of a disorder he did not choose, did not ask for, did not want.

Yet, he's singing in his lifeboat. Smiling every day as he sits on the second floor, working as a volunteer, talking to people, trying to lift their spirits with a joke, a warm look, a listening ear.

"I always like seeing you when I'm on the second floor," I tell him. "You make me smile."

"It's your smile that makes me smile," he replies. "Guess it's true. Smiles are contagious."

He's right. They are.

In this place where so few have anything to smile about, a smile is sometimes all we can share. And yet, a smile can make a difference between seeing only darkness and despair, or the possibilities of what can happen when we shift our attitude and look out the windows at the world beyond.