Monday, December 29, 2008

The First Annual Musician's Carol

Happiness depends more on how life strikes you than on what happens. Andy Rooney
On Thursday, December 18, a group of Calgary musicians got together to hold the First Annual Musician's Carol on behalf of the DI. It started with a guy named Lester Howe. He came into my office one day and said, "I want to make a difference. Can I pull some musicians together and put on a concert for you guys?"

And he did. While the weather outside was frightful, the sounds and spirit inside Dicken's Pub, where the event was held, were delightful! Even though weather was an inhibitor, the roads were treacherous and holiday spirits were wearing out on the last few shopping days 'til Christmas there was a good crowd throughout the evening to partake of the amazing music. Through the generosity of the performers and those who attended, the First Annual Musician's Carol raised $675.

During the evening, Lester kept coming up to me and saying, "Next year will be even bigger. I've already booked the venue and the night." I'm sure he's right. The evening was big enough that night to open hearts and minds to the possibilities of doing even more for those who need our help.

On the night of December 18, I felt like I was part of something that transcended the every day. It was a community spirit of giving. A sense of belonging to something filled with possibility, filled with giving to receive the gift of music, of talent, of connecting to something bigger than just ourselves.
During the evening, the musicians came up to thank me for making it possible for them to support the shelter. What awesome spirits! They had all volunteered their time and were grateful for the chance to give back. When I invited them to contact me if they wanted to come into the shelter to put on a show, they all jumped at the opportunity.
"Hey!" one guy said after hearing he was welcome to come in and play for clients. "I've been there. Down and out. Without my music, I'd still be down. It's the least I can do if it might help someone else get out of that place of feeling like the only place you got to go is down."

The gift of empathy. The gift of caring. The gift of giving. It was an evening filled with the joy of being human.

It was also an evening to witness the human condition struggling to find itself somewhere in the chaos of a bar. A place to see the parallels of life on the street played out on the bar room floor.

Late in the evening a tall, skinny man, clad head to toe in black walked into the pub. Black hair. No hat. No scarf. His face had a tight, pinched look. I smiled at him from behind the podium where I was seated at the door. A stack of DI newsletters sat on the counter top beside me. A grey tin cash box, lid closed, rested in front of me.

"What's this?" he asked pointing at the cash box. A confused look on his face at the realization that I was there for a reason.

"It's a benefit concert for the DI." I told him.

"You mean I have to pay to get in?" He hesitated. Eyed the stairs towards the exit. Glanced at the bar. "I..." He stopped. His shoulders lowered, his head dropped forward, his chin touched the collar of his black leather coat. He shook his head. He let out a big sigh. "Great. I shoulda known. It's my birthday. I just want a drink. I'm not here to listen to music. I'm fighting with my boss. He wants to cut my pay. He keeps saying I'm lucky to have a job and with the economy..." He took a breath as if to continue on with his tale of woe.

"Happy Birthday! Please feel welcome to come in." I smiled and said quickly. "Giving is an option. Have a nice evening."

He stood in front of me for a moment. Confused. Someone else entered and I turned to greet them. He slid away to the bar and ordered a drink. He turned his back to the musicians on the stage, hunched his shoulders over a beer and stood by himself, a solitary figure in black. Lonely. Sad. Lost.

He reminded me of many of our clients. A well worn path to the bar, their minds filled with the stories of why they're where they're at and will never get to where they want to go, if only they knew where that was. They can't see the story on the other side of opening up to possibility and lose their sense of direction. Stuck in where they're at, they cannot find a way out.

For that man, finding a reason not to give is all he can give. Perhaps one day he'll give himself the gift of a new story of his life, but for now, he's where he's at. All I could give him was a smile and an invitation to come in from the cold.

Later, a young man stumbled across the floor, his body weaving from side to side. He wasn't with anyone. He didn't have a drink anywhere that I could see. And still he stumbled. Another patron brushed past him. The young man stopped. Scowled. Stared after the other man who was oblivious to their brief encounter. His face scrunched up in thought. Did he want to fight? Duke it out. Call out, "Hey man. You pushed me." I hesitated. Not sure if I should approach him. Not sure if I should get him a chair.

As quickly as the encounter happened, the young man turned around as if he'd forgotten something. Perhaps where he was. He stumbled up the stairs and disappeared into the cold night, buttoning his coat as he left.

An older man sat at the lottery machine behind me. Sixties. Perhaps seventy. He plugged the machine with coins and sipped on a drink. He sauntered over to me, one finger pointing and shaking in front him. "Hey! Wanna dance?" he slurred. His grin was toothy. His eyes watery. He reminded me of some of our older clients at the shelter. The only difference was, this man has a home to go to. His clothes were clean. He obviously had cash. But the behaviours were the same. The loneliness that pervaded his being, the need to belong, the desire to connect, I see those things every day at the shelter.

We are all connected by the human condition of our lives. We all have a story to tell, a reason for where we're at, an excuse for why we cannot give and receive, a reason why we give and receive.

It was an evening of magic. Of life unfolding. Of giving and receiving. It was a night of human beings celebrating creativity, no matter the condition of our spirit; no matter where we laid our heads down to rest after the celebrations were over.

Thank you to Lester Howe for his gift of creativity, his willingness to give so that we could receive.

Thank you to Todd Stewart and the team at Dicken's Pub. You made the world a better place by giving us a place to stage the event, a place to come in from the cold on that bitter night.

Thank you to the musicians.
Troy and Joni
Raw Boswin
Kenneth Locke
Bryan Bayley and the circus
Jonathan Ferguson
Black Dog
Ralph Boyd Johnson
Molotov Smile

Your music creates a world of difference. Your generosity of spirit, the sharing of your talents and your gifts creates a different sound in the world, a song of faith, hope and love. Thank you for sharing your music and song, your talents, time and energy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas

And so it is Christmas. A season of peace. A time when the Christian world takes a collective breath and offers up a prayer of hope, love and joy.

It is a time for new beginnings, renewed spirits, refreshed souls. It is the time to celebrate all that is miraculous in being human, all that is wondrous in our world.

It is the time to heal wounds, to bridge gaps, to reach across divides that separate us from those we love. It is the time for human beings to stop and take a breath. To let go of what is keeping us apart and connect to what holds us together, as family, as friends, as fellow human beings on the journey of our lifetime. It is the time to connect through our human condition to all that makes us magnificent, to all that makes a better world possible.

And so it is Christmas. Twinkling lights and festive bows. Crinkly paper and mysterious boxes shimmering in the lights of a fragrant fir festooned with decorations. Tires scrunching on snow. Jingle bells ringing. Carollers singing.

A time when the spirit of Christmas lifts up humankind. A time for camaraderie. Fellowship. Good cheer filled with warm greetings as shopkeepers call out Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays depending upon their political correctness, as they wrap parcels in brightly coloured paper. A time for cards that arrive in the mailbox, unexpected emails from friends afar wishing you and yours a blessed holiday season. And phone calls, and smiles, and gifts exchanged over laughter and a tender look.

A time to soak up the smells of Christmas. Fir trees and spruce boughs. Cinnamon and apples. Cookies baking. Turkeys roasting. Fragrant aromas that awaken our senses and stir memories of Christmases past where we sat around the family table, arms linked, hearts joined in a circle of love that can never be broken no matter how far we roam from the family tree.

It is the time to wrap ourselves up in the warm, toasty, velvet blanket of feelings that embrace us and nurture us through the long winter nights. That raise spirits and open eyes to the wonderment of a world awakened to love, peace, and joy.

It is Christmas. A time to rejoice in a child's birth over two thousand years ago. A child who gave birth to this wondrous time of year. A time when peace on earth reigns as a real possibility and goodwill amongst men beckons to families across the globe as they gather together to celebrate love enduring.

This is the time to connect. To reach out. To pull in and gather round a blazing hearth and surround ourselves with friends and family. A time to open hands and minds, to still quarrels and soothe aching hearts with kind gestures, a gentle touch and loving words. A time to cherish those we love and to extend a welcoming hand to those who need to find peace with where their journeys have taken them. And, for those who cannot go back home this Christmas, it is a time to find a place to belong so that they too can share in the joy and fellowship of this special time of year.

Throughout the year at the DI, we provide a place for people to belong. A place to still the longing for the hearts and homes they've lost. And, throughout the year, our load is lightened by many hands reaching out to support us, to lift us, to help carry the load.

At the DI, we rejoice in the lives we've touched throughout the year and give thanks to those who have touched our hearts with their support, their time, their smiles and their helping hands.
May you and yours know the joy of sitting around a dinner table, connected through bonds of good tidings and joy and a love that can never be broken. May you know that the difference you make is in the smiles on the faces of our clients this Christmas as they too share in the fellowship of the meals you’ve helped sponsor and prepare, the gifts you’ve so generously donated, the stockings you’ve helped stuff, the time you've spent lifting our spirits.

This Christmas, may we all know peace in a world of good tidings and joy. May our hearts be opened in love and may everyone find a place to call home, a place filled with love and family, a place where we all belong.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas at the DI

Christmas is a time for family. For gathering round a laden table and sharing in the family bonds that tie us to our past with the present of our future generations.

At the DI, the family table is shared by over 1,200 people linked together through the bonds of adversity and the homelessness in which they all share. Amidst the lack of a home a community spirit arises, a fellowship of caring for each other in a world of good tidings and joy in this season of goodwill amongst men.

The DI is a busy place, every day of the year. But at Christmas, extra volunteers are needed to help sort, stuff, and distribute gifts and stocking stuffers so that Christmas morning is special for every one of our clients. We are grateful for the volunteers who turned up to support our many initiatives, and sponsors who phoned in to ensure the holiday meals were replete with all the fixings.

At the DI, we are grateful for the support of our hundreds of volunteers who turn up day in and day out to help us make a difference in someone’s life. We are grateful for the corporations, the families and the individuals who sponsor meals and donate valuable time, energy and financial resources so that we can continue to do the work we do to end homelessness, one person at a time.

This Christmas week will be busy. On Christmas morning, every client will awaken to a sock stuffed with goodies by their pillow. The socks will be filled with toiletries, chocolates and candies and other goodies donated by generous Calgarians, as well as schools such as Father Doucette Elementary and Ernest Manning High School.

In total, over 1250 stockings will be stuffed, and 653 gifts donated by caring Calgarians who responded to the call of the Christmas WishList will be distributed. Over the course of the three days, 80 fifteen pound turkeys, 60 fifteen pound hams and roasts will be consumed. The chefs and volunteers will prepare over 1,000 pounds of stuffing, 1200 pounds of vegetables and 200 litres of gravy to accompany these meals.

The following is a list of special meals and events, here at the DI this week:

Christmas Eve -- Wednesday, December 24

1:30 pm – 4:30 pm

Volunteers will be stuffing Christmas socks and sorting gifts

6pm – 7pm

Dinner – Employees and family from Stampede Lexus Toyota will be helping to serve the turkey dinner they sponsored.

Special Entertainment
Calgary folk singer, Cort Delano will be performing during dinner.

Christmas Day -- Thursday, December 25

8am – 5pm

Volunteers will be distributing gifts to recipients from the Christmas WishList

Noon – 1pm

Sponsored meal by an Anonymous Donor – Ham dinner with all the fixin’s

6pm – 7pm

Staff and family of the DI have joined together to sponsor the Christmas Day meal. Roast Beef dinner

Boxing Day – Friday, December 26

9am – 2pm

Volunteers will be distributing gifts to recipients from the Christmas WishList

6pm – 7 pm

Members and family of Humanity Unites Brilliance (HUB) will be preparing and serving a sponsored Turkey dinner.

Thank you to all our supporters.

You make a significant difference in how we go about our work. You keep our spirits lifted and provide the essential resources that keep us going. Thank you for all you do, and all you give.

Have a blessed and joyous holiday season from the staff and clients of the DI.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Small Gestures Make A Difference

Written by Tait H. Age 8. His report on his visit to the DI for his Grade 3 class.

We are studying the topic of 'homelessness' in English language arts, and 'global citizenship' in social studies. We have realized that small gestures can make a difference in another person's life. We did extra chores around the house to earn money for the homeless.

I had a goal of raising $20 for the Drop In Centre. They said that they needed mitts and socks the most, so I thought I could help with that a little bit. My dad really liked the idea, so he said he would match every dollar I made. I thought that was a good idea, so I asked my Grandmother if she would match it too. She said ‘no’, but if I got to my goal, she would give me $100 for the Drop In Centre!

We bought 6 pairs of mitts and 8 pairs of socks and a whole bunch of hand and foot warmers, which the store didn’t make us pay very much for, because they also thought helping other people was a good idea. We also donated $103.25, so they can buy more of whatever they needed.

After school on Tuesday, my mom took me and my little sisters down to the Drop In Centre. There were a lot of people sleeping on the floor because they had nowhere else to go. They can go here to get warm and have something to eat. The Drop In Centre helps them find a job, too.
Even though it seemed that we were different, and they didn’t know why we were there, the homeless people held the door open for us, and everybody wished us happy holidays. The people that worked there were very nice, too. They said I must go to a good school if they taught us to do things for other people. They said it inspired them, which means it made them feel like they wanted to do more. They showed us a room where they teach classes, and they were making really cool art when we were there.

I have learned that when people need help, even if I can't do very much, I should do what I can, because it does make a difference. Just like the people who had no home that talked to me at the Drop In Centre, they made a difference by giving to me what they had, a smile and good wishes. That is how it feels when people are good to other people. It is nice to help others, but sometimes all I might be able to give is a smile, but I have learned that even that is a good gift, because it made me feel good when it was given to me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A little bit of a difference

It was a simple email sent to our general mailbox. A simple request from a young boy. Eight years old. Grade 3 at a local school.

Subject: grade 3 student wants to help


We are studying the topic of 'homelessness' in English language arts, and 'global citizenship' in social studies. I have realized that small gestures can make a difference in another person's life.

I am doing extra chores around the house to earn extra money for the homeless right now. What can I do with this money? Should I get blankets, mits or hats? or something else?

Is there anything that I can do that will make a difference?

Please let me know as soon as you have a chance.

Thank you. Tait

I responded and thanked him for his kindness. You make a difference by caring enough to want to make a difference, I told him. Mitts and socks are most welcome, I added.

He wrote back and said he'd be buying socks and mitts, since that is what is needed. He also wrote, I am working hard, and my Dad said he would match every dollar I earned! So now I need to work even harder. My mom said my gramma would probably do the same thing. That a pretty good idea because sometimes people dont know what they can do to help but they can by doing even little things.

He came in Tuesday afternoon with his mom, two little sisters and a stuffed dog named Ethan which one of his sisters clutched firmly in her mitten covered hands. I brought the family up to the 6th floor to meet Debbie N. and to take a picture of Tait presenting his donation.

Proudly, he pulled his backpack off his back and opened the zipper. His face beaming with a toothy grin, he displayed its contents. Socks. Warm winter gloves. Hotshots and a bag of chocolate Hershey kisses. He'd spent $37 on socks and gloves from the money he'd earned and his father had matched. His gramma had donated an additional $100. He proudly presented me with the cheque tucked inside his backpack along with the change from the $40. "You can't keep the backpack," he said. "I need it for school."

As he emptied the goodies into a box he pulled out a large sheet of card stock paper. The top half had tiny round perforations. Shyly, he passed the card to his mom, his chin tucked into the puffy collar of his blue ski jacket. She passed the card over to me. "Tait is legally blind," she said. "I translated the Braille on the bottom half of the card he wrote."

Debbie N and I swallowed hard. I ran my fingertips along the perforations. Slowly, I read his words which his mother had printed beneath the Braille.

Dear Louise

Thank you for helping me make a little bit of a difference. Thank you for all you do to make a difference, too. From Tait

Inspiration comes in many forms, shapes and colours. On Tuesday afternoon, inspiration came in the form of a small eight year old boy with a backpack full of winter essentials. With his limited sight, he saw into the heart of the matter. He knew that anything he did would make a difference. No matter how small, he knew every bit counts.

What Tait did is no small matter. In his determination to do his chores and raise the money to buy things we needed, he taught each of us the difference that comes when we each do something, no matter how small, to help carry the burden.

His backpack was filled with more than just gloves and socks, a cheque and some change. His backpack was filled with the possibilities that open up when we look at what we can do when do not limit ourselves to doing nothing because all we see is what little difference we make.

Thank you to Tait, his mother Char, father and sisters and his gramma. You have touched many lives and made a difference in the hearts of all of us.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

First Annual Musicians Carol

Join Lester Howe and a host of talented musician's this Thursday, December 18, 6pm until the wee hours.

Dicken's Pub
905 8th St. S.W.

Enjoy an incredible night of music for only $10 admission.

All proceeds wil be donated to the DI.

For more info: call Louise at 403-699-8227

Monday, December 15, 2008

Goodwill amongst men.

Written by: Alexis M. Volunteer, Christmas WishList
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat. Mother Theresa
I am working in retail for the first time this Christmas. At a store whose contents are on many a wish list. I am witnessing a side of this season of giving that I’d rather not see. Holiday shopping is in full swing now, there is a level of pandemonium as moms and dads desperately try to find that size six pink hoodie that thier little angel will just die if she doesnt find under the tree. Boyfriends awkwardly attempt to pick the most inoffensive size for thier beloved and people drop piles of cash so that their recievers will know just how much they’re loved.

Yesterday I asked a woman if she wished for me to put a sticker over the price on the pants she was buying for her daughter. “No” she said between pressed lips, “I want her to know exactly how much I’m spending on her”.

This is the lesson she’s teaching her child about Christmas? And yet, I know that there is a part of me that has the same feelings of entitlement that this woman's daughter might also share. I have been blessed to always have had a luscious evergreen pregnant with a mountain of gifts. In fact, since I was seven I’ve had two. And while I spend a great deal of Christmas day plagued with western middle class guilt, I think I might have a very violent vendetta against the man in the red suit if ever my stocking were ever filled with coal instead of gift certificates and socks!

Last week, after a day of Christmas chaos and gross overspending, I met up with my sister and a few close friends at a place of a very different kind of chaos. A place where people argue over beds instead of the last size 12. We had been asked by another friend to come down to the DI to help out with The Christmas Wish List. A website that shares the stories of homeless Calgarians in the hopes of connecting them with a personalized gift made possible by the generosity of more fortunate Calgarians. Our job was to interview the clients so that thier stories and wishes could be posted to the site.

As we gathered in the little office awaiting our instructions, I was unsure of what to expect. I wasnt sure how some people might react to some of the questions and if I would be able to connect with the interviewees. I was handed a stack of forms and given a place at a table. On each form were a series of questions. Name? birthdate? How long have you been homeless? What are the reasons you are on the street? What are the biggest stresses of being homeless? What are your interests? What gives you hope? What would lift your spirits? What would you like for Christmas? And then a list of acceptable items: Work boots, phone card, transit passes, jackets, etc.

A long line of clients waited at the door as staff guided the first in line to an available volunteer. My first interview was with Donna* (not her real name). A blond woman in her forties. Beautiful, in a hardened way. She spoke of the relationship that ended, leaving her with nothing five years ago. About her 18 year old daughter. Her angel. She doesnt like her coming down to this corner of the city. Its too dangerous for her here. They arrange for times to meet. Her daughter will call and leave a message. Sometimes Donna doesn't get them. It hurts that she can't be there for the girl whose name she has tattoed across her shoulders. A permanent reminder of the gift she is in her life. What gives Donna hope? The dream that someday she will be able to have her daughter over anytime in a place all of her own.

A young man sits down next. He's 21. Born a year after me. We are both Gemini. Unlike my friends and I, the light is missing from his eyes. He has lost contact with his family. Made some poor decisions. “What would lift your spirits this christmas?” I ask him. “A gift from somebody…Anybody.” is his reply.

More men sit down. One with a black eye and a quiet smile who wants nothing more than to see his kids this Christmas. They are in New Brunswick. It's a long way home. I get no requests for gift cards or fancy electronics. The requests are simple. Boots, overalls, a back pack-if possible a new one that doesnt have holes.

An older gentleman sits down. I ask his birthdate. 1955. He looks nearly 70, his face weathered and cracked by the years slipping by. He was attacked 12 years ago and made legally blind. He made his living driving machines. He can't have a licence now. He is thankful everyday for the eye doctor who gives him hope pro bono. I ask what would lift his spirits. His voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes as he manages a quiet “peace on earth and goodwill amongst men”. He shrugs as he concedes to the fact that that won't happen anytime soon. He marks down an am/fm radio. The music takes him away from this place.

As he gets up to leave I ask him if I can give him a hug. He is speechless. His hand goes to his heart. He nods a silent yes. Mother Theresa said once, that if there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to eachother. As we stood in an embrace in the midst of the chaos on the second floor, we belonged to eachother and if only for a second, I hope that that man felt some of the peace and goodwill he so desired.

The interviews gathered to a close and my friends and I made our way out of the shelter to a restaurant where we were able to share our stories over a meal that we got to choose from a menu. We recounted the jokes we had swapped, the moments we had witnessed, the things in our lives that we are grateful for.

It doesn't need to be said that I am grateful for a roof and for food. That goes without saying. On that night as I looked around at my sister and my friends and the memories we have shared together I felt more thankful than I’ve ever been. For being wanted. For being loved and cared for. For not being forgotten.

Written by: Alexis M. Volunteer, Christmas WishList

Baby! It's cold outside!

I've always believed society is defined by how we deal with our weakest links. The best of America is when we take care of the less fortunate. Peter Samuelson
Winter has blown in with a howl of frigid Arctic air swooping down from the north. Traffic crawls along snow covered roadways, inch by inch. Crunching tires. Spinning wheels. Baby, it's cold outside.

Tucked inside my office, peering out at the snow-laden trees and covered sidewalks, I don't care what the weather's doing outside! I'm cosy in my office. If it weren't for the fact I have a meeting later this afternoon outside the office, I might not venture forth at all today! I have the option to stay put, hunker down and take care of business in my office. I have the choice of what to do with my day.

The option of what to do is not filled with appealing alternatives for the 1200+ people who crowd into the building, seeking respite from the biting winds of a prairie winter. Their options are limited. They can wander the streets to get a break from the crowds huddled into the shelter and risk freezing a finger, a toe, their nose or ears, or they can sit amidst the sea of humanity trying to ignore the constant ebb and flow of conversation, the noise and hum of over a thousand people trying to get by in the depths of winter.

On Friday night we had our annual Christmas staff party. Lots of people didn't make it. The weather blew in and blew out any hope of some people finding their way through the blowing snow to the hall where the party was held. Others had to work. We're 24/7. Some people had to heed the call of duty and could not put in an appearance.

For those who did make it, the festivities were a welcome respite to an arduous year of ending homelessness, one person at a time. At one point, the President of our Board of Directors got up to give a speech. "Until I got the stats this week, I didn't realize we were in line with McDonald's," he said. "We served over one million meals this year."

That's a lot of meals. A lot of people looking for a link back to the homes they lost. A lot of bellies to fill with hope of getting a next meal and a next.

See, that's the thing about homelessness. We must care for 'our weakest links' if we are to keep hope alive in a land of plenty for those who have lost everything, including hope. We must hold out hope to those who have lost their way so that they can find their way back to where they belong.

It's cold outside. Inside, I am warm. And I am filled with hope. Winter's chill will ease into warmer climes. Spring blossoms will appear with the promise of spring. In the meantime, we might even enjoy a white Christmas. A welcome respite from the normal brown and grey tones of the past few years.

No matter the weather, no matter the times, here at the DI, hope lives on. It lives in the minds and hearts of all who care for the weakest links in their families. Who shore up the crumbling walls of someone they love. Who deliver a steaming bowl of soup to someone who has nothing but the clothes on their back and a dream of someday finding their way back home.

Hope lives on as long as we care enough to reach out for those who have reached the end of the road and don't know where to turn to next. Hope endures when we link our arms and stand together to protect and serve those who cannot stand alone any longer.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We See You

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark. George Illes
They arrived in the dark of night. Their yellow school bus twinkling with Christmas lights. A big two ton truck following them into the drive. Amidst a flurry of colour, twenty-five yellow caped angels disembarked and swarmed into the loading dock area of the DI. Some wore Santa hats upon their heads while others wore glow-in-the-dark halos that bobbed and weaved as they unloaded Christmas gifts and carried them into the building. All of the yellow caped angels were wearing big, wide smiles. All of them were laughing. All of them cared that they spread joy and hope where ever they went.

They are, Angels in the Night. A team of mortgage and insurance brokers from Invis Financial who for the past several months have been raising funds to purchase much needed winter essentials for homeless citizens across Canada. It was their sixth year coming to the shelter. The sixth year of sharing the wonder and the joy of Christmas with people in need of their support.

In their wake, they left behind over $5,000 worth of winter apparel and footwear, underwear, towels, blankets and other cold weather essentials at the DI. And they left hope and joy, and the realization that we are not forgotten, and neither are our clients.

Sometimes, all we can do is let people know, "You are not forgotten. I see you." Theordore Roosevelt once implored a nation to remember, 'the forgotten man' and last night, Angels in the Night reminded everyone at the shelter that even those living on the fringes of our society, those whose lives are beaten down, will be remembered. No one will be forgotten. They reminded all of us that as long as they are taking a step, where ever it leads them, no one need be left behind. Because as long as they breathe, there is always hope.

It was a magical evening. And it was busy here at the DI.

Amidst the laughter and the singing, the pranks and the high fives, the serious business of caring for those who cannot or will not care for themselves was taking place. A floor above the loading dock where Angels in the Night had formed a conga line to the clothing centre so that they could transport their gifts with ease, clients were moving up to the sleeping floors, settling into their beds, claiming their little corner of the world for the night. In the first floor lobby area, clients lined up waiting for the opening of our Intox sleeping area. By the time the doors opened, over 200 people would stumble in and claim a mat on the floor, a safe shelter away from the bitter cold and biting wind that accompanies every step of homelessness.

These are the lost souls. The ones who have forgotten they deserve more than this life of homelessness. Numbed by the addictions that cloud their thinking and clog their veins, they have forgotten who they once were, who they were meant to be. All they remember today is the disappointment of who they think they have become wandering the streets in a fog of alcohol or drugs.

We cannot forget them. We must remember for them.

Last night, Angels in the Night arrived and I remembered why I do what I do. Because I can. This morning, my memory is strong. I have the capacity and the ability to remember hope for those who believe there is none. I can carry hope with me where ever I go throughout my day, and I can carry laughter and share a smile. I can share the magic and the wonder of what I saw last night, of what I witness every day and hear throughout the shelter. Because, throughout the shelter, hope lives.

Hope is in the caring words of a staff member who, upon examining the jacket of 'Joe' and finding the zipper broken said, "You can't stay warm like that Joe. Wait here. I'll get you a better jacket." The staff member is 30 something. Muscular. Burly. A giant of a man. Tattooed arms and buzz cut hair. The client, an old man of 60+, missing teeth, dirty hair sprayed out around his weathered face, scarred and leathered hands, broken nails and broken dreams. Yet in the words of that staff member, in his caring for a man who has nothing, dignity is restored. Hope is renewed.

Yes Virginnia, there is a Santa Claus. And his name is Hope.

Hope is in the difference we make when we remember those who have forgotten how precious they are. Hope is in a gentle touch, a caring word, a kind gesture. Hope is in the Angels in the Night who share so generously their abundance so that others may remember, "We see you."

Thank you Lyn and Jim Webber and all the team at Invis Calgary. You make the magic of Christmas come true.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Christmas Wish List

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. Norman Vincent Peale
Last night volunteers came in to interview clients for the Christmas WishList. One of the volunteers is a businessman, an executive from an oil company. It's the second year in a row he's come in to interview. The second year he's left feeling humbled. Blessed. Calm.

I watched him as clients approached the table where he sat. He'd stand up. Put out his right hand. Grasp the clients hand in both of his and say, "Hi. I'm George. How ya’ doing?"

He was warm. Welcoming. Open. He'd sit back down and invite the client to take the chair on the other side of the table. To complete the interview, George had a sheet with a set of questions on it. The objective was to invite the client to tell a bit of their story, about how long they'd been at the shelter. How long they'd been homeless. What caused their homelessness. What stresses them, what gives them hope and then to invite the client to list off one thing he/she wanted for Christmas.

I watched the clients as they talked to George. They'd lean forward. The tension in their shoulders would ease. They'd relax their bodies and talk. And talk. And talk. For some people, this could be the first time in a long time that someone simply listened to them. Heard them. It could be the first time in a long time that a 'regular' guy asked their name and used it in a sentence in a friendly way, no expletive attached.

When clients got up to leave George's table, he shook their hand in farewell. They always left with a smile on their faces. Their step was lighter. They stood taller.

The night before, both my daughters had come in to volunteer with a couple of their friends. At one point, I watched Alexis talking with an older man. Grandfatherly. When he got up to leave, she stood up, walked around the table and gave him a hug. The smile that appeared on his face could have lit up the room. "That's what I really wanted for Christmas but didn't say," he said. "A hug."

It was a beautiful moment. Small. Quiet. Hearfelt. A small moment in an otherwise busy world. A moment to cherish for having witnessed its beauty.

Earlier, one of the staff had come to me with a request for a client who has lived at the shelter for two years. "He's a good guy," the staff member told me. "He's really struggling to get his life back in order. Hasn't seen his kids in two years. Desperately wants to get back to the east coast to see them for Christmas. Is there any way we can help him? I'd be willing to put some money towards his ticket. Is there any way his WishList could ask for contributions?"

As I was collecting the volunteers at the end of the evening, I stopped on one of the sleeping floors to let the volunteer know we were finishing up. She was in the office with a client and one of the staff. The client saw me and called me in. "I'm filling out the form for someone else," he told me. "He'd never do it himself. He's always doing for others but would never ask for anything for himself. Is that okay?"

"What a beautiful gesture," I replied.

The magic of Christmas.

Hearts opening up to strangers. Stories told that connect us in the human condition. People comforted by the attention of a stranger. By a handshake, a hug, a concerned friend. Staff wanting to help out a client. Clients wanting to help out eachother.

This is the real Christmas.

Thursday, December 04, 2008 show a grand event

Believe you can and you're halfway there.” Theordore Roosevelt
Sunday, November 30th was the third annual Christmas art show and sale for

It was a day of celebration. Of spirits flying freely and of hope living joyously in the hearts of the artists and all who attended.

Two and a half years ago when I started the program, it was a dream. An idea. A possibility.

Sunday, I looked around the room, crowded with artists and patrons and realized, I had believed it was possible and now my dream is no longer my dream. It is a community spirit. A reality for all who attended. A truth for each artist and that truth is: I have value. I am worth more than the label 'homeless'. I am an artist. A human being. Creative soul. Expressive spirit. I am a man/woman of possibilities.

Seven artists had their works on display. Another played guitar. Tamara, a young fourteen year old girl who created a charitable organization, Heartprints, Kids for a Cause, so she could sell her handmade jewelry and donate the money to charity, was also there. She raised $500 for the DI.

Wild Rose United Church sponsored the show and had a cafe complete with Nanaimo bars and scrumptious cookies. Nan and Gordon the hosts, welcomed everyone and made everyone feel at home.There was never a lull in the flow of people entering the hall. Never a period where I worried about whether or not the show would be a success.

Success is the artists turning up. Success is the pride on their faces as people drop into their booth and admire a piece of work they created with their hands. Success is the media dropping by to do a story for the newspaper, complete with photographs of the artists and their work. Success is knowing, lives are being changed. Dreams are being crafted. Hopes are being awoken. Possibilities are being created.

Success is written on the hearts of everyone who was there.

Everyone who entered was in awe of the talent of the artists. Their commitment to turn up and express themselves. Their desire to support each other, and their dreams.

And with every piece that was sold, a bit of the artist went home with them. Home. To a place where they belonged, to a family, a couple, a single woman adorning her apartment with a piece of beauty.

The artists may be homeless, but their art found homes yesterday. And if that can happen, finding a way home is possible too.

All they have to do is believe they can get there. They're half way there.

Thank you to everyone who participated. The artists. Staff who helped out. Linda Hunter and Wild Rose United Church. Tamara and her mother Bev, Tom and the crew from the Woodwork Shop. The staff who ensured the art and artists arrived safely and all the people who came out to support the artists and their work.

You light up our lives.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The lives we mess with -- Written by Roger G.

Growing into the fullness of our humanity means that we become co-authors of the rules by which we will agree to have our lives judged. Sam Keen
In recent weeks, a long overdue development has been percolating at the DI, a client advisory group. Because of the well placed, and timed, and spoken, rantings and musings and complaints of one particular battle-hardened veteran of the school of hard knocks, we're getting there. I'll get to that, but first, a story. It's one I heard from Utah Phillips, an American folksinger and storyteller, about his having to grow up when he came back to the U.S. after fighting as a soldier in the Korean War.

He relates:

"When I got back from Korea, I was so mad at what I'd seen and done, I wasn't sure I could ever live in the country again. I got on the freight trains up in Everett, north of Seattle, and kind of cruised the country for two years; making up songs, but I was drunk most of the time and forgot most of those... I'd heard that there was a house in Salt Lake City by the Roper Yards where there was a clothing barrel and free food. So I got off the train there, I was headed for Salt Lake anyway, and I found that house, right where they said it was, but most of all I found this wiry old man, 69 years old, tougher than nails, heart of gold, fellow by the name of Ammon Hennacy. Anyone know that name, Ammon Hennacy?

He was one of Dorothy Day's people, the Catholic Workers; during the '30s, they started Houses of Hospitality all over the country, there's about 80 of them now. Ammon Hennacy was one of those, he'd come west to start the Joe Hill House of Hospitality. Ammon was a Catholic, anarchist, pacifist, draft dodger of two World Wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America; I think that about covers it. He had to reach out and grapple with the violence, but he did that with all the people around him... Second World War vets, you know, on medical disabilities and all drunked up... the house was filled with violence which Ammon, this pacifist, dealt with every moment of every day of his life.

He said, 'You've gotta be a pacifist.' I said 'Why?' He said 'It'll save your life.' My behaviour was very violent then... So I'd say 'What is it?' He said, 'Well, I can't give you a book by Gandhi, you wouldn't understand it; I can't give you a list of rules that, if you sign it, you're a pacifist. You look at it like booze. You know, alcohol will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say "Hi, my name is Utah, and I'm an alcoholic," and then you can begin to deal with the behaviour, see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you've destroyed. He said it's the same with violence, you know... You've gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behaviour, and have the people whose lives you've messed with, define that behaviour for you, see... And it's not going to go away, you're going to be dealing with it every moment, in every situation, for the rest of your life.' And I said 'Okay, I'll try that,' but Ammon said, 'That's not enough.' And I said, 'Oh.'

He said 'You were born a white man in mid-20th century industrial America, you came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege; racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You want to be a pacifist, it's not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely naked. Try that.'

That old man has been gone now 20 years, and I'm still at it. But I figure that if there's a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that'd be the one..."

Born and raised Catholic myself, I began in my late 20s to rebel against the rules and assumptions that had been handed to me, believing instead that I have my own conscience and my own relationship with God, and I can live my own truth. During upwards of 11 years attending a couple of 12 Step groups, I held to and was supported in this same idea of choosing my own beliefs, my own definitions, of myself and the world. So when I heard Utah's tale for the first time it fairly rattled my cage; what of this business of allowing my behaviour to be defined by others; by those people whose lives I've messed with? As Utah said so poignantly, "Oh."

Here at the DI, we the staff run the show, at least visibly. We have much control and influence over the lives of our clients; where they'll sleep, for instance, or whether they can come here at all. We try to be fair and reasonable, and for many years under the remarkable and rare leadership of Dermot Baldwin, we have done a pretty good job. But other than complaint forms or else ad hoc one-on-one conversations and confrontations, usually in response to a particular incident, there has never been a formal invitation, or avenue of access, for the insight and perspective of "those whose lives we mess with."

What would they say is the impact when we bar them from services? What would they say is the impact when we don't bar someone whose behaviour may deserve it? Never having been a client at the DI, never having been homeless at all, I can't imagine some of the things they might say to us. But if we give them a forum to think patiently and speak confidently, knowing their insight is respected, I believe we will all be the better for it. Doing our work with more open-mindedness, and open-heartedness, can only make us more compassionate, and probably more effective.

Written by: Roger G. Night Supervisor

Thursday, November 06, 2008

In memory of a courageous man

Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe, I hope.
He was a native man. Early fifties. Proud. Quiet. Once broken, he was fitting the pieces of his life back together. He wanted to be a leader. A good father. A friend. A decent human being. A role model.

When we met, he was in a self-esteem class I teach at the DI. It's part of a three week Career Training Initiative program that provides individuals the chance to get job certificates, computer training and life skills coaching so that they can rejoin the mainstream of their lives; get a job, clean up the debris of the past, save money, get a home, move on, get going with their lives away from homelessness.

In the class, I ask what kind of ‘man’ each person wants to be. My criteria word is ‘magnificent human being’. Les told me that being a 'magnificent human being' was too big for him. His criteria word was 'role model'. He wanted to be a role model for the friends he made here at the DI, for those who crowded round his table on the second floor in our day area, searching for answers. He wanted to be a role model for the young men on his Reserve who danced with the devil of addictions, abuse and anger. He wanted to be a role model for his two sons with whom he was not in contact because of his dance with addictions, abuse and anger.

He talked about his struggle to claim his right to a drug and alcohol free life. His need to make sense of what had happened; to him, his family, his community, his life. His desire to make amends.

When we met just one month ago, there was hope. Hope that one day he would step free. One day he would leave this lifestyle that was bringing him down and leap into a life far from homelessness, as he moved back to his people to be the role model he dreamt of being.

Yesterday, hope died. Yesterday, Les' heart quit beating. Gave up the fight and set Les free of his earthly struggles. Yesterday, Les died.His friends at the shelter are in shock. Angry. Confused. Afraid. Those who worked with him, admired him, supported him, grieve.

Les wanted to change his life. He wanted to reconnect with his two sons, to show them through his example the spirit of a man. He was a courageous man. He had given up alcohol. Drugs. And though he slipped sometimes, he brought himself back to the place where he could be proud of his courage to let go of the substances that were destroying him.

Today, we mourn for Les. We mourn for the man who dreamt of stepping back into his community a proud and courageous man, a role model for all to follow. And we celebrate the man who taught us through his example, the meaning of courage, of fortitude, of integrity.

Let us learn from Les' journey in this life. Let us pray for his spirit's journey into the next life, however we believe it will unfold.Les' life on this plain has ended. There is no more hope for a different life. But hope lives on for his sons. They can learn from their father's journey. They can learn from his mistakes, from his fall and courageous struggle to climb back up.

And hope lives on for each of us. There is hope for all of us left behind who have been touched by Les’ courage to live in this moment and dance. There is hope that we will revel in the joy of being alive in this very moment, fill it with all the wonder in the world and set ourselves free to soar above the sad stories of our past into the joy of telling stories of our lives in freedom.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Breaking of a Man. Written by John R.

Statistics are supposed to be dry, but sometimes they make me cry.

It is hard to see the breaking of a man laid out by statistics. To see a man who is trying to do it all right; pay the mortgage, pay his bills, go to work and do everything he is supposed to do be reduced to nothing is heart breaking.

He first stayed two nights in 2005. He was sober.

He does not appear again for almost a year and a half, but now he is drinking heavily. He goes through periods where he seems to be trying very hard, and is always sober, but then things fall apart. He is hospitalized with a life-threatening infection and almost dies, but is able to make a full recovery.

Our records show he is staying with us more often, drinking less, but still struggling with the stress of meeting his financial obligations, and keeping his employment while living in a shelter. He might be offered a transfer with his work, but not to where he really wants to go; back home to the place that he has been paying the mortgage on for all these years.

When I see statistics like this, I want to cry, and then I get angry that we as Canadians allow this to be.

Written by: John R., Manager of Data Systems

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Love, fellowship, and support at the DI Written by Roger G.

I have at times prided myself on my work with clients at the DI, believing that I was a good listener and sometimes a useful guide. But one day this summer I was humbled to stand and watch tough love at work.

For a few months, we had two guys on 4th floor who I'll call Billy and Bobby. They were "good ol' boys", Maritimers both, and gave me some interesting challenges during their stay with us; never before or since have I had to put a lid on a game of Frisbee taking place in the hallway, for instance. One evening a young client from 3rd floor who I'll call Sam came to the door and told me he wanted to see Bobby. I asked him to wait at the stairwell door (we discourage visiting between the sleeping floors, and only 4th floor clients are allowed on the 4th floor) while I went and found Bobby, as usual, playing guitar on the smoke deck. I told him about his visitor, watched him meet Sam at the door, and got busy with something else for a couple of minutes.
Next thing I knew their voices were getting louder, meaning that I'd need to step in on behalf of dozens of sleeping men in hearing distance of the argument.

"We can see it in your face," was the only phrase I caught.

Billy joined in at this point, ushering the other two out the door and into the stairwell, waving a sign to me that they would take this outside and that he and Bobby would return shortly.

I followed even so, and caught the word "dope" as their voices receded down the stairs. Billy returned first, and got more honest with me than he ever had.

"I'm a crackhead, Roger," he said. "Sam is the one who helped me and Bobby clean up three weeks ago. Now he's having a rough time, and he gave Bobby his money today so that he wouldn't go out and spend it on dope. Now he wants it back, and we're not giving it to him."

Almost on cue, Bobby came back in the door with a determined Sam following close behind, and I watched as Billy and Bobby stood their ground with their friend; "No, we won't! We care about you; we love you, man."

The DI has a pretty firm policy against debt collecting in the building, not to mention keeping peace and quiet on the sleeping floors, giving me the authority to inform Sam that he must go back downstairs as I called on the radio for staff backup to make sure he would do so. In less than a minute Sam was facing Billy, Bobby, and 4 staff on the stairs, but he took only a few reluctant steps until I threatened that I'd call CPS if necessary. Finally he walked with Bobby and me down to the first floor and made no attempt to follow us back upstairs again when we left him, leaving me to reflect on how ignorant I am of what happens at the DI. But I also found myself feeling good about my job, knowing that there must be far more tough love happening all around me than I had ever imagined.

Billy and Bobby got their own place and moved out in August. I still see Sam in the building; he says "Hello", and shakes my hand. And I remember that, while there's a time and a place for a floor supervisor to speak up, when love and true strength are at work the smartest thing I can do is shut up and get out the way.

Written by: Roger G.
Night supervisor

Friday, October 10, 2008

If not me, who?

It is mid afternoon. I am walking on 4th Ave. back towards the DI.

On the avenue traffic speeds towards me, racing to reach the safety of the downtown core. It comes in spits and spurts, regulated by the light at the end of the bridge that connects this part of the city to the northern shore. I walk. Traffic stops coming. The avenue is empty.

Ahead, I spy a group of people sitting on a small knoll. Two men stand facing eachother. One tall. The other, hunched over. His grey jacket slumped back off his shoulders, his hands forward, palms facing up. The group is watching the duo. Faces turned up in anticipation of the drama about to unfold. Drama I am not prepared for.

Suddenly, the taller man flips the younger man to the ground. He laughs. Says something I can't hear to the crowd. I want to hear nervousness in their responsive laughter. I could be imagining it. The taller man leans over the body of the man he's flipped to the ground. He tears the earphones from his head. Rips the CD player from the pocket of his jacket. He looks around. No traffic. He musn't see me. Or, if he does, he doesn't see the threat in a lone woman walking down the street. He stands up. Lifts his boot and stomps it on the head of the man on the ground. He steps over the man and sits down with the group.

I am stunned. Not quite sure I actually saw what I saw. I am alone. One person. A group of four or six sitting on the hillside. I know the tall man is the dealer. I know the others are his clients. I know I need to do something. I don't know what. I am at risk. I keep walking. I look for a police cruiser. There's normally one in the neighbourhood. Around the corner, at the side of the hotel, I see one.

I walk over. The officer knows me. I tell him what I witnessed. "I'll check it out right away," he says. With a wave and a parting, "I know where to find you if I need you," he flips on his lights and spins around, turns the corner towards the group. I walk back to my office.

Behind me, I see the cruiser in front of the tableau of people sitting on the hill. I know nothing will happen. I know the man whose head was stomped won't say anything. I know the group will not reveal the perpetrator of the drama that unfolded. I know all this and still I want it to be different. I want them to stop doing what they're doing to kill themselves. To stop hurting eachother. To stop giving up on themselves and life and living. I want them to awaken.

I have no questions today. No answers. I know I cannot change the world. I know I cannot stop anyone from speeding down the wrong way on a one way street to destiny. I can only do what I can do. I can only give my best. Do my best. Be my best. My best is good enough.

And still my heart cries. My soul weeps for those who have lost their way and find themselves in the hellhole of an addiction, living on the street, living by their wits, living off the drugs dealers peddle that keep them from turning away from street life back to mainstreet.

Yesterday, in the self-esteem course I was teaching one of the students asked me after we had talked about attitude and the benefits of staying your course to reach your goals, "But how do I do that when I get out of rehab and have to come back here? How do I quit using when everyone around me wants me to keep being who I was and keeps encouraging me to go back to my old ways?"

"Do you want to go back to your old ways?" I asked him.

His response was fast and vehement. "No."

"I don't have the answer for you," I told him. "All I can tell you is, the choice is yours. If getting out of here is your goal, measure every step you take against your goal. Does it take you closer, or further away from where you want to be?"

"Yeah, but these guys are my friends. When I won't go partying with them, they make fun of me, they even pick fights with me."

"Friends don't hold you back from attaining your goals, but an addict will always try to keep you from breaking free," I told him. "If you break free then that means they could too. And what addict wants to know they can get away from the thing they use to ease their pain? You are an inspiration, and a curse. In you, they see the possibilities. And possibilities are scary."

"So, I could be a role model?" he asked. (We had spoken of the kind of man he wanted to be earlier. A role model was key.)

"You are their role model. You are their light, their hope, their possibility. They're afraid of what you're doing but they want what you're doing to be possible for them. Facing their desire, however, is scary. What you've done is the unknown. The dealers got what they know and he knows how to keep them using."

"Yeah," he agreed. "The last thing the dealer wants is to lose another customer."

Another student piped up. "Who cares. There'll always be another one after the last one."

The reality of addictions. "There'll always be another one after the last one."

For that young man lying on the hillside, there is always hope he will awaken. As long as he stays alive. For the dealer, there is always hope he will awaken too. As long as he stays alive. Perhaps one day he will face the consequences of his actions. Perhaps one day, someone will do to him what he did to another human being and he will awaken from the darkness.

I don't know. I do know that to give up on those who are lost is to give into the darkness of their despair. To give up would be to give over control to those who would want to deal with impunity in the underbelly of someone's addiction. To give up would be impossible.

I am proud of the work I do. I am proud of the people I work with. The courageous souls who will not give up on anyone, even when that person has given up on themselves. I am grateful for the work I do. I am grateful there are those who will not give up, who continue to fight for the oppressed all over this world. I am grateful for the officer who so quickly responded to my call. I am grateful for the students in my class yesterday who are courageously moving forward, even while they struggle to make sense of the world around them. I am grateful I live in a world where possibilities exist, where spirits can awaken to the beauty of our human condition, where ever they are in the world today.

I am grateful I can make a difference.

If not me, who? If not now, when?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Because of My Uniqueness. (By Jerry)

Jerry wrote the following as part of an assignment in a job-readiness training program he was taking here at the DI. These are his experiences, his words, his beliefs.

The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author only.

Hello, I have been asked to relate an experience of “discrimination or prejudice towards me based on my appearance or living situation”, and how I reacted to it. There are two situations that come to mind so I pass them both along.

It was a warm sunny May day about eight years ago. Although it was warm, the wind was blowing and thus messing with my otherwise well tended tresses. I was not having a particularly good day, and really just wanted to be left alone and pursue my own interests.

I was heading east on 7 ave. (between 9 and 8 street), when from a group of midlevel office people that were sitting on the steps of an office building I hear, “ Hey look, Encino Man.”

It took me two or three steps to fully register what the “gentleman” had said about me, but when realization did hit, I stopped, turned around, walked back to the group, stopping in front of the quipster.

In my most restrained manner I said, “ I’m sure that you’re parents taught you better manners than that.”

Whereupon he said, “ Oh sorry, should I have said Mr. Encino Man?”

I am sorry to say, I slapped him, (ok, maybe I’m not sorry), told him that “his grandparents should have done THAT more often”, and walked away.

This may not sound like a large transgression in the big picture of life, but then you have to understand just how often in a month, week, or day that something like this or worse happens. How often does a row of vehicles at a stop and go light hit their power locks as you are walking down the sidewalk?? As if I’m going to carjack them while they’re stuck in traffic!! How about the mother with stroller and toddler, who crosses the street rather than walk by you. Let us not forget about the two little old ladies at the department store who purposefully go through the door eight feet away even though you were holding the door right in front of them for them. This is the type of attitude I have to deal with day in and day out.

The following is another specific example of unprofessional behavior. It might be noted also that it is not always in ones best interest to retaliate against prejudice. This incident happened in the middle of winter. At one time in the not too distant past, the drug trade was driven across the river and into the environs of the neighborhood coffee shop.

I was being driven back downtown about six in the morning intending to be dropped at the coffee shop. Upon pulling into the parking lot, it was evident that the police were rousting the nefarious element hanging about. As to be expected, the car was surrounded, our identification checked and we were freed to leave.

Rather than go to the coffee shop, (too much action about), I figured to grab my coffee at the Esso station. On the walk across the lot it came to my attention that the police had a cruiser in the south west corner of the lot with an officer announcing through the PA system that, “ You crack heads stay on that side of the bridge. You have no business here. Go back to your side of the bridge.”

This was being repeated over and over by the officers. It should be made clear that the people he was talking to were the fellows who work everyday, and are picked up by their rides or bosses at the coffee shop. The majority of them weren’t druggies at all!!!

Though I was miffed, I made my way without incident into the station and poured my coffee. While waiting to pay, one of the officers that checked my friends and me came in. I said to him, “I understand the concern of the businesses and neighborhood about the criminal element and activity in the area. But is it really necessary to group everyone under one umbrella?”

The officer understood that I was talking not only about myself, but also about the people just wanting to come over to conduct their normal daily routine before going to work. The reply given to me was, “ If you look like them, talk with them and act like them, then you must be one of them.”

The camel screamed, its back was finally broken.

In a state of controlled cold fury I looked directly into the officers eyes and said, “Using that premise, looking at you I should see a guy who leaves his family at home on a Saturday afternoon, goes to a fellow officer’s house for a barbeque, drinks his face off all afternoon, jumps into his sports ute all f'd up, drives the wrong way down 22X, has a head on with another vehicle killing all four occupants two of whom were children. It’s a good thing I’m not that cynical yet.”

(The incident I have just described DID happen with an officer of CPS. The outcome was that the officer was suspended with pay pending his successful completion of a twenty-eight day treatment program whereupon he was reinstated to the force.) The officer immediately left the store, which is when I realized that I had made my point too well. When I left the store, the officers were waiting for me. They called me to their car, I was apologizing as I was nearing them. Fortunate for me these officers were not blinded by their biases. I received a dressing down, but was allowed to leave unscathed.

These are just a couple of examples of the type of bias and prejudice that I endure on nearly a daily basis. Generally I accept people’s comments, actions, and behaviors, it was not always this way. Often I get asked why I don’t change the way I look. To this I always say, “What does it matter how I look compared to who I am.” Richard Nixon was clean cut, Adolph Hitler was groomed and brushed, yet they were both less than nice people. It is nice to know that not all people have phobias about people like me.

There are times where because of my uniqueness I am hounded.

I guess I’ve got to accept the good with the bad.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Change Happens When The Caring Starts

Written and Submitted by Christa B. Night Staff Satellite Location: 2507

It was just over a year ago that I met Buddy. I was a new transfer staff member and he was a long time resident. My first introduction to him was when there not enough towels for him at 02:45 am and he was grumpy at the office staff. Two hours later he threw back his lunch as he did not like it. This interaction with him went on for a few weeks. There were times when I got a smile out of him however those were rare times.

One morning, I was working at the office during wake ups and my supervisor asked me to take a look at Buddy’s leg. Having had education in health care, I assessed his leg and found it to be reddened, swollen, warm to touch and painful to weight gain on. I asked Buddy to seek medical attention during his day and if he chose not to do so, advised him that medical attention would be sought out for him that night. As it turned out, the redness had traveled up his leg during the day and he was finding it hard to walk, which caused concern for all staff members at the main building on Riverfront Avenue. Non Emergency E.M.S. was called out to assess his leg.

Later on, I found out that Buddy had not sought attention as he did not have the provincial medical coverage and was scared that he would be billed. E.M.S. transported him to the hospital that night, and I packed a bag of toiletries with some of his clothes for him to have at the hospital, which was sent up with a staff member. Buddy was in the hospital for a few rotations, calling every few days to let the staff know that he was all right.

The night that he returned to the warehouse from hospital will be one that I will never forget. He was the first one on the second bus and when he stepped onto the bus and saw me, he said, “How many thank you’s should I give you. You saved my leg.”

On the ride out to the warehouse he shared that he was in the hospital under isolation and was treated for cellulitis, which the doctor feared would have turned into the flesh eating infection if it had not been caught and treated when it was.

Since that night, Buddy and I have developed a helping relationship. He's come to me to help him with his pension application as well as other things that he needed advice or feedback on. He accepts a towel that I keep back for him at night, and he never complains of his lunch. He has opened up to the staff and allowed us into his life.

Buddy and other hard to love guys are the reason that I do what I do. Someone needs to care for those who society has not cared for.

Change happens when the caring starts.

Written by Christa B. Night staff, Satellite location

Friday, August 15, 2008

Falling down to get back up.

I sat in my 6th floor office and watched an elderly man stumble down the street far below. He pushed his metal walker before him, a human barstool on the move. He came to the curb, attempted to navigate the bump, and fell. He struggled to get up but with each attempt, he fell back to the ground. Sitting up in my eerie, I had an eagle's eye view, and I was helpless. I phoned the security desk on the main floor to ask a staff to go out and help him but as I started to speak, two people came up and assisted the man. Later I went downstairs to ensure the man had made it safely to his destination, the DI. He had.

"Our greatest glory consists not in never failing but in rising every time we fall." Oliver Goldsmith

This man fell down. He got up. A tiny success in a seemingly endless journey through the haze of alcohol that constantly fogs his mind. Once again, I am in awe of the spirit's need to live, of the drive for survival.

This man's life may have little sense to it. It may appear to be a futile attempt to wrest a few more moments or days from fate. But, in the end, this man's life is all he's got. He is a late stage alcoholic. A man for whom sobriety is a long lost relative to the despair that permeates his spirit like alcohol pouring through his veins.

There is little we can do for him other than provide a safe landing when he falls. Provide him assistance with his daily ablutions, clean him up when he messes up, watch over him when he has a seizure and provide him food and a safe place to sleep when he comes in from the street.

The help we provide him is not based on 'cleaning him up' or even getting him into rehab. Too many brain cells have hit the dust, too many synapses have mis-fired. He is walking towards his destiny. A tragic story of one man's life gone grievously astray. A human being no long able to do anything other than what he's doing today -- drinking himself to death.

Is it tragic? Absolutely. Did he make choices? Absolutely. Do his choices make a difference to him today? They make a difference to his quality of life, what he might have done, or been or had. But for today, his choices are limited to a narrow corridor of insobriety, a singular path to keeping himself numbed under the influence.

Does this man need help today? Absolutely. Does he deserve to be helped? Yes.

Regardless of the circumstances that led him down his dark and drunken street, he is where he's at. He is helpless to help himself. All we can do is watch over him as best we can. Provide him the help he needs and will take, and ultimately, note his passing and gather his belongings when he's gone.

We've had and have many clients like this man. Individuals self-medicating themselves to death. We try to intervene whenever we can. We attempt to redirect their attention to some other path. Sometimes, no matter what we do, we cannot divert them from their self-directed date with destiny. For whatever reason, their lives have gone wildly astray, their paths become a constant struggle to get up.

Regardless of the reason, we cannot deny their need. It would be inhumane. No one deserves the street. No one deserves to die there. If he were a dog who had been hit by a car and been left bleeding on the road, we would not hesitate to pick him up and rush him to a vet. And yet, with a human being, we often stop in judgement and say, "It's his own fault."

In the end, it doesn't make a difference who's fault it is. He is falling and needs help. We cannot change his destiny. All we can do is provide the best care we can while he walks in the direction he's going. All we can do is walk beside him whenever we can, hold his hand when he needs us, and let him know we care enough to continue to make whatever difference we can.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Yee Haw! It's Stampede in the City

It's Stampede once again in Calgary. Wannbe cowboys dust off their boots and don their Stetsons to hit the trails, and the bars, for a foot stompin' good time in the new heart of the west. Suddenly every street side cafe is corralled off with wooden barn boards and bales of hay as the city gets down to celebrating how the west was won. In the spirit of the times, normally law abiding citizens let loose and stagger out of hotel bars at 8 am, their bellies full of sausages and eggs swirling in a bath of vodka and OJ.

Last night, I left a restaurant on 17th Avenue as dusk was settling in. The streets were still alive with Stampede revelers as I walked to my car. In the distance, I saw a man stumbling towards me. He'd obviously had a few too many at some cowboy joint down the road. His hat was askew. His gait unsteady. As he navigated the sidewalk he smiled blearily at passers-by who deftly sidestepped his unsteady progress. Like everyone else, I gave him a wide-berth. Drunken wannabe cowboy's can be unpredictable.

As the man reached an intersection, the light turned red. He didn't hesitate. He stepped off the curb and kept on walking. Brakes squealed as drivers stopped to give him safe passage. A couple of horns blared. He laughed and smiled and kept moving. He made it safely to the other side, waved at the drivers who had stopped to let him pass and kept on going. People laughed and waved back.

Hey dude! It's Stampede. It's all in the spirit of the greatest outdoor show on earth.

It's a far cry from a scene I'd witnessed earlier that day when walking to a meeting in the East Village. A couple of blocks from the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre where I work, a man whose tattered clothing easily labeled him 'visibly homeless', jay-walked on a red light. Cars slammed on brakes. Horns honked. Expletives filled the air. One man called out from his car, "____ idiot. Get off the ____ road and get back in your ____ dumpster." He didn't wait for the man to reach the other side of the road. With a gunning of his engine, he swerved around him, and peeled away in his shiny black sports car.

Stampede is a great time to celebrate the spirit of our ancestors who toughed it out on the prairies to create this great City of boundless energy and opportunity. It's a great time to saddle up to the bar and get real close to your neighbours. It's all about community spirit. It's a spirit that's hard to ignore, especially if you work in the downtown core. Conversations around water-coolers extol the revelries of the night-before; that's if you happen to even make it in to work. On every street, line-ups form outside hastily erected tents that span parking lots. Under their white plastic domes, thirsty office workers, eager to partake in the opportunity to consume their body weight in alcohol, enjoy some good ole' fashioned western hospitality before hittin' the dusty trail homeward bound.

At the DI, where we are home to 1100 people a night, we struggle to keep clients safe from the excesses they encounter on the streets during Stampede. Visibly homeless individuals are easy prey for drunken party-goers who perceive them as fair game on the open range. A man peacefully sleeping on a grassy verge may find his sleep interrupted by a citizen who, proudly sporting a sparkling tin badge on his chest, feels obliged to give the homeless guy a kick in the ass, with a slurred, "Move along there pardner. You don't belong here."

Problem is, there aren't many places for a homeless Calgarian to belong. Stampede or not, there's no place under the sun to sleep it off without the risk of coming in contact with a passer-by filled with condemnation of the seemingly dead-end choices you've made that lead you to nowhere but what they deem to be the wrong side of the street.

In our city of high spirits and sky-rocketing prices, what's sauce for the goose, is not sauce for the gander. It's okay for drunken Stampede-goers to stumble along searching for the next opportunity to get into the spirit of the wild west. It's not okay for a visibly homeless man to stumble in his quest to find a safe place to rest until he can make it back home.

That's the way it goes in the land of opportunity. If you haven't got what it takes to survive on the streets of the wild west, you'd better not fall. Someone might kick you while you're down.

But hey! Don't let it get you down. It's Stampede. Yee Haw! Have a drink pardner.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Homelessness Sucks

Olympic athlete, Dan O'Brien said, "The only way to overcome is to hang in."

For most of the clients at the DI, hanging in, hanging out, hanging on, is all they can do.

Direction is a place called confusion. Purpose an upside down world of despair. They don't know what they're going to do to fix the mess their lives are in, but wait. Wait for someone to ask, 'Hey buddy, Gotta fix?' And someone answers. Someone always does when you're livin' on the dark side of the street.

"You gotta find a new direction. Get a job." society tells them. Frigthened, they run away. Can't they see? This is the only direction they've ever known. Their lives have led them to this. How can they find a 'new' direction when they don't know how to change the direction they've always gone. Down. Down to the street. To street level. To outside looking in. To never havin', always takin'.

It. Us. Them.

They don't know if there's a place they can go where despair will let them off the hook of desperation. They don't know. And so they hang in, hang out, hang on.

One Sunday in May, 150 youth (16 to 28) from a faith-based organization came in to volunteer for the day. They sorted clothes, washed walls, cleaned up garbage, took a tour of the facility. They made a difference and still they wanted to know, what more can we do to end homelessness?

Now that's a complex question with many diverse answers. The simple answer is: we can't end a social ill without healing the causes of the illness.

The complex answer is: Depends upon for whom.

Is it the guy who has been chronically homeless for most of his adult life and who, at 55, collects bottles in order to earn enough money to buy a bottle of schlock that will last him, maybe a couple of hours, maybe the night? He used to have a place. One room. Hot plate. B&W TV. He was content living his life the way he wanted. But that place was sold. Turned into a multi-story glass and metal office tower. He had no place to go. And so, he comes here, to the shelter whenever he wants to get in from the cold or needs a meal.

Is it the woman who has turned to selling her body to support the addiction that's destroying her beauty, just as 'the trade' has destroyed her spirit? She had a home once too. It had a family in it. Husband. Two kids. The husband was good for nothing. Well, almost nothing. He threw a mean left hook. She only ever wanted the best for her kids. She couldn't give it to them. She didn't know how. Got rid of the husband. No big loss. Lost the kids. It almost destroyed her. And now, she's living on the abyss of despair, on a suicide mission with her life on the line. Maybe one day, she says, but not today. I'm not ready.

Is it that young guy with the mohawk? Nineteen years old. He went into foster care at 2. Ran away at 16 from the seventh foster home he'd lived in. He's survived the streets on his own by sheer wits. He uses marijuana. It's self-medication he says. Nobody can help me. I gotta take care of me. Despair is his watchword. Desperation his condition. We think he might deal in order to survive, but we've never caught him with drugs in the building. He volunteers. Helps out. Hangs on. We could bar him, but where would that leave him? No place to stay. Desperate. Who knows what he'd do.

Or what about that guy, over there. The one in the wheelchair. We put his name in for a new program designed to house the 'difficult to house'. They turned him down. 'He has a history of violence,' they said. Violence? He also has a history of mental illness. He cannot help himself. Look at him. He's 65. Feeble. Confined to a wheelchair. He's dying. He needs help and he needs a level of care we can't provide. 'They' never interviewed him. Never met with him. They read his file and turned him down. How do you end the homelessness he's living when the only agency with the capacity to do so won't accept him because a paper file says he doesn't fit their mandate?

Is it that woman? The tall one, died red hair, slim, open sores on her face. She's 66. A lifetime of abuse. Her last husband died and she was evicted. She had a place just awhile ago. Isolated. Lonely. Scared. She started drinking again. It got bad. Real bad. And now she's back. She hates it here but she hated it more when she was alone. She's got mental health issues. To live on her own she needs a multiple of supports. We don't have the resources to supply them and she too doesn't fit the mandate of any other agency in town.

We talk about ten year plans and our commitment to 'end homelessness'. We talk about the cost, the financial burden and the strain 'the homeless' place upon our society. But we don't talk about the people. The unique individuals whose lives have been decimated by abuse, divorce, family violence, addictions, mental health disorders and a host of other problems that deliver them into homelessness.

We talk about ending homelessness but we don't talk about ending the financial drive that underlies the tearing down of existing low-income housing stock, or the gentrification of our inner cities that is pushing the very people we say we want to help out to the edges of our communities.

Outside looking in. It is the plight of those who lack the economic, political and physical will to fight for themselves. Whose resources have been drained and whose energy has been expended fighting for that next fix, that next trick, that next inch of ground where they can make a stand if only for a moment, to catch their breath, sell a trick, buy a toke, hold on.

They're choosing this life, we say. Well, maybe once upon a time they made a choice that brought them down to street level. Too long looking at the dirt, the choice to get back up is too far gone on the road to desperation. Up is too far away. Up is an unknown direction. And so they fall down. Further and further from where they wanted to be, long ago when they had the choice to go somewhere else other than where they're at. Hanging in, hanging out, hanging onto a table at a homeless shelter where they feel a part of a community that cares about the fact they're alive, living a life nobody wants.

Homelessness sucks. Homelessness saps you of energy. It tears away the fabric of your life, exposing your underbelly to the grit and grime of an existence no one would wish upon even their worst enemy.

Homelessness kills. Spirit. Health. Will.

End it? Yes please. Pass me the needle. Give me the hit that will end the futility of all of this.

But please, save me your diatribe about how I gotta get out of this place. This place is the only place that has ever held me long enough to give me a chance to figure out where I'm at.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Broken Dreams and Hope

He's in his thirties. Spent a vast majority of his adult life in 'the lock-up'. Four years out he knows where he never wants to go again. "But I don't know where I want to go now," he told me yesterday during a course I teach on Self-esteem that is part of the Career Training Initiative (CTI) here at the DI.

"Anywhere but here," piped up a good-looking younger man who was part of the course. "All I want is to get my tickets, get a job and get out of here."

The older man responded quickly. "But I like it here. I've been institutionalized most of my life. This place makes me feel safe. I've got a community here. People who understand me. I ain't got nothing out there." And he motioned with his left arm to the verdant green river valley and tree-covered hillside beyond the windows of the sixth floor CTI training room where we were meeting.

The man beside me joined in the conversation. In his twenties, he's been 'in and out' since 'juvie'. He's on parole, out since March. He too knows where he never, ever wants to go back.

"I need this place," he said. "I need to do something different 'cause getting angry, going to jail is not working for me anymore. And 'out there', I risk getting angry." In front of him sat a worn and tattered copy of Don Miguel Ruiz', The Four Agreements. Slid between the pages were his hand-written notes, proof of his laborious efforts to transcribe the agreements and their definitions. "No one ever taught me this stuff," he told the class, after reading his notes out loud. "My mom said she knew I was gonna be bad right from the moment I was born. I don't wanna be bad."

Stories of the street. Of lives in disarray. Lives on the mend. Stories of men for whom the only break they ever had was with the law. Bustin' it. Breakin' it. They end up broken down. Broken up. Living lives of broken promises. Broken families. Broken dreams. No where else to go. They end up here. At a homeless shelter. Struggling to put back together something they'd never had before. Their lives free of the past.

The perspectives were vast. Cultural differences diverse. Ethiopia, South Africa. The former Czech Republic. Belarus. 'Hardened criminals'. Youth.

Vast differences. Similar stories. Gotta get going. Gotta get real. Gotta quit what I'm doing and find something better. Gotta find a way out of this place to somewhere else.

"I don't dream," said one man. "Dreamers are fools. God doesn't like dreamers."

"I gotta dream," said another. "If I don't got dreams, I may as well just pack it in right here."

"Yeah," chimed in another. "Dreams are free. No one ever put you in jail for dreaming."

Sometimes the dream is as simple as never having to panhandle again.

"I've done it a few times," said the man who'd spent a lot of time doing time. "I hate it. It's embarrassing."

He looked at me. Smiled. His face lit up. Boyish. A child with no front teeth, the gap where once his used to be was wide.

"It would have been easier to hold someone at knife point and tell them to give me the money. But I don't wanna do that. That way's a ticket back to jail."

The exigencies of the street. Pan-handling to stay out of jail. Pan-handling for bus fare because the employer refused you the job. Worn out shoes. Worn down spirit.

At the end of the class I asked each participant to write themselves a letter. "Make it a love letter," I told them. "Make it something that will support you. Give you strength when you're down. Write what you'd like to hear from your mom, or dad, grandmother that maybe you've never ever heard."

They hesitated. Joked. Laughed. Love letter? To myself? Never wrote one to no girl. Why would I write one to myself?

"Because you deserve it," I said. "Because you need to put on paper the words you need to hear about how amazing you are, not the ones your mind keeps repeating about what a loser you've become."

Still they hesitated. Slowly, one by one, they began to write.

The quiet in the room was profound. Concentration. Fear. Hope.

"Can I read my letter to the group?" asked the man who was on parole.

"That is your choice," I told him. "Do you want to?"

"Yes," he replied.

I asked the group, "Are you willing to listen with open hearts and minds?"

Everyone nodded their heads.

The man smiled. Haltingly he began to read. I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. My heart soften.

I watched his face as he read. Focused. His brow furrowed. One finger following the words he'd written on the page.

I could see him swallow. Clench his teeth and keep on reading.

Words he needs to hear. A story he wants to tell. A dream he wants to live.

We were silent when he finished. Silent. And in awe.

Real lives finding themselves in a place where no one ever wants to end up. Homeless. Lost. Frightened. Alone.

Real lives coming together to find a common goal of moving on. Moving forward. Moving out in spite of the fear. Out from a place where courage is born. Where dreams unfold.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

At Street Level

Last night I was part of Voices from the Street 2008. A group of social service agencies and volunteers conducting a homeless street count in Calgary on the night of May 14th. Over the course of two to three hours, one hundred volunteers wandered the city streets identifying how many people were without shelter, sleeping rough. Each group had a specific geographic area to walk, a clipboard with census sheet to mark off how many people were 'visibly homeless' and a shopping bag full of 'goodies' to give away to those willing to engage in conversation.

The purpose of the count is to identify trends -- the count has been conducted by the City every second year since 1992. Homelessness has risen by 32% every two years since the first count. Is that continuing? Are more people sleeping out? Are more people drifting into homelessness? The count helps project forward what facilities will be needed. And, helps identify what's working. What's not? Where are the gaps?

Moments from last night stand out in my memory like dewdrops in morning sunlight. Crystal clear. A perfect prism encapsulating the moment, magnifying all that is wrong, all that is sad about homelessness.

It took awhile for my group of four to find our feet on the street. We weren't sure how to approach someone. How to engage in conversation. The first man we enumerated walked past us. "Do you think he's homeless?" a team member asked. "Hmmmm. Not sure." We backtracked and called out to him. "Excuse me. We're doing a street count. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?"

The man replied, his demeanor open, the tone of his voice pleasant. "Sure." He swayed slightly on his feet. A tattered black leather jacket hung off one arm. A backpack swung from one shoulder.

"Do you have a place to sleep tonight?"

"Me? Hell no." He laughed. "I like to rough it. Expose myself to the stars."

"Do you ever use the shelters?"

"Not any more," he said. "I'm barred." He paused. Looked at us. Looked down at the ground. "I'm not a bad person," he pushed a rock away with the toe of his workboot. "I drink. That doesn't make me a bad person."

We gave him a couple of cigarettes. A bag of cheesies. A bottle of water. "Thanks for taking the time to chat with us," we said as we parted and walked in opposite directions.

We didn't ask everyone. Two guys walked by, their open necked shirts clean and crisp, a cell phone in one hand. No cigarette. No can of beer tucked into a pocket. We didn't stop them. Another man walked towards us, backpack, weary posture, unshaven face. We stopped and spoke to him.

We were making judgments with every step we took. Every person we met.

Some of the folks were easy to identify. Sleeping in the park. Sitting on a park bench, shopping cart parked beside them. A bottle of booze tucked into their bag but still visible. Shaggy hair. Shaggy beard. Scruffy clothes. Dirty hands. Torn pants. Scuffed up shoes. Those people were easy to identify. When we approached them they were always friendly. Always open about talking about their lives -- albeit determining fact from fiction was not so simple. Alcohol was generally the common ingredient in the mix of their perspectives.

At one point, we walked across a darkened parking lot and found three men sitting on the ground in a far corner. A case of beer sat beside them. Two boxes of donuts were open on the ground. In front of them, plugged into a block heater outlet, a small colour TV blared the news. We walked up, said hi. They welcomed us graciously. "Want a donut? The guy at the donut shop always gives them to us at 10pm. He's great."

We told them why we were there. I recognized two of them from the Drop-In. They didn't recognize me.

They willingly answered our questions. Age. How long in the city? How long on the street? Where did they come from before here? Did they have a job? Did they ever use the shelter system? If not, why not?

They laughed and joked amongst each other. They regaled us with stories of their adventures (and misadventures). Stories of sneaking into boarded up buildings to stay out of the cold winter winds. Of hide-aways with cable TV because the building management forgot to turn it off when they'd turned everyone out in anticipation of tearing the building down. Of cops swarming them in another parking lot where they'd set up their nightly camp because the building owners were afraid of their presence in the dark. They swore us to secrecy as they told us about one building manager and his inability to keep them out of his buildings.

I wondered why they asked us to keep their secret. And why they immediately trusted us when we quickly replied, "Of course." A vulnerability of the street? Misplaced trust. Trust given too quickly. A history of trusting the untrustworthy. An assumption of co-conspiracy? Assumed community?

We talked to teen prostitutes. Runaway teens. Elderly men with years and years of street life pounded into their worn out shoes. Pockets dragging with the weight of hands buried deep within their folds, holding off the cold, clutching a bottle for support.

We put a granola bar in front of a woman lying on the grass in a park. She looked pregnant. Sound asleep? Passed out? A man walked up and told us, "She's okay. Just napping. She'll wake up in a bit and move on."

We talked to teens hanging out. Teens hanging on to some vestige of humanity as they politely thanked us for the chocolate bars and water bottles we handed out.

We didn't talk to one man wheeling a spiffy looking bike down a quiet avenue. His companion stopped to chat with us but he kept moving. Kept putting distance between him and us.

Them and us.

Two sides of the street.

One of the last men we talked to stood in front of us as we waited at a red light to cross the street. I wasn't sure about talking to him. He stood aggressively. His arms lifting up from his sides as if he thought he might be able to fly away. It was late. 11pm. Dark.

One member of the team tried to open a conversation with him. "Hi, we're doing a street count. Do you have a place to stay tonight?"

The expletives flew fast and furious. He aggressively pushed his body towards us. I wanted to calm his anger. He seemed stoned. Or perhaps he had a mental disability. I offered him a cigarette. He thought I meant a smoke of something more potent. I backed away. We all backed away. We crossed the street. Kept walking away, his expletives colouring the air behind us.

As we worked our way back to our starting point, we came upon the first man we'd encountered earlier that evening. He was sitting on the sidewalk at the back of a gas station. Beside him, an older gentlemen sat in a wheelchair.

"Hey," the man said. "I know you. I met you before."

We smiled and reminded him of our encounter earlier.

"I remember!" I didn’t know if he was surprised he remembered, surprised to see us again, or surprised we remembered him.

He was visibly more inebriated than before. He had trouble holding himself upright and unlike previously where his conversation was lucid and polite, his words were laced with expletives. He wasn't threatening. Just colourful. Between the expletives he kept insisting, "I'm not a bad person."

I asked the gentleman in the wheelchair if he had a place to sleep that night. "Oh yeah," he replied. "I'm going there." And he pointed down the street to a building two blocks away where those under the influence can spend the night.

The other man interjected. "I'm going to push him there in a little while." He added his signature phrase. "I'm not a bad person." And then promised. "I'll be careful with him." He pointed to his buddy. "I'm not a bad person. He's my friend. I take good care of him."

The language of the street. I'm not a bad person. He's my friend. I take good care of him.

The street with a language of its own. Colourful. Filled with expletives. Filled with the human condition pouring out in words of denial. Words of fear. Of pain. Of defiance. Of camaraderie. Of shared experienced. Common ground.

The young woman standing on a corner, looking for business. "I'm not a crackhead," she told us when we asked if she had a place to sleep that night. "I got my own place. I quit doing that shit six months ago. I can take care of myself."

The young couple, tattoos and spiky hair, demographic markers on the dark side of the street. "We don't use no shelter. We can take care of ourselves."

Taking care. Good care. Any care on the street is not easy.

Being careful is not part of street life.

Exposed. Vulnerable. Naked to the eyes of passers-by. Easily identifiable. Easily targeted. Easily counted by census takers on a warm night in May.

We didn't ask everyone if they had a place to sleep last night. Only those who looked like they didn't. They were easy to identify.

And when we parted we wished them well with a concerned admonishment to, 'be safe'.

As darkness descends, the street can turn mean. You gotta be safe.