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.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

What Is Poverty by Jo Goodwin Parker

The following speech "What is Poverty" by Jo Goodwin Parker, was required reading in a class Tim G., Afternoon Building Supervisor, took while in University. It's a powerful, disturbing commentary on the horrendous cost of poverty to the human spirit.

What is Poverty. by Jo Goodwin Parker

You ask me what is poverty? Listen to me. Here I am, dirty, smelly, and with no "proper" underwear on and with the stench of my rotting teeth near you. I will tell you. Listen to me. Listen without pity. I cannot use your pity. Listen with understanding. Put yourself in my dirty, worn out, ill-fitting shoes, and hear me.

Poverty is getting up every morning from a dirt- and illness-stained mattress. The sheets have long since been used for diapers. Poverty is living in a smell that never leaves. This is a smell of urine, sour milk, and spoiling food sometimes joined with the strong smell of long-cooked onions. Onions are cheap. If you have smelled this smell, you did not know how it came. It is the smell of the outdoor privy. It is the smell of young children who cannot walk the long dark way in the night. It is the smell of the mattresses where years of "accidents" have happened. It is the smell of the milk which has gone sour because the refrigerator long has not worked, and it costs money to get it fixed. It is the smell of rotting garbage. I could bury it, but where is the shovel? Shovels cost money.

Poverty is being tired. I have always been tired. They told me at the hospital when the last baby came that I had chronic anemia caused from poor diet, a bad case of worms, and that I needed a corrective operation. I listened politely - the poor are always polite. The poor always listen. They don't say that there is no money for iron pills, or better food, or worm medicine. The idea of an operation is frightening and costs so much that, if I had dared, I would have laughed. Who takes care of my children? Recovery from an operation takes a long time. I have three children. When I left them with "Granny" the last time I had a job, I came home to find the baby covered with fly specks, and a diaper that had not been changed since I left. When the dried diaper came off, bits of my baby's flesh came with it. My other child was playing with a sharp bit of broken glass, and my oldest was playing alone at the edge of a lake. I made twenty-two dollars a week, and a good nursery school costs twenty dollars a week for three children. I quit my job.

Poverty is dirt. You can say in your clean clothes coming from your clean house, "Anybody can be clean." Let me explain about housekeeping with no money. For breakfast I give my children grits with no oleo or cornbread without eggs and oleo. This does not use up many dishes. What dishes there are, I wash in cold water and with no soap. Even the cheapest soap has to be saved for the baby's diapers. Look at my hands, so cracked and red. Once I saved for two months to buy a jar of Vaseline for my hands and the baby's diaper rash. When I had saved enough, I went to buy it and the price had gone up two cents. The baby and I suffered on. I have to decide every day if I can bear to put my cracked sore hands into the cold water and strong soap. But you ask, why not hot water? Fuel costs money. If you have a wood fire it costs money. If you burn electricity, it costs money. Hot water is a luxury. I do not have luxuries. I know you will be surprised when I tell you how young I am. I look so much older. My back has been bent over the wash tubs every day for so long, I cannot remember when I ever did anything else. Every night I wash every stitch my school age child has on and just hope her clothes will be dry by morning.

Poverty is staying up all night on' cold nights to watch the fire knowing one spark on the newspaper covering the walls means your sleeping child dies in flames. In summer poverty is watching gnats and flies devour your baby's tears when he cries. The screens are torn and you pay so little rent you know they will never be fixed. Poverty means insects in your food, in your nose, in your eyes, and crawling over you when you sleep. Poverty is hoping it never rains because diapers won't dry when it rains and soon you are using newspapers. Poverty is seeing your children forever with runny noses. Paper handkerchiefs cost money and all your rags you need for other things. Even more costly are antihistamines. Poverty is cooking without food and cleaning without soap.

Poverty is asking for help. Have you ever had to ask for help, knowing your children will suffer unless you get it? Think about asking for a loan from a relative, if this is the only way you can imagine asking for help. I will tell you how it feels. You find out where the office is that you are supposed to visit. You circle that block four or five times. Thinking of your children, you go in. Everyone is very busy. Finally, someone comes out and you tell her that you need help. That never is the person you need to see. You go see another person, and after spilling the whole shame of your poverty all over the desk between you, you find that this isn't the right office after all-you must repeat the whole process, and it never is any easier at the next place.

You have asked for help, and after all it has a cost. You are again told to wait. You are told why, but you don't really hear because of the red cloud of shame and the rising cloud of despair.

Poverty is remembering. It is remembering quitting school in junior high because "nice" children had been so cruel about my clothes and my smell. The attendance officer came. My mother told him I was pregnant. I wasn't, but she thought that I could get a job and help out. I had jobs off and on, but never long enough to learn anything. Mostly I remember being married. I was so young then. I am still young. For a time, we had all the things you have. There was a little house in another town, with hot water and everything. Then my husband lost his job. There was unemployment insurance for a while and what few jobs I could get. Soon, all our nice things were repossessed and we moved back here. I was pregnant then. This house didn't look so bad when we first moved in. Every week it gets worse. Nothing is ever fixed. We now had no money. There were a few odd jobs for my husband, but everything went for food then, as it does now. I don't know how we lived through three years and three babies, but we did. I'll tell you something, after the last baby I destroyed my marriage. It had been a good one, but could you keep on bringing children in this dirt? Did you ever think how much it costs for any kind of birth control? I knew my husband was leaving the day he left, but there were no goodbye between us. I hope he has been able to climb out of this mess somewhere. He never could hope with us to drag him down.

That's when I asked for help. When I got it, you know how much it was? It was, and is, seventy-eight dollars a month for the four of us; that is all I ever can get. Now you know why there is no soap, no needles and thread, no hot water, no aspirin, no worm medicine, no hand cream, no shampoo. None of these things forever and ever and ever. So that you can see clearly, I pay twenty dollars a month rent, and most of the rest goes for food. For grits and cornmeal, and rice and milk and beans. I try my best to use only the minimum electricity. If I use more, there is that much less for food.

Poverty is looking into a black future. Your children won't play with my boys. They will turn to other boys who steal to get what they want. I can already see them behind the bars of their prison instead of behind the bars of my poverty. Or they will turn to the freedom of alcohol or drugs, and find themselves enslaved. And my daughter? At best, there is for her a life like mine.

But you say to me, there are schools. Yes, there are schools. My children have no extra books, no magazines, no extra pencils, or crayons, or paper and most important of all, they do not have health. They have worms, they have infections, they have pink-eye all summer. They do not sleep well on the floor, or with me in my one bed. They do not suffer from hunger, my seventy-eight dollars keeps us alive, but they do suffer from malnutrition. Oh yes, I do remember what I was taught about health in school. It doesn't do much good.

In some places there is a surplus commodities program. Not here. The country said it cost too much. There is a school lunch program. But I have two children who will already be damaged by the time they get to school.

But, you say to me, there are health clinics. Yes, there are health clinics and they are in the towns. I live out here eight miles from town. I can walk that far (even if it is sixteen miles both ways), but can my little children? My neighbor will take me when he goes; but he expects to get paid, one way or another. I bet you know my neighbor. He is that large man who spends his time at the gas station, the barbershop, and the corner store complaining about the government spending money on the immoral mothers of illegitimate children.

Poverty is an acid that drips on pride until all pride is worn away. Poverty is a chisel that chips on honor until honor is worn away. Some of you say that you would do something in my situation, and maybe you would, for the first week or the first month, but for year after year after year?

Even the poor can dream. A dream of a time when there is money. Money for the right kinds of food, for worm medicine, for iron pills, for toothbrushes, for hand cream, for a hammer and nails and a bit of screening, for a shovel, for a bit of paint, for some sheeting, for needles and thread. Money to pay in money for a trip to town. And, oh, money for hot water and money for soap. A dream of when asking for help does not eat away the last bit of pride. When the office you visit is as nice as the offices of other governmental agencies, when there are enough workers to help you quickly, when workers do not quit in defeat and despair. When you have to tell your story to only one person, and that person can send you for other help and you don't have to prove your poverty over and over and over again.

I have come out of my despair to tell you this. Remember I did not come from another place or another time. Others like me are all around you. Look at us with an angry heart, anger that will help

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

As Long As Hope Lives

It is just a piece of paper hanging on the wall of an office at the Drop-In. A white piece of paper with a picture of a man standing between two teenagers, his arms around their shoulders. I can see their smiles but the eyes of the teenage girls are blacked out. The man's whole face is visible. He's wearing a cowboy hat. Black shirt. Black jeans. He's got a Johnny Cash kind of look, a cocky stance as he smiles, obviously happy to be between his daughters. I know he's their father. The message on the paper tells me. "Has anyone seen this man?" And then, beneath it, "Dad, please call home. We love you."

A simple, heartfelt message. A pain too great to fathom.

It is a story often repeated at the Drop-In and other homeless shelters across the country. Mother's call in looking for their sons. Daughters look for their mothers. Brothers come in search of their twin, wives search for 'their better halves'.

It is a story that reminds me of what I once did to my daughters. Disappeared. Vanished. Left with no forwarding address.

Hard to imagine. But true.

I look back on that woman who believed so completely that she had no value, no meaning in anyone else's life but the abuse and terror she was enduring. I feel the pain of those lost souls trying to escape the loving arms reaching out to them, wanting to tell them a simple truth, We love you. And I know the sorrow of those reaching out in fear they've lost the one they love forever.

It's hard to hear someone loves you when you believe you are completely unworthy. The mind cries out. You must escape from the burden of their love, escape from the truth of the self-hatred burning inside for all that you are, all you've become. You must run and hide.

It was a relationship that brought me down. A man who believed it was his right to control me, to take over my life because he could. And I bought into his lies. Let go of the sacred trust my daughters depended upon to give their lives meaning. At some point in that journey through hell, the responsibility of their love became too great, too hot to touch. The truth of what I'd done became too great a burden to carry. In my fall from grace I had to deny the one thing I craved, the one thing that gave my life meaning-- to be connected through the circle of love to the one's I loved. Lost on the road of life, I told myself I didn't deserve their love. I was not worthy.

And so, I ran away. Disappeared. Vanished.

I was blessed. I was found before I was erased from this planet. I was found before all I left behind was the painful memory of my journey through hell, a bitter reminder for those who loved me to grapple with, make sense of, understand. In my 'finding' I found the gift of healing, of forgiveness, of love.

At the Drop-In, sometimes the lost are not found. They pass by and pass away, their lives an untold story never to unfold. Like the young man a volunteer told me about on Saturday. Her husband had befriended him. He was a schizophrenic. Twenty-eight years old. He used to sit on the sidewalk outside the man's office building and panhandle. Her husband would give him coins, buy him coffee and a muffin, sometimes take him for lunch. And then one day, he disappeared.

The husband wondered where he'd gone and then continued on with his life. Until a week after his disappearance when the police appeared. The young man had died. An overdose. His story ended. We found your business card amongst his belongings, they told him. You're the only contact name we have. Can you help us connect with his family? The husband knew of a brother, which led to a parent. Thanks for letting us know, they said. They didn't come for the funeral. The volunteer and the husband were the only one's there. Two strangers saying a prayer over a man whose life had lost all connection to this world. At least the family knows what happened to him, the husband said. At least they won't have to keep worrying about him.

Sometimes, the lost cannot be found again. Sometimes, there's no one looking for them.

I hope and pray those two daughters find some sign of their father. I pray one day he will find himself on the road of living in love and joy reconnected to the ones he loves.

Until that time, we must hold open the doors that lead the way off the street so those who are lost can find their way home again. We must keep hope alive for those who are searching for the one's they love so that they do not give up hope that all will be lost with the passing away of the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces who are missing.

Friday, May 02, 2008

In honour of Augie. Written by: Roger G.

While putting my laundry in the washer this morning, I thought back to the beautiful memorial service I attended yesterday for Augie Simonaitis. Clients and staff and friends came together to fill the MultiPurpose Room on the 6th floor; staff I've worked with, some who have moved on to new ventures, and others I only know by name. There were clients whom I have watched as they've ridden roller-coasters of success and failure, a client who has found contentment with the slow road of building on small triumphs rather than chasing after the dramatic life changes that have eluded him, a client whom I've watched waste away, and another who just keeps plodding along, seemingly in his own little world most of the time. We were all there to pay our respect to Augie, and it felt very much like a family.

I knew Augie for the six years I've worked at the Drop-In. For three of those years I was one of the front line workers greeting clients, donators, EMS and CPS at the main doors, while he was in "the fishbowl", the Security office behind us. I can remember one night when Augie was being a bit bossy for my liking, calling out his
opinion of every little thing we were doing as we tried to keep the peace out in the lobby. I finally went to his window and said to him, "Augie, we just got a phone call from Environment Canada. They say that the hot air from your mouth is affecting weather systems all across the Prairies, and they say they'll give you a silver-framed barometer to hang on your wall if you'll shut up." To my surprise, he did. For a little while.

When I was first offered a supervisor's position, my response was "Who, me? a supervisor? Are you kidding?" And it took me about a year before I felt comfortable and competent in that role. But Augie had confidence in me; he would tell me that he believed I was good at my job and I could handle whatever came up. I needed those words, especially from people who knew where I had come from, what I was good at, and what I wasn't.

Due to the foresight and care of my own supervisor Linda, who had heard from nurse James that Augie might not make it through the night, my work was done by others last Tuesday, while it came to me to be with him when he died. I phoned Dr. Hurley just after 1:00 a.m., so she could come to the apartment, phone the funeral home, and sit with Augie and I while we waited for them to come pick him up. But until the service yesterday, I never knew that Augie had been a client. I had known nothing of his life of hard struggle with self-destructive habits. And I never guessed at the many lives that he had touched so deeply. The memorial gave us a chance to briefly sketch out for each other a few outlines of who this man was and how we had each been touched. Appropriately, we were met a the door with a beautiful pencil drawing of Augie done by Jeff, one of our new Security staff, who had the chance to meet Augie before he left us.

I am grateful towards Andrew Joo, John Rowland, Dermot Baldwin, and whoever else organized this memorial for Augie so that we may have a chance to gather together and tell each other stories about our friend. Is this not a fine, fine way for us to accept death as part of life? to process our loss and to give thanks for the flawed,
imperfect, fully human lifegiver who has passed on?

For us, life goes on; in our booming city there are a thousand ways to get the short end of the stick and various addictions to shorten the stick further still, so there are still clients to feed and house at the Drop-In. There are mouths to feed at home. I'm on my days off, and my laundry is now ready to go out on the clothesline.

Roger G. continues to work nights for the Drop-In, as he always has.

In celebration of a heartfelt man.

Her cheeks are caved in where once her teeth held the shape of her face in place. Her dark eyes dart around the room as if constantly searching for an exit or perhaps she's just making sure she's ready to make a quick exit in case someone comes to tell her she has to leave, this isn't where she belongs. The pinkish white flesh of her scalp shows through between the strands of her salt and pepper hair which flies about her face like feathery whiskers on a cat. She's tall. Thin. Almost emaciated. She never wears shoes, her stockinged feet shuffle as she walks.

She isn't comfortable sitting amidst the black suits and dresses. And yet, she's come. She's here. She must pay respects to the man who gave her a gift no one else ever had.

She cannot get up to speak at the podium, "Talking in front of people makes me nervous," she tells the MC. She sits in her seat and holds a conversation with him as if there's no one else there. We strain to listen, to hear her. What she has to say is important.

"I came in one day, stoned, like I always was," she says, her eyes never leaving the MC's. "I'm an addict," she says by way of explanation.

Her entire body is in motion where she sits on the edge of her chair, leaning into the conversation. She nods, her arm lifts up, she straightens her pointer finger and jabs the air. "He saw me stumbling and came out from behind the glass window towards me. I could barely stand. I was crying. He came over, put his arm around me, held me up and said, 'It's okay. It's okay. You've got a good heart."

She stops and swallows. "He said that to me. 'You've got a good heart.'" She shakes her head. "Nobody's ever said that to me before. He did. And I'll never forget it. You've got a good heart."

She sits back in her chair, her thin lips pulled back from her reddened gums in a smile as innocent as a baby's. She nods her head, mutters to herself and rocks her body. "I have a good heart," she whispers.

He died last Wednesday. This man who could see the good heart within each of us. His care giver had turned away to make a cup of tea and in those brief moments, he slipped from his earthly form to another plane.

It is how he lived his life. On his terms.

It is how we are celebrating his passing. Nothing fancy. No formal service. Just a roomful of people gathered to celebrate the life of a man whose past is a blur, but whose impact in the ten years many had known him was profound.

I'd only known him two years. Since coming to work at the Drop-In. I knew him as a security guard. Committed to giving his best. To ensuring the rules were followed. Procedures maintained so that everyone was as safe as possible in an environment where chaos is the order of the day. He always had a kind word. A gentle smile. An outreached arm lengthened by his pointer finger jabbing the air to get your attention or to bring your attention to a point that he believed must be made.

He'd once been a client. A man, like so many others, struggling to let go of a past that haunted his waking moments as he slipped into a bottle that gave him courage to face the day. It was a past that slithered through his nights on velvety whispers that would not let him forget where he'd been and what he'd done.

But he wanted to. Forget that is. Forget what he'd done. Forget where he'd been. Forget the past so he could be free to live today for all he was worth.

And he did. Let go. But he couldn't forget. He didn't really want to. It was his legacy, and his way out. He couldn't forget it, but he could at least forgive himself and the past that had caused such trouble in his life.

At the shelter he found the road out of the past to living each day with dignity. He found the path away from the darkness of the addiction that gave him false courage into the sobriety that gave his life meaning.

I remember him making his rounds of the building. He was a tall man. Thin. Handsome in a Clint Eastwood kind of way. He wore his black vest with the gold lettering with pride. His footsteps were measured. Sure. As he walked and tested doors, he held his clipboard in one arm, carefully checking off that locks were secured and everything was as it should be.

The routine gave him meaning. It made me feel safe where ever I was in the building.

If it was after hours and no one else was around he'd sit for a moment in the blue chair across from my desk and chat. Sometimes, he'd tell me a story of another time. He wanted to share what he'd learned through living life on the wrong side of the street he told me. He wanted to use his story to give hope and strength to others who were lost on the road of life like he once was.

"I gotta give back to give meaning to my life today," he said.

He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, I listened.

"I once tried to go back," he told me. "I thought it was time I reconnected to my past. I went east. Checked out some of my family. It didn't work out. Too much water under the bridge. So I came back. Here. Where I belong." He paused, lifted his right arm up, extended the pointer finger, nodded his head and said. "There's never any going back. You've always got to find where you belong right where you are."

Yesterday, dozens of people gathered together to celebrate the life of Augie. A gentle spirit. A wise soul. A heartfelt man.