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.