Thursday, May 21, 2009

Leaving the DI. Written by Emily Sharpe

I arrived here as many do, living in the in-betweens of friends and family, trying to find a home beyond the car, somewhere to lay my head down two nights in a row. No, I wasn’t a client but it got close sometimes. I worked at the DI trying to listen, to teach and help a group of people, mainly men, move on with their lives, lift a few of the barriers that keep them here. As for me, I was a student, working on an eight month internship, returning to school in September to finish off a degree or two. It took me a few weeks to settle in here-to adjust myself to the climate, to acquire the skills that were really needed. It wasn’t the office setting (my first) that I need to learn new skills for, but rather I had to learn to be compassionate, flexible, and determined every day.

I also had to learn that many of the other staff here had a story, that they had as diverse backgrounds as the clients. It made it easier to understand what had gone on in my own life, to see strong men and women who had lived and worked through much worse. They helped me make sense of my own story, to see the abuse I had just escaped as something survivable, something to rebuild from. It helped me feel as though I belonged here, which brought me back here every day with a smile.

Now, everyday that I spend with these impossible people, these men and women who I come to be frustrated by and admire and mourn, I feel a little more able. Some of these men are doing impossible things, coming off 20 year-long bouts of depression and drinking-yet still finding the willpower and motivation to pick it up and put themselves back together. It can be tragic seeing the ones who don't make it, but all you need it the memory of that one, coming back with a rumpled first pay check in his back pocket, a smile across his ruddy face and eyes that light up when he tells you about the northern lights he has seen. He keeps me coming back, keeps the hope alive in me too.

I'm done with the DI for now-but I doubt I will ever be able to forget my time here. I hope I will get to work at another such rewarding a job-and if I can't, then watch for me in a staff vest a few years from now.

Written by: Emily Sharpe

Monday, May 11, 2009

If People Were Rain By Tim Gorman.

Written By: Tim Gorman.
Over the years the DI has been criticized for many things. The irony is in being criticized for the very problems we are responding to. It's one of those which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg things. We built a large homeless shelter some years ago in response to a need we saw coming. Other systems were failing. People were falling through the cracks. A storm was brewing. And as it turns out, we were right. Our large homeless shelter is now full. Overfull, actually. We're the largest one in Canada. But somehow, through all of this, and after responding to so many problems, many people have come to believe that we've actually created the problems. There's a prevalent attitude out there that believes that because we built a large homeless shelter, more people became homeless. The thinking is archaic. Many years ago, because they didn't know any better, people believed that rats were spontaneously created by leaving piles of rags in barns. They were wrong then, too.

Homelessness is a symptom of a problem, not the actual problem. The myriad of problems that cause people to become homeless are vast.

If people were rain it might look something like this: As they fall – and we all fall – most are caught in the caring hands of family. Some are caught by friends. Others continue to fall. It's a lot of rain. For many, their fall is broken by safety nets – buckets, if you will – created by social systems. There's a lot of buckets out there. The welfare bucket. The justice bucket. The health care bucket. Faith communities. Treatment centres. Group homes. Shelters. And so on. And so most of the rain is caught before it drains down the gutter. It's not always the best, but it does work for most.

There are, however, a lot of gaps between buckets. More buckets would help, to be sure, but there's so much rain! These gaps in the system – the cracks – are often created by rules and criteria that limit admission to the buckets. You need to be between 24 and 30 years of age for this one. This other one is only for women. No addictions in this one. This one is for immigrants only. No criminal convictions. Only for seniors. No mental health issues. Sober only. No hygiene problems. Only for youth. And so on...

The DI's philosophy of care arose out of this. Because it's not rain. It's people. And we were sick of watching them fall through the cracks.

So, what do you do?

Well, first off, you need a really big bucket. You hold your bucket above the gutter to catch whoever falls through the cracks. You try to catch as many as you can because you know that no one else will. You loosen your policies to allow people with chronic addictions to stay. You allow people with extreme behavioral problems because no one else will. You allow people with raging schizophrenia because if you don't, you know they will die outside in the storm. You flex and you bend and you do the best you can because it's a bad storm and you can't bear to watch any more people go down the drain.

Of course, like everyone else, we have rules and criteria, but our philosophy is that our people are more important than our rules. It may not sound like much, but it's a big deal. It means that to the best of our ability, no one falls through the cracks. We do our best to accommodate whoever comes our way. Mind you, our big bucket, overflowing as it is, has become very heavy. Often it's all we can do just to hold it up. We don't always have the resources to give people the help they truly need. We try so hard, but we do fall short. It was a big storm.

And so we get criticized. That's okay. Holding up this heavy bucket all these years has given us broad shoulders. We get criticized for enabling people. Sure, that happens with us as it does elsewhere. We get criticized for caring for people that no one else will. The police don't want them. The hospitals don't want them. The other shelters don't want them. The 10 Year Plan doesn't even want them. But we do. And if you believe that all people are of value and that suffering from things like mental illness and addictions should not be a death sentence, then you should understand why we do what we do. Imagine if we didn't. More than twelve-thousand different people stayed at the DI last year.

Granted, it's not the best situation. We know that. The fact that we take all comers creates all kinds of challenges. We wish things were different and that we didn't need to do what we do. We wish more rain would be caught by the buckets that precede us. But until people stop falling through the cracks, we'll keep catching them.

And you know what? It's really not so bad. We like these people.

Written By Tim G. Building Supervisor

Forgiveness and old times Written by John R.

Written by John R.

There he was, the old man with the wire rim glasses and the walker. His thin, hunched frame shuffling along. I recognized that face. It was etched on my mind.

It was 12 years ago and I was a new employee at the DI. I had been told that he was barred but I had never met him before. I had been told to watch for since he always had a knife but I had never seen it. Then there he standing tall, wearing new cowboy boots & hat that gleamed in the morning sun silhouetted against the open doors behind him. I asked him his name, and he would not tell me. Something twigged in my mind and I asked him if he was Fred (not his real name) and he did not deny it. I asked him to leave, and he refused and watching me with his legs planted firmly in a confident stance. He held something behind his back and I asked him what it was not approaching him. He laughed and refused to tell me any thing. I asked him if it was a knife and he suggested that I come and find out. My co-worker went to call the police as Fred and myself continued to face off in the front entry of our old building. When my co-worker came back he said the police were on their way, at which point Fred showed me the knife he had been holding behind his back. He then left before the police could come.

That was the first time I met Fred, the second time was a few weeks later at the end of the laneway where he had been selling drugs behind the dumpster. It played out almost the same way except that he showed me his knife as he was leaving but did not wait for the police to be called.

That was 12 years ago, and today when I saw him, I saw a 52 year old man who looked to be in his 90’s. I know that the streets are hard on a person but I was shocked at how the last 10 years have taken their toll on Fred. I wondered if I should go and talk to him about old times, and decided not to, at least not yet. I hope to be able to do this someday, but for now I am glad that he is safe and out of the cold.

His bar has been lifted and he is now coming back to us time for food, shelter and a safe place from the harsh reality of life on the streets. I do not know his story, only the small part that I played in it. But the history doesn't matter. Today he is a human in need of compassion, forgiveness and help and that is what we at the DI are here to do.

Written by: John R

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The greatness of a man. In memory of Russel Orum

He was a quiet man. Stern. Gruff. Piercing eyes. He didn’t often smile. He kept his lips pressed tight together but even that couldn’t extinguish a glint of humour, or perhaps it was mischief, that shone in his eyes. I always thought he knew some secret about life I didn’t know. The reality is, in his sixty-three years, he had learned lessons about living true to who you are that I still struggle to understand.

No matter his gruffness, however, everyone knew that beneath Russ Orum’s tough exterior there beat a heart of gold. A heart that would do anything to help his fellow man. A heart that drove him to quickly jump into any situation where he could lend a hand, make a difference.

He’d been a client of the DI for quite some time. It was the 90s. A time when labour jobs were bountiful. He’d work and lead his quiet life, coming back to the shelter at night to crawl onto a mat and grab some sleep. He didn’t ask for much. Always had a lot to give. He’d share his last cigarette if someone asked. A beer. His blanket if he thought someone needed it more than him. And always he’d volunteer.

As time moved on, his body grew weary, the harsh reality of work suited for a younger man mixed with the life of being homeless took a toll on his ability to sustain hard labour. At night, when he would drag his tired body into the shelter, he would move more slowly, with less confidence in his step. Eventually, he couldn’t do the work anymore, but he always volunteered. Always asked if there was something he could do to give back, to make a difference.

I knew him mostly from our kitchen, a place where his heartfelt giving kept the place humming. He would volunteer for eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” he told me when I’d asked him about the long hours he put in. He paused and added, ‘And I like it here. They’re nice folk to work with.”

He was always there when I needed something. Always willing to pitch in to put together a food hamper, or a tray of meals for a workshop on the sixth floor. He didn’t care about requisitions or paperwork or even if the kitchen was swamped and staff and volunteers were running off their feet.

He always had time to help. “What d’ya need?” he’d ask whenever I appeared in the kitchen.

“I’ve got a course upstairs in the board room. Would it be possible to get a tray of snacks? Please.”

He’d stand with one hand on his hip, the other on the door to the walk-in cooler. He wouldn’t smile. Just look at me with those piercing eyes. “How many people?”


He’d nod his head. Up and down. Up and down. “Hmmm.” And he’d open the fridge and pull out a tray of donuts or muffins or cookies. “Do you need coffee too?”

“No thanks. I made some upstairs.”

He’d hand me the tray. I’d give him a big smile and thank you and he would nod his head in response. But, before I could turn and walk away he’d say, “Wait.” And he’d step into the pantry, pull down a box of chocolates or some other tasty tidbit and say, “Here. The guys will like these.”

He wasn’t much on acknowledgement. Pushed away thank-yous and words of appreciation and gratitude just as he pushed away touch. I gave him a hug. Once. He stood still. His arms by his sides.

“Thanks for all you do Russ,” I told him. “I really appreciate your support.”

Slowly he reached up with one arm and touched my back. For just a second. “Harrumph,” he murmured before quickly stepping back. “I’ll get you those snacks.”

I like to think he stayed a bit longer in the cooler that time before coming out laden with sweets the guys would like. I like to think my gratitude touched him as much as his helping hands touched my heart.

He was a man who made a difference. Determined. Proud. He didn’t gossip. Didn’t grumble. He simply went about his work. Quietly. Efficiently. Without any fuss.

He loved being in that kitchen. He loved the certitude of his role within it. He loved having a place to make a difference, to be of service. He loved having a placed that counted on him to turn up.

In his consistency of always being there, he taught the younger clients and staff the meaning of commitment. Of the importance of doing a good job, no matter what your circumstances, no matter how you felt. “You gotta always do your best,” he told me. “Always give your all. Never give up. Never give in.

Russ Orum never gave up. Never gave in. Until April 18th when the cancer that was eating him up from the inside took him from this earthly realm. Some say to a better place. Some don’t know. No matter where he’s gone, in his passing, Russ has left behind a better world and a legacy of caring in the thousands of lives he touched with his ‘how can I be of service’ attitude. He has left behind the commitment he brought to turning up every day and the memory of a man who when asked, always reached out to help.

In his passing, Russ leaves behind the truth about what it means to be a great man. Commitment. Passion. Generosity. Caring. He leaves behind the realization that greatness is not determined by status or title or wealth, it is determined by acts of service that make a difference.

You made a difference Russ. In my life. In the lives of everyone here at the DI. In the lives of all those you touched on your journey. You will be missed. You will always be remembered.

Monday, May 04, 2009

One man's passing.

We sat in a circle. Twelve people gathered together to debrief an 'incident' that had happened earlier in the day.

A client had died. His body found lying on the sidewalk just off the main entrance to the shelter. He'd lain there for awhile. Had been lying there when I drove in earlier that day around noon to organize the filming of a commercial for the shelter. I hadn't seen him.

No one had realized he was gone. Short staffed, no one had tried to wake him, or the several other people lying on the stretch of sidewalk just off our front doors. It was a beautiful day. Busy coping with the demands of managing a thousand people who were in the building throughout the morning and over the lunch hour, staff left people to enjoy the spring sunshine. It wouldn't have made any difference if they had tried to awaken him. The ME said there was nothing anyone could have done. He had died in his sleep, under the heat of the sun warming his body as it grew cold. He had passed from sleep into death without stirring.

Realizing something was amiss when I'd heard radio chatter and the call for the ME and not an ambulance, I'd come down from the sixth floor where we'd been filming, to see if I could be of any assistance. "Anything else I can do?" I'd asked when I'd caught up to him outside the building.

Before he could reply, a client came up to me and asked, her voice shaky, tears streaming from her eyes. "What am I supposed to do?" She queried me. "I feel so unsafe here now. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of us."

"He died of natural causes," I told her, putting my arms around her and giving her a hug. I pulled back and looked into her eyes. "Your safety is no different now than it was before. No one did this to him." I paused and hugged her again. "Perhaps your fear is more that you realize this," and I swept my hand out to encompass the building and the parking lot where we stood and so much more, "This could kill you too."

She'd told me two days before that, after having found an apartment of her own three months earlier, she had had to move back to the shelter because she'd started using crack again. "I don't want to do it," she said. "But I just can't help myself."

She glanced behind me to where his body lay on the sidewalk covered with a blanket. A bevy of police officers stood around him. "I didn't know him well, but I have talked to him. It just scares me though. His going like that. Who will care that he's gone?" She paused. "Who will care if something happens to me?"

He will be missed I told her and reminded her of what Mother Teresa once said, "We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."

"You are a vital drop in the ocean of his life. You will miss him. You will mourn him. You are here to note his passing and to say good-bye."

We sat in a circle in the fifth floor staff room and talked about how we each felt. The front line staff, who do so much day in and day out to care for those who cannot or will not care for themselves, were shaken. I'd spoken with one young staff member earlier, just after the police and ME had arrived. He'd had to retreat to an office on the first floor to collect himself.

"I feel really anxious," he'd told me. "I feel like I want to run and run around the block as fast as I can."

"Breathe," I told him. "Long slow breaths through your nose, out through your mouth."

"I've never seen a dead body before." The words poured out like tears. "We didn't even know he was dead when we went to wake him up. Some guy had parked his van and come in and said, 'there's a guy lying on the sidewalk, really still.' I went out with another staff member, bent down and shook him on the shoulder. He didn't move. We realized something was wrong and rolled him over." His voice caught. Tears glistened in his eyes. "It's that image of his face. I keep seeing it. I want to erase it. But it just keeps coming back."

"It's natural," I told him. "You've had a really big shock. You want to believe there was something you could have done. Should have done. But there isn't. You did the best you could. Think about the hundreds of people you served today. You did good work today. You touched many lives and that touch could be the difference that awakens their courage to find their way back home. You could not change the course of this man's destiny."

He took a deep breath. "But I wish I could have," he whispered. "I wish I had."

For some of the staff gathered in the room it was not the first time they had encountered a client's death. One young woman had worked with another staff member delivering CPR on another man for forty-five minutes some weeks before. "They pronounced him dead in the ambulance," she said. "I couldn't change what happened to him but I'm grateful to work with such an amazing team. You make me proud."

I felt proud to be sitting amongst them too. Committed. Caring. Concerned human beings serving those for whom the shelter is often just the stopping point between drinks or hits of some concoction that will take them away from the pain and sorrow of their lives.

For the staff members sitting in that circle, the man who had passed away was not a statistic. He was not a label called homeless.

He has a name. A family. A history. A story. He was, as one client had described himself weeks before, "A father. A brother. An uncle. A son. A friend. I am an artist a musician, a carpenter," he'd said. "I laugh. I cry. I feel pain. Which of these are diminished because I am homeless?"

A life was extinguished on the sidewalk outside the shelter today. A life ended, but the man who was a father and brother, a son, and a friend, he will live on in the memories of those who knew him.

In his passing, his light has been extinguished and hope died. Hope died of his ever finding himself again. Of his ever finding his way back home.

But hope lives on in the lives of every other person at the shelter. Hope lives on in the hearts and minds and spirits of those who care so deeply for one man's passing and who work so hard to ensure no man's passing goes unnoticed. Hope lives on in the caring attitudes and willing hands each staff member extends to those who pass through our doors.

We cannot save anyone. We can only give our best and pray they will find the best within them one day, soon, to take steps that will make a difference in their lives.

And when they don't, when they pass away never having found themselves or their way back home, we can only note their passing and know, we gave our best. Our best is good enough. It is all we have to give. It is not ours to determine when someone goes. We can only determine the care we give.

I looked around the circle, saw the tears and the sadness and felt honoured to be in their midst. I am proud of the people I work with. They give their best at every moment and care when others would walk away and say, "He won't be missed. He was just a drunk. A bum."

He was none of those. He was a human being.