Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Bit More Time

I stopped at the Nurse's Station to ask for his room. "Ah yes, J.," the nurse behind the counter said. "Just follow the corridor to the right as it wends its way around. On your right you'll see a door marked, "Over Capacity. That's his room."

What an odd name for a room, I thought as I followed her directions and came to the room with the promised signage. He was inside. Sitting on his bed. The blue hospital gown over his t-shirt and jeans. Long blond hair streaming out from beneath the ever present baseball cap he always wore.

He greeted me with a smile. Shy. "Thanks for coming," he said. "It's nice to see a familiar face."

The room was cramped. No window. No cupboard. No washroom. No visitor's chair. There just wasn't room in the storage area turned into a hospital room for anything other than the bed and a sink. I wondered if along with the label "Patient", his other label, "Homeless" had followed him into this dark space. I didn't want to ask if there was a connection between his lack of economic status and the position of the bed he'd been provided. I didn't want to embarrass him or to cause him to question his position on the ward. But still I wondered. He must have seen the question in my eyes. "The nurses are nice. They treat me real good."

He had been there since the first day of the month. Fourteen days of tests and trying to stabilize him enough to keep food down. Since May, he's lost sixty pounds. Ten alone over the fourteen days he's been there.

"Look at this," he said, showing me the menu from his dinner. "Everything's pureed. Ugh. Pureed pork." He smiled. "The popsicles aren't bad. And I like Jello. But I just can't get enough to eat." Shrug. "At least I'm keeping this food down."

We chatted for a bit about people and happenings at the shelter. He told me about his family. Two sisters. Two brothers.

I asked if he wanted me to contact them. "Not yet," he replied. "I'd rather get the details on what they're going to do before I worry them needlessly. My one sister won't care anyway. She never responds to my emails. But the others. They'll just worry about me. They don't need that."

I'd brought with me some of the photographs he'd taken and had mounted for an art show coming up at the shelter. When he'd called earlier he'd told me about his conversations with the doctors. "It'd be nice to show them some of my work," he said. "I might even be able to sell some. I'm not doing any bottle picking these days," he added with a laugh.

"I can bring some with me," I said.

"Would you? That'd be great." He set the photos up on the floor, leaning against the wall. The light wasn't great, but even in that dim space, the beauty of his photography leaped at you. The city scape through the porthole of a bridge. A flower, its delicate pink petals glistening with dew. A duck floating on the river, its ripple trailing behind it.

He has an eye for composition and light. An uncanny ability to see beyond what the human eye discerns to the negative spaces between shapes and shadows. He'd only started taking 'pictures', as he calls them, a year and a half ago. He'd been given a disposable camera. He filled the film. Had it processed and fell in love with the medium.

"I'm getting kind of old to keep doing manual labour," he'd told me. "Maybe picture taking could become my retirement plan." He'd laughed when he said the words, "retirement". Laughed and kept on taking pictures.

He doesn't know now how long of a retirement period he's going to get. "They say it's probably cancer," he said. "I figured they might find something in my lungs. Never thought it would be my stomach." He's waiting for surgery. Waiting to find out if he's got a couple of months, a year, maybe more.

"Let's focus on many more," I said.

"More would be good," he agreed. "But I'm pretty happy with what I've had." He paused. "But a bit more would be nice."

I hope he gets the bit more. Hope he gets a chance to take more pictures. To capture on film the world as he sees it. A world of beauty frozen in the angles of glass and concrete girders with sun glinting off the corner where they meet and touch the sky. A world of wonder where dew drops glisten on a purple flower in the early dawn. Where river ice floats upon a sea of mist and dusty pink dawn bruises the azure sky.

I hope he gets a bit more time to experience more of the wonder he's found behind the camera. Time to share his gifts. Time to be alive.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How the DI has helped me. -- by Phil G.

It was many years ago that I was homeless and in some ways it seems like a lifetime ago. I had grown up in poverty and addiction and, at the time, was lacking the life skills to apply myself to anything more than temp work, drug dealing or theft to make money.

From birth, the odds were already stacked against me -- my father was a drug addict, my mother drank the whole pregnancy with me and I was born high and lethargic due to the amount of valium she had taken before she gave birth to me. Within months she had given me up to an uncle and aunt (they became my step parents).

Whether it was my stepfather telling me I was worthless and would never amount to anything, or an older cousin touching me in a manner deemed inappropriate, abuse, in many forms, was significant in my life. I remember a time when I was nine and my mother sent me to the store. I ended up spending 25 cents of the change on candy and when I confessed this to her, I received a beating across the back of my neck while I was eating. When I stopped eating due to fear of choking, she got even angrier and threatened me with further retaliation if I did not eat. Then she hit me again between bites. I was very fearful of her. Later that night she got drunk and beat me across the back of my legs with her cane. It was not too many days after this that I ended up in foster care for a short spell.

As a child, I slowly became angrier and angrier. At seven, I was already starting to drink alcohol; and smoke marijuana. This was life growing up, a life that I quickly got accustomed to. It’s funny, in a very sad way, how at such a young age, some of my family members were so accepting of my drug abuse and disruptive behavior. Some members even condoned it. Sexual, mental, emotional and physical abuse was the norm in my surroundings and I learned that some things were not to be spoken. The effects of this lifestyle were taking a toll on people I loved and I could see it in their eyes. It was almost like they didn’t even like what they were doing but they lacked the skills to do anything else. I eventually became addicted to crack cocaine yet still used other drugs and drank recreationally.

On the surface, as an adult, I kept coping by doing the things that fit the life I knew. But, I began to ask questions to myself, as I knew deep down that this lifestyle could not be normal. Why couldn’t I be normal? Why were others becoming successful while I was still battling my personal demons? Why was I so angry? What caused my abusers to become abusive and to pass these traits on to me? How could I break the cycle?

My questions lead me to realize, I had to change, but it still took about five to seven years after my decision to change my life to finally achieve sobriety. During those years I was doing lots of things right. I took life skills training, anger management, and I latched onto positive people. And still I kept relapsing over and over. But I kept trying.

During this time I was in and out of the homeless shelters and hotels. I even managed to get a place to live a few times. But, no matter what I did, I always ended up homeless again as I was often careless and irresponsible. In fact, in my early twenties my then partner became pregnant and I lived with the fear that my lifestyle would have an effect on my soon to be born daughter.

I did a lot of other things during this period to try to make sense of my life. I attempted a few confrontations with family members who had abused me, including my mother. Although I was not able to get the response I wanted, I gained understanding that aided me in my healing. I found out that my mother had been sexually abused by my grandfather. She had started drinking at a young age to cope and that this cycle of abuse had probably gone on for generations. It was even possible that two of my older siblings might have been the by-products of such abuse. Another story that could very well write a book itself.

And then, I decided it was time to face my past. I phoned the father of my ex girlfriend and told him I was coming back to Calgary, clean and sober. He asked me to walk away and I told him I had worked too hard and that I couldn’t abandon my responsibilities as a father. They took me to court to deny me access and I came back to Calgary to fight. I had no money or a place to stay and most importantly I had no lawyer.

I ended up at the old Drop In Centre one day, a place I had stayed at many times when too high or intoxicated to go anywhere else. I was sitting at a table when Debbie Newman confronted me and stated that I looked clean-cut and might be suitable for a job cleaning a house for a lady. I went over to the lady’s house, received my instructions and she left for the day while I cleaned. I remember a rolled up wad of $100 dollar bills she left on her dresser. I was tempted to take it, it would probably cover rent and groceries for a month. I fought the urge and continued on with my job.

The lady came back later. She noticed the money wasn’t gone and she asked me about my story and inquired about why I was homeless. I explained to her about becoming clean and fighting for access to my daughter in court. It turned out she was a family court lawyer. I got my first big break. She ended up taking on my case and I won access to my daughter.

Since then I have relapsed and ended up in treatment. I got married to another woman and have had two other daughters. I went to college, received my Human Services Diploma and with my new education I applied for a job at the DI. “I want to give back to the people who helped me in my time of need,” I told them on my application. Imagine my joy when Debbie Newman, the same woman who had lead me to my first big break, interviewed and hired me. It was almost eight years to the month since she’d first stopped by my table and declared I look clean cut enough to take on the job. I’ve been employed at the DI ever since.

Since those days of living on the dark side of the street, my life has turned one hundred and eighty degrees. Today, I get to enjoy helping others. I have accomplished all the goals I’ve set for myself thus far and have the skills and willingness to set more goals for myself. Life is a journey of continuing to achieve personal success.

I have thanks and appreciation for Debbie Newman and the DI for helping me to start on my new journey. It is with a grateful heart that I continue this journey of bettering myself and helping those who deserve the same help that I received.

Written by: Staff Phil G.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Ripple Effect

He walked into my office, a tall, lanky man of 50-something. He's been a client at the DI for several years. Well liked, he keeps to himself, seldom sharing much about his 'story' or what brought him here. Over the course of the three years I've been working at the DI, and running the art program, he's gradually opened up, sharing stories over a shared passion for the creative process in its many forms.

On this day, he had a new story to tell. "I met a couple of your friends," he said. Pause. "Police officers."

I was concerned. Run-ins with the law do not always result in favourable outcomes when you're homeless.

"It's okay," he quickly interjected. "I've had a couple of warrants outstanding for the past few years. They've played at the back of my mind, causing unease, but I was scared to deal with them."

When the officers approached him they were respectful which engendered his respect in return.
"I figured what better time than now to deal with my warrants?"

The officers informed him they would have to take him to jail. "You'll probably have to spend a night," they said.

He laughed. "Like it could be worse than a night on a mat in Intox with two hundred drunks?"

The two officers were part of the new Beat team walking the streets of the inner city. "We're going to have to ask you to walk to jail," they told him with a laugh before setting out for police headquarters several blocks away.

As they walked they talked about homelessness from both sides of the street. They shared stories and experiences, getting to know and understand each other a little bit better.

At one point, one of the officers asked, "Do you know Louise Gallagher?"

He laughed when he told me their question. "Yup," he replied.

"Well," said one of the officers. "She's been giving these talks about homelessness to all the members of the Beat team. There's a guy at the shelter she speaks really highly about. An artist. That wouldn't be you would it?"

I'd asked his permission long ago to talk about him in my presentations. I had not expected it to come full circle back to him on the street.

The officers went on to tell him how in my talks I encourage them to shift their perceptions and their attitudes towards individuals experiencing homelessness. "She gets us to look at homelessness as the problem, not the people," they told him. "It's all part of the Police Chief's mandate to change how we deal with social issues on the street. It's sure made a difference in how we interact with people who are visibly homeless."

For this homeless gentleman, the difference was a pleasant walk with two police officers, an experience he never imagined possible. And, rather than spend a night in jail, he received a Notice to Appear and was on his way in fifteen minutes. The next morning, he appeared in front of a Justice of the Peace and dealt with an issue that's been bothering him for years.

He finished his story and smiled. "I want you to know the ripple you've had. I had an experience with two police officers that resulted in a positive outcome all because in their attitude towards me, I felt respected. Because they were respectful to me, I was respectful to them and in the end, took care of something I had been afraid to do."

I've been giving talks about homelessness to members of the Calgary Police Service for the past two years. It was recognized by senior management that to change how officers deal with homelessness at street level, they needed to dispel some of the myths surrounding homelessness and the people suffering its ill effects. Sometimes, after one of my presentations, I wonder if I've affected anyone. Now, I had proof.

People are served. Problems are solved. An officer on the street cannot solve the problem of homelessness. He or she can serve the person suffering from it in a way that recognizes their humanity and provides them an opportunity to reclaim what they lost when they fell on the road of life. Dignity and respect.

"I know how hard you've worked to change perceptions, to shift attitudes," he said. "It's working. Don't give up. You're making a difference."

We can all make a difference. Those two officers made a difference that day by seeing an opportunity to be of service to someone in need. For the man telling me his story, their care and consideration shifted his perceptions and attitudes towards police and gave him the opportunity to take care of an issue that needed to be dealt with if he was to change his life. In the end, everyone came out a winner.

We must always remember, in everything we do and say, there is a ripple.

Our ripple can be a hammer of fear pounding someone into the ground on the wrong side of the street, or it can be a wave of possibility opening them up to finding a better life on the other side of the road.