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.