This is my day to blog in-depth. It also happens to be the day where we, as much as possible, attempted to find out what a “day in the life” was like for someone experiencing homelessness – which gives me a LOT to talk about (apologies in advance, feel free to skip to the conclusion).
Our day began with our “landlord” – our group leader from the Mustard Seed – evicting us at 7:30 with 15 minutes to pack our stuff and leave…although he gave us breakfast as we left. It was the first of a series of events today that showed us just a small sliver of what life might be like if we were homeless, but which showed us a lot of what amount of privilege we had. There are limitations with this program in terms of what we can actually experience without creating some level of liability for the university or making the experience something that no participant would want to join. We couldn’t be left without breakfast – but we were aware that a tenant could.
We were given four profiles, composites of guests that have stayed at the Mustard Seed in the past. There was Michael, laid off in an energy company downsizing a few years ago, who subsequently developed depression and lost his wife, son, and home. James, a more stereotypical “street kid,” who was kicked out of high school for drinking and doing drugs and then accrued a number of criminal charges. Tina, divorced, an RN from South Africa, who suffered a head injury, was hospitalized for two months, got addicted to painkillers, and lost her home and her kids because she lacked the insurance and employment benefits to maintain her home during her extended hospital stay. And lastly, Sean, married for 13 years with 5 kids, a successful businessman who became addicted to gambling, isolated family and friends by failing to pay back debts and wound up on the streets. Again, we were reminded that there were many pathways into homelessness.
Our profiles also contained a list of goals for each person that day. Examples of tasks include:
- Obtain a birth certificate form and a SIN form
- Explore employment options in a relevant field
- Find AA/NA/CA/GA meetings [more education – we only knew what half of those acronyms meant at the beginning of the day and had to do some creative googling to figure it out]
- Find out about getting a pardon
- Explore support for mental health and for chronic pain
- Find out dates, times and locations of local meal, clothing, and shelter programs
All groups also had to collect $4 of cans/bottles, sit on the floor in a +15 for at least 20 minutes, and find information about three temp agencies.
We all took slightly different approaches and in fact didn’t even see the other groups except at prearranged meeting times. Our group visited:
- The Drop In Centre (we had a prearranged tour there)
- The Centre of Hope (operated by the Salvation Army – we did not know this, which complicated finding it)
- A registries office
- Harry Hayes federal building
- The Alpha House
- The Sheldon Chumir Urgent Care Centre
- Inn from the Cold
- Calgary Public Library (central location)
- The Uptown bottle depot
At first, we were a bit self-conscious. Five university students and one university staff member still look like university students and staff, even when wearing enough clothes for the day and lugging around backpacks (actually, I’m not sure how that differs from a normal day for me). I didn’t expect that people would think we were homeless, but I was concerned that people would think that we were out of place, that we shouldn’t be in shelters, collecting bottles, etc. Not so.
Everywhere we went, people assumed we were there to volunteer, take a tour, or do a project. Nearly everyone gladly gave us pamphlets, information, tours, forms, even empties. It struck me that dress, class (and accompanying mannerisms), and appearance opened doors (sometimes literally) for us. Tasks that might be difficult or humiliating for someone else in different circumstances – like asking about mental health supports, asking for milk jugs at a cafe, asking where we could find free food or clothing, or finding out about getting a pardon – were made easier by knowing that we weren’t accessing these services and that no one treated us as if we were…and by showing up with a fresh, young face, nice clothes, an unaccented and educated vocabulary and a $6,000 smile.
We were allowed to skip lines. We were taken straight to managers and team leads. We were segregated from clients/guests from the moment we entered. People went out of their way to help us. We also had the luxury of walking around between 8:00 and 15:00 on a weekday, since we weren’t working (most people that are homeless in Calgary work part-time to full-time, unless they are receiving AISH, upgrading or are otherwise not able to do so).
So what did we learn?
We were able to tour, in the same day, the Alpha House, the Drop In Centre, and the Mustard Seed, as well as visit Inn from the Cold. All four of these agencies serve a different clientele and provide different services. As our liaison at the Mustard Seed put it, “we can do the work we do because these agencies do the work they do.”
At the Alpha House, facilities were pretty minimal. There was a large room with a lot of mats and no partitions. But the Alpha House accepts anyone, with a mandate on serving intoxicated people. And the minimal structure meant that extra mats could be squeezed in at times. The staff member who gave us an impromptu tour said that the facility is currently serving about 150 people a night. Upstairs, they have a detox centre, one of only two in Calgary, where people can go to begin getting sober or clean, to take a break from alcohol or other drugs, or to have some privacy, rest and extra care. There is a nicely set up cafeteria, about 30 beds, addictions counsellors, mental health workers, and frequent meetings for NA, AA and CA (which turned out to be an acronym for Cocaine Anonymous). Both people in detox and in the main area were able to access laundry, showers and new clothes. There were a few rules at the Alpha House – you could be put on probation or banned for short periods of time for aggressive behaviour or bringing in needles (the Alpha House puts all client bags in a separate room for the night, so if there are needles in a bag, there is a risk of a needle stick injury for staff) – but generally staff prided themselves of accepting anyone who needed their services.
The Drop In Centre, we were informed shortly after arriving, is North America’s largest homeless shelter. It has a capacity of about 1300, although it was only designed to shelter 500. The Drop In Centre is a bit of a hybrid (because it is so large) and quite literally provides a step by step structure for clients. The bottom is “intox,” for intoxicated clients. It resembles the Alpha House – a bunch of mats on a floor (although there are no mats during the day). There is also a lobby, with access to counselling, employment assistance, and health services. The next level is for meals, which go in shifts, as the DI serves about 1200 meals in a dining room meant for 450 people. The next level is for people who may have had small amounts of alcohol, but are not intoxicated. There are bunk beds and lockers, and it is a bit quieter there. Clients can put what they want in their lockers, but require a staff member to open the lockers for them and are subject to random (and not-so-random) search. The next floor is transitional housing. Here clients are guaranteed the same bed every night as long as they check in several times a week. Lockers are larger, and people have rooms, instead of big open areas. The top floor is for services – offices, classrooms where clients get workplace certificates, and a permanent art studio. Client paintings are sold by the DI, with the artist getting 80% of the proceeds and 20% returning to the art program. The DI also prides itself on taking anyone who arrives at their doors and on “meeting people where they’re at” and harm reduction. But there are also lots of rules and there is little privacy or stability (unless you’re in transitional housing). This is a consequence of the DI’s size – with so many clients, it’s hard to provide individual rooms and staff, who operate at a 1:80 ratio, are less willing to take a chance and trust individuals to “behave.” There are cameras everywhere, clients scan in by fingerprint, entrance and leave times are very specific, and movement to upper floors depends on a record of “good, consistent behaviour” and willingness to stay completely clean and sober while in the upper floors and consult regularly with a case worker who works on connecting clients to jobs and housing. That said, the DI also expresses a firm belief in clients having “hopes and dreams” and having the right to pursue these hopes and dreams, whatever they may be. And the DI wouldn’t be able to offer as many services as it does – besides meals, shelter, counselling, workplace education, case workers and medical help, the DI also provides lots of clothing, computer skills training and numerous other services.
Lastly, we went to the Mustard Seed to take another tour and chat with the guests there. The Mustard Seed is much smaller than the DI, but larger than Alpha House, at a capacity of 370 people. It is a clean and sober facility, with a zero tolerance policy. This policy was frowned upon by a few people we met in workshops before the project as being too limiting or judgemental, but the guests I spoke with seemed to really appreciate it. Several had also been to the DI and spoke of it as being chaotic and a bad place to go if recovering from an addiction, as triggers for cravings are all around the centre. The Seed, by comparison, was perceived as a place for recovery, a good (but not permanent) community, and source of stability. Staff here seemed more welcoming and trusting – while the Seed is very strict on guests being clean and sober, it’s not quite as structured or invasive as other places might be. Accommodations here are also minimal – there are dividers to separate the 370 mats into groups of 4, but little else for privacy. The cafeteria is too small for dinner, and experiences an overflow of about a hundred people each meal, who need to sit on the floor instead. The Seed only provides food, shelter and pastoral care at the shelter. Its downtown location provides more resources, but the Seed is more focussed on ending homelessness, through constructing affordable housing, connecting people to affordable housing, and supporting people in transition, than it is on emergency sheltering.
In the early phases of the project, we discussed which model of addressing homelessness was best. At the end of today, I think that all models have a role to play. Some deserve a lot of the criticism that they receive. But they provide valuable services to some people. I don’t see why this is a problem, as long as there are other options, other models, for other people. There are many pathways into homelessness – does it not make sense that there are many pathways out of it?
One of our group members commented on the way home that today felt like being in “a different Calgary.” Not only do many students not spend much time downtown, even when downtown, they don’t often pay attention to things like bottle depots, places with public washrooms, places with computer access, places to find bottles, locations of registry offices and shelters, and so many of the other things we were asked to find. Many of these services had been hiding in plain sight – so I wonder what it would be like for a new Calgarian to try and find them. Our entire day, to me, reinforced this idea of “a different [invisible] Calgary.” We went on tours and wore lanyards to mark us as volunteers. Guests passed sobriety tests, bag searches and identification to enter the building and then often stayed separate from us. We had no difficulty getting milk jugs from a coffee shop. Other people picked through recycling bins. We had no qualms about walking into government offices or the police station. Other people may not have appeared to belong in those places or have been worried about going. For all the assurances that homelessness could happen to anyone, we certainly moved in different circles than those that were currently experiencing homelessness – as if we were two fundamentally different groups of people.
And here’s the thing: as I mentioned in my blog post, we are different and we are not. In research I did on the food bank, a prominent sociologist criticized a phrase she commonly heard from food bank volunteers – “There, but for the grace of God [or winds of chance, if you’d rather], go I.” The sociologist felt that this was oversimplifying things. Because it’s not just the grace of God or winds of chance that determine whether someone will become homeless. Some people are born closer to the edge than others. And as time goes on, people tend to get close to the edge if that’s where they started, and to move farther from the edge if that’s where they started. Things like education, personal wealth, a supportive family, ability to navigate government services, race, and class don’t make anyone immune to homelessness. But they certainly help protect people from homelessness, even when faced with the same life experiences (say trauma, addiction, injury or mental illness), as those who lack these attributes. And these attributes even protect (to various extents) people from even experiencing these stressors as well. To say that it’s only the grace of God, and not all these other factors, is folly.
My conclusion for today? There are two drivers of homelessness that struck me most forcefully (besides inherent privilege, which is a whole web of factors).
The first is the affordable housing problem in this city. Calgary has a 1% vacancy rate. 1%! Even on a decent budget, it’s hard to rent a place here. But when rooms go for $1,000/month for a single bedroom apartment (and this is an average, low-to-mid end apartment) and various government supports provide between about $600-$1300 a month, it is impossible to live in housing unless it is affordable. Yes, income from a job can sometimes supplement that total – but minimum wage is about $1800/month, and earning that much money may result in benefits being taken away from you. Remaining housed, without affordable housing and/or a high-paying job, is impossible (or next to it) at those rates. These are not things that people living on the street can control. But they are things we can lobby for.
The second is perhaps best explained by a quote from Mother Teresa: “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love.”
The number of times over the last couple days that I heard that someone had entered homelessness because there was no one left to turn to, that someone stayed clean and sober because their best friend helped them through hell. that membership in a supportive community is one of the strongest protecting factors against homelessness, or that one person does make a difference to someone who is struggling surprised me. The poverty of love is the greatest poverty. The presence of abuse, neglect and other ways in which people’s self-worth is degraded and their social network destroyed is a major cause of homelessness. The opportunity to create a positive self-identity – whether through art, volunteering, work, friendship or anything else that is validating – is critical. Social support matters.
But what to do about that? It’s not as easy as building a new apartment building and providing rent at half of the market price. It’s a larger project, involving compassion, opportunity, and a ton of patience. Programs are good. Education around stigma reduction is great. But right now, the best answer I have is deeply unsatisfying. I want to say that we ought to treasure our family, take care of our friends, watch out for our neighbours. And we should – it matters (even though it sounds trite). But it goes deeper than that. Because if you have a family and friends and neighbours, you probably have a good network. It’s people who lack any or all of those that are most at risk – and the reasons why certain groups are likely to lack these supports is the next thing I want to explore.