Our H@H experience is now over – I’m back in my own home today and got to sleep in my own bed tonight. Coming back to my apartment reminds me that one of the striking things that we discussed during the experience was the tendency we have to always do “upward comparisons.” For example, I’d usually say I’m middle class, maybe middle-upper class. But I’d be relatively quick to point out that although I’ve been fortunate, I’m not rich. I don’t, for example, usually consider my mattress (which is really just a foam block – definitely thicker and nicer than what we saw at the DI, but still nothing spectacular) a privilege. But after sleeping on the floor, I (and my back) was pretty grateful for it! I also don’t have a car, something that has been the cause of much griping in this sprawling city. But I do have a transit pass and I don’t have to worry about trying to find bus tickets or whether the transit officers will look at me and assume I can’t pay the fare. I also have the good fortune to laugh at most of the “poorer quality” aspects of my life – be that the lack of food in my fridge, the inconsistent heating of my toaster oven or the seeming inability of the thermostat to change the temperature in here – because I know that most of these conditions are transient, that I could probably invest money to fix them if I wanted to, that I’ll almost definitely have even nicer stuff in the future, and because the things I really need, like my education and my apartment, are provided for me. I hope that I’ll be able to hold on to this perspective going forward – to remember what I do have instead of what I don’t.
Our last couple days of the H@H experience included:
- A workshop by SHIFT, an organization that works with sex workers on harm reduction (i.e., providing information and supplies to help workers be safer) and transitioning out of the sex industry (if that is what workers want to do).
- Volunteering at the Mustard Seed’s sorting centre – our group specifically went through backpacks donated at Christmas time, grouped donations by type and then bagged donations for transport to the shelter or to other organizations in the city.
- A “night tour” of downtown led by guests or former guests of the Mustard Seed.
- A wonderful day of wrapping up, sharing thoughts and feelings with each other, making action plans, and confusing everyone at the 4th St Tim Horton’s by attempting to put all 25 of us on one order
All of these things were really great experiences. I learned about the great work that SHIFT does in providing non-judgemental assistance to workers that want it and in the wake of the Supreme Court strikedown of Canada’s prostitution laws, it was good to get some information on options for legislation around the sex trade. We were informed about the differences between legalization, decriminalization and the Nordic model (which are the leading options in Canada right now) and how these options have affected sex workers, especially those in marginalized populations, elsewhere in the world.
Sorting donations at the Mustard Seed was actually pretty fun. It was neat to see what people donated, although sometimes a little sad that people thought their worn out clothing or Halloween costumes were good to donate. Indignity is one of the biggest challenges faced by people who are homeless, so my personal rule for donations is if you wouldn’t want it, don’t give it to someone else. Some items that are much-needed by various organizations we spoke with include:
- Travel-sized shampoo (this includes those bottles you might take from hotels)
- Men’s razors
- Large and extra-large jackets
- Men’s jeans (any size, but especially larger sizes)
Some especially thoughtful donations were chapstick, lotion, handwarmers, backpacks and gift cards for books or games. We realized that many of the services you might need to access if you were trying to get out of homelessness have long lineups, so having something to do while waiting in line or while in your area of a shelter (they often have early curfews) would probably be much appreciated.
Our “night tour” wasn’t much of a tour, as our guide preferred not to hang out downtown too much (“too much trouble”) but we still had the opportunity to hear yet another story of why someone had become homeless. I really appreciated how open many of the people we met were. To talk to a complete stranger about some of the most difficult times in your life takes a lot of courage and while I’m not sure exactly what motivated each of the individuals we met to share with us, I am grateful that they did. It really did, as the DI’s banner proudly proclaims, help us “see the humanity behind the homelessness.” It also kept me wondering about the role of community and the role of social systems in homelessness. Some of the experiences we heard included things that no one I knew had encountered – but others were all too familiar. Stories of addiction, other mental illnesses, job loss, downsizing, divorce, death of a loved one and losses to the flood are not uncommon. I can relate to some of those stories. But for me, as for most of my friends and family, there are “nets” to catch me and people that I can rely on to help me recover and keep me safe. The injustice to me is that some people have more (or better) nets than others. The question for me is what kinds of nets could be created to catch more people.
My action plan
Our last day was, as I mentioned, a wrap up day. Hearing about other people’s experiences, what had changed for them and what they wanted to do going forward helped me to put my own experiences in perspective and to work on my own action plan. I’m still not completely sure how to respond, but here’s where I want to start:
- Community. Community matters for everyone – whether securely housed, precariously housed or homeless. Community helps us feel supported and validated and influences the way we act and the way we feel about ourselves. I want to get/stay involved with a community that cares about homelessness and is interested in doing what they can about it. Our program assistant, Teresa, is involved with the Mustard Seed club on campus and she is planning on keeping our group together through facebook. I want to join the club, stay connected to the other participants and then seek volunteer opportunities from there. Being with a group that wants to make a difference but also to think critically about homelessness will help me maintain momentum.
- Communication. I volunteered to blog for this project because I like to write and because I like to share my opinions…perhaps a little too much 😉 But using my preferences and my strengths to my advantage could be really helpful. I want to keep talking to people about what I’ve learned – and what I still have to learn. I want to keep challenging my perceptions and those of others. This might not be through blogging, but rather through conversations. Or maybe both. We’ll see. This really goes back to the goal I had at the beginning of talking about privilege and the assumptions that we make so that we can make the best decisions we can when it comes to policy, charity and our actions.
- Compassion. For many people that we spoke with, having just one person listen to them made a difference. Compassion isn’t a heroic act of donating all of your money or giving out free apartments or education, but rather a small act of making someone feel respected and heard and of treating them as you would like to be treated. That helps people feel like they’re part of a community and that matters whether someone is currently at risk of homelessness or not. I plan to go through the steps in 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong to work on this goal (an excellent book).
This is it for me on the blog! Thanks for reading. I’d also like to thank our organizers at the U of C, Byron at the Mustard Seed, the guests we talked to, the volunteers and staff members who showed us around and answered all of our questions and of course my fellow participants for offering their perspectives and their insights. I think I have more questions than when I started – there is still so much to learn – but this was a wonderful place to start.