It feels odd to be “back to reality” – schoolwork, work, and chores, quickly busied me up once I returned home from the four day long program. It’s been a great experience, and I do not want to lose what I have learned, rather, I want to continue living with opened eyes and grow in my understanding. I am glad that I decided to blog about the experience, and that I had the opportunity to do so, as I believe that having gone through such an experience that it is my responsibility to share what I have learned with others. Each participant had their own experience, but I think we all came out more aware of the issues and of our own privileges. The objective of the program was not to solve homelessness in four days, but to raise our consciousness of homelessness and to have our interests sparked so that we can do bigger and better things in the future (i.e. professionally, to continue volunteering, to have stronger relationships with others and those experiencing homelessness, etc.).
In addition to the blogging, telling others about the experience is also important. I’ve been excited to tell friends and family about: the stories I’ve heard, the activities and things we did, about sleeping on the floor, the sorts of organizations that are currently out there, the complexity of homelessness, and simply sharing the experience with others. Through communicating to others about the experience, I hope to raise their consciousness to homelessness and its complexity so that they can reduce their stigma and misconceptions – perhaps next time they come across someone experiencing homelessness they will see them as a person first, and not just “another homeless person.” It is by talking about such issues, I believe, that community can be more empathetic and understanding – two values I highlighted in my first post leading up to the program. And it is this sense of community that was a constant theme of the program. During our tour of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, Jordan, who had given us the tour, suggested that if there is one reason for homelessness that it would be loss/lack of community or a support network. At another point in the program someone raised the question of what would it take for ourselves to become homeless? Although the reasons or paths may vary, I agree that one’s community plays a huge role. For myself, I think losing the supports and connections to family and friends may lead me to homelessness if I were to get into a situation of being unemployed and not having enough finances to support myself. Rereading that last sentence, I realize how general it is, but since I have not gone through such an experience I have no personalized story to give an in-depth scenario that would lead me to homelessness, as each experience is so different and personal to each person who has, is, or will, experience homelessness, so I don’t know what it would exactly take for myself, or perhaps it is fear and not wanting to know that holds me back from exploring this question further at this moment in time.
In addition to my post on reflections of day 2 (which also included some reflection of day 1), the last two days were also jammed packed with constant learning. On Thursday morning we had a guest presenter, Amanda from Shift, to talk to us about sex work and related issues. Personally, I think I had more stigma about sex work than homelessness by far. As is apparent, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be homeless, and selling my body is something I can’t even fathom. Although there are some that “choose” to be homeless or to become an escort or sex worker (“choose”, but what are the other options that is being decided between?), others are forced into these situations through circumstances or even physically forced (i.e. loss of property, finances, and possessions; human trafficking). I’ve been privileged to not have to even consider sex work or homelessness to be a serious option for survival, and at this moment in time I sometimes find it difficult to fully empathize or understand how one gets into, or is forced into, such experiences, but acknowledging that I don’t know is at least a start instead of thinking I know it all. I may not know each person’s story of their life and the circumstances that led them to homelessness and/or sex work, and despite all they may have lost, no one should lose the right to be respected and treated with dignity. The presentation was eye-opening to have a better understanding and sympathy for those in the sex trade, but I think it would have been more powerful if we heard from current or former sex workers themselves as the personal stories enable for better understanding of the people themselves and the experience.
On Thursday afternoon, we helped sort donations at the Mustard Seed. It was great to see so much stuff, but I wonder how many of those that donated would approach someone on the street, or if they ever spent any time volunteering or talking with someone experiencing homelessness. Are they helping out at a perceived “safe distance”? I’m sure at least a few give not only material items but time as well, and I hope that myself and others (both participants in the program and people in general) will approach those experiencing homelessness with respect and with a kind heart. It was interesting to sort donations, we would sometimes question why someone would donate a certain item (i.e. expensive brand name items, or things that seemed impracticable) or nod in approval of other items that were thoughtful donations.
As those reading my posts may have noticed, I have been trying to pay attention to the language I use and have therefore used “those experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless”, using people first language instead of overlooking someone’s identity by referring to them as “homeless” and nothing else. Just as life is dynamic, our identity and state in life fluctuates and changes as we go through different experiences. Examples of this is seen in each person I have been privileged to meet throughout the experience, or to have heard a snippet of their story. While sorting donations, a staff there received a phone call from a lady who use to use the services of the Mustard Seed, and is now living independent of the Mustard Seed and makes jewellery; the staff and the lady are planning to meet up as friends, which is great to see a relationship change from service provider staff and guest/client/consumer to friends.
On Thursday evening we spent an hour in our groups of 5-6 people walking around downtown with a Mustard Seed guest who told us his story. My group was honoured to hear Ty’s story. In 2011 he had to give up his house as he was unable to pay the high mortgage rates once he lost his job, around the same time his father passed away. Although he mentioned he did start to drink more at that point in time, the factors that seemed to contribute the most to having to live on the streets was the unemployment and mortgage (which he had already been paying for 14 years). After living on the streets for 2 weeks, Ty then went to the Mustard Seed and is now trying to transition out of homelessness. While at the Mustard Seed, he tried out an art program and discovered his talent; although he prefers oils, he is content with using pastel crayons as they are more portable and cleaner, and he really is talented! His goal is to apply for an art grant so that he can promote himself and one day tour across Canada to showcase his art in galleries. When he showed us all some of his art pieces, we were all amazed by his attention to detail and memory for drawing places he had once visited, such as Great Falls or Rosebud. Hearing his story, and snippets of others’, it served as a great reminder that although one may be in homelessness or poverty at one moment in their life, they may not have always been in that situation for the entire life, and may get the supports to be able to live other experiences beyond homelessness.
Friday, our last day of program, was spent debriefing and forming an action plan as we move forward after the experience. Although the experience was great and eye-opening, we do acknowledge that we only got a peak into homelessness and will never fully understand it unless we go through the actual lived experience itself. The learning goals I had set for myself included: finding out what services are offered specifically to those with mental illnesses; to find out how people experiencing homelessness cope within the system and within their current situation; and, what is being done to educate the public about homelessness. As I didn’t want to limit my learning my solely focussing on these specific goals, but rather to be open to the experience and to take in all that I can, I didn’t fulfill my learning goals in any sort of rigid format. However, to address the learning goals I had set, here are the thoughts I left with after the experience:
- There is not too much services out there to support those experiencing homelessness and mental illness, especially more complex illnesses (i.e. the Mustard Seed doesn’t take in those with severe mental illness). Unfortunately I did not get around to doing any research into this question beforehand, but during the experience I did not hear much about these specific services, so this is a question I would have to look more into.
- Early on in the program, during the workshop on the first day, the presenter (who had experienced homelessness herself) said that people must heal, not cope. This is so true, as coping only pacifies the issue and doesn’t do anything in regards to real change. So my question about coping within the system should’ve been “how to people heal?” To me, coping would include drugs, alcohol, sleep, etc, while healing could be through art, writing, music, supporting others (building community), volunteering or working, etc.
- Finding out about what is being done to educate the public and improve their perception was something I haven’t done personal research into, but it was great to hear that the Mustard Seed is going into schools and educating students as young as kindergarten about homelessness and the issues, and that there are opportunities for older youth and young adults to help out at the Mustard Seed to go through similar programs that I have just gone through. This is a start, and gets the people to start thinking about these issues at a young age so that they can hopefully critical analyze current systems and look for ways to improve it, and to approach the issues and people experiencing homelessness in a better way.
Moving forward, what do I hope to do? Before getting into my personalized action plan, some things I want to be cognizant of include:
- Notice when others voice or act out stigma against others (specifically homelessness and those experiencing it) and use those moments as teachable moments to raise their consciousness so that they can reduce their stigma
- Be self-reflecting and self-aware of my own privileges and language so that I can reduce stigma
- Acknowledge those I meet downtown, or wherever, that are experiencing homelessness (i.e. talking to them, listening to them; giving them change if I have any, or at least giving them my attention and acknowledgement)
- Be more present and a better support to friends and family so that they can depend on me when they are going through tough times, and so that I can depend on them when I am
And now for my action plan, which includes how I plan to go about getting to the goal as well as obstacles that may stand in the way:
- Continue writing and learning about homelessness, oppression, system and societal failures, discrimination, etc. on a blog of my own -> I have created a WordPress blog already, but it is currently on a private setting as I figure out how I want to go about doing this exactly, the format and focus, as well as the title of the blog; obstacles could include: using excuses such as being “too busy” (which may or may not be an legit, but should not be an excuse), overlooking certain issues or not getting in depth enough, technical difficulties or issues
- Volunteer over the spring/summer break -> I will have to research various places to see where I would like to volunteer, such as seeing where the gaps are in my current experience, then I will have to go through the process of becoming a volunteer and commit to it over the summer (or perhaps longer depending on how things are looking come autumn); obstacles could include: having a bias of where to volunteer, not casting a wide enough net of where to volunteer, using the excuse of “being too busy”
- Learn about Holodynamics (which was suggested by a commenter on my first blog post) -> research on my own, as well as ask others about it and see if it is being used and why or why not, find out its benefits and if there are any cons; obstacles: misunderstanding it, not researching in the right places or asking the right people about it
Thank you to those who have been reading my posts, as well as the posts of others of the Homelessness at Home program or other ucalgarycares programs. Again, it’s been a great experience, but a experience that will be lifelong, and I appreciate the feedback I have gotten as well as any more that I may get.