It’s difficult to put into concise words the range of emotions I experienced throughout the week on this ucalgarycares trip. Before embarking on this journey, there was the expected excitement and nervousness as I tried my best to mentally prepare myself for four days packed with learning and community engagement. However, what I did not anticipate was how connected I would feel with the people I would meet, how emotionally moving the experience would be and the plethora of eye-opening moments I would uncover. In one week, I heard the narrative of downtown Calgary that does not receive the amount of attention it deserves, and let me tell you, it was a memorable one.
Over the course of the trip, my group and I had the opportunity to frequent the Mustard Seed’s affordable housing unit located on Centre Street. It was here that I instantly connected with the welcoming staff and building residents over workshops, art projects and community dinners. Admittedly, these opportunities to engage with individuals were how I was able to quickly grow comfortable to converse with people experiencing homelessness.
On the first day, we were given a detailed facility tour and some valuable insight into the complexities revolving around homelessness and the individuals that experience it. We rotated between the housing units, or the 1010 Centre, and the community center right next door where guests could be treated to coffee with snacks and bingo games. Engaging with community members who were staying at the Mustard Seed is what got me thinking about homelessness in a new light. It feels as though the abstract concept of poverty has now been personalized to me in a tangible form; a concept adorned in my mind with the dozens of faces I had spoken to, heard, and laughed with. It was only after engaging with them that I realized how deeply difficult circumstances such as lack of housing affect more than where one sleeps each night.
One woman I met at the shelter spoke of homelessness in such a casual, yet powerful way over a taco dinner at the community center. “It’s completely unfair to receive the judgement we do, as if we chose to live without a home and we want to be in the situations we are in! Do you know how it feels to be refused help, or not even given eye contact when people pass by you? Do you realize what that does to a person’s humanity?”, she said in between bites of her taco and stories upon stories she shared with me about her lived experience with poverty.
Her words resonated throughout my head as the week carried on, especially during an activity named, “A Day in the Life”, where I spent several hours outside in the icy streets of the downtown area, going about my day as if I was experiencing homelessness too. I was provided with nothing more than a $2 coin, which was what I was allowed to spend for lunch, and the companionship of my colleagues as I roamed through the streets collecting recyclable bottles. We also investigated resources and other shelters around the city such as the Alpha House and YWCA, and interestingly discovered some hostile city architecture intended to deter those experiencing homelessness from populated areas or business locations. In those 7 hours, I got an exclusive view into many daily challenges that people experiencing homelessness go through, including lack of support and acceptance in a modern and developed society. I also came to realize the unbelievable amount of privilege that comes with being a young, healthy university student living a comfortable life. It was also interesting to note just how far a foot massage could go for a person experiencing homelessness; considering they would be on their feet every day for several hours, usually without adequate footwear! I had previously not noticed such minute details but placing myself in a different perspective had really made them stand out to me.
What also struck me throughout that day was how I had never previously considered so many little things that are necessities for individuals experiencing poverty in a busy and bustling city such as Calgary. Dozens of pressing questions whirred through my mind,
How would I stay warm during the winter if I was removed from every +15 link? Would I be able to collect enough bottles to afford my next meal? Where could I get groceries from if local grocers are too expensive? How would I find a job and pay my medical bills? What if I didn’t know how to write a resume? Where would I get my hair cut? Does anyone even notice me if they walk past me, or am I intentionally ignored by everyone?
As I thought about these questions and placed myself in these situations, the complexities of homelessness and its deep-seated connection with mental illness became much clearer to me.
The third day of the trip was packed with sorting hundreds of clothing donations and cleaning sleeping mats at the Mustard Seed shelter, located in the southeast of the city. The most memorable moment of that experience was laying down on one of the sleeping mats itself. I let my eyes close as I laid there for a few minutes, just to imagine the block of sponge beneath me as my bed for the night. I imagined the large shelter filled with bodies laying like mine; trying to sleep while one person was snoring and while some others couldn’t stop talking. I imagined feeling tired but unable to sleep from feeling worried, angry, lonely, and unhealthy. In those moments, I forgot everything else except for the corrugated aluminum sky above me, and the concrete below me. After gently shaking myself out of my trance of thoughts, our group migrated towards the kitchen to enjoy a hearty lunch prepared by some volunteers. Then, we continued to engage in thought-provoking discussions with the shelter staff. After being nearly four days into the trip, it felt like second nature at this point to serve coffee to some of the guests at the shelter, and I found myself looking forward to being able to chat with them.
Throughout the week, major emphasis was also placed on the intimate relationship between drug addictions and homelessness. It is empowering to walk away from this ucalgarycares trip with a heightened knowledge and awareness of how drug addiction has been affecting our nation, and what is being done to assist those affected. From naloxone administration training to safe injection sites, facilitators from Alberta Health Services elucidated the misunderstandings and controversies surrounding drug addictions. It provides me relief to say I now am equipped with a greater understanding of what causes these addictions and how they can happen to anybody. For me, the key takeaway from this trip was that no matter what a person is going through, they are all human, like anyone else, and do not deserve to be treated as anything less.
Homelessness at Home was a humbling adventure at the core of Calgary, leaving memories that shall reside in me forever. Personally, I felt that this trip was about encouraging me to step outside of my comfort zone to learn something new. After this experience has concluded, I am confidently able to say that those goals were achieved. Now, I see individuals experiencing poverty in our city as just that; individuals, which is what I really appreciate the most about what I took away from this program. I acknowledge that their circumstances do not define them, and that they have their own stories and personalities to share just like anyone else. I invite all my fellow students at the University of Calgary to challenge themselves and embark on this program. This program will allow students to discover fascinating perspectives from individuals bearing experiences from all walks of life and to develop a new kind of relationship with the city you study in.
Written by: Neum Jelani