Photo credit to EUP News
Yesterday I had an opportunity to spend some time with a segment of the population that is often ignored, and which I think to some extent is often forgotten. I'd been thinking about the issue for some time, but my recent evening at the KD Gala made me realize how close the topic is to my heart. When I was told about "Homeless Connect", an event designed to assist our local homeless population connect with the services they need, I knew I had to attend. Why? To see what our community is doing for those who are struggling - and, even more so, to listen to those who are now or have been homeless in Fort McMurray. I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to see their side of life in this city. And what I heard, people? It blew me away.
Homeless Connect was held at the Nistoyowou Friendship Centre, an unassuming little building downtown. When I arrived yesterday morning and went inside the room was packed with volunteers, tables from local services and organizations - and the homeless. What struck me was the diversity of those in the room who claimed that status. All ages, all races, both genders - homelessness here is clearly not "stereotypical". It cuts across a wide cross-section of humanity, and that was immediately apparent.
I began by working my way around the room, stopping in to check in at tables on mental health services, housing services, and even library services. I was perhaps most touched by things like the Christmas card table, where people had donated unused cards, and the people attending could sign one and have it sent to their loved ones free of charge. The "connection" going on here was about far more than connecting to services - it was about seeking and fostering that human connection.
There were bags of toiletries available, and the distribution of donated boots and coats. There was healthy food being served, like a soup that smelled glorious. In the back room there were health services set up, offering flu shots, wound care, and a variety of other medical offerings. I must especially commend the Keyano nursing students who were there, and who I saw dispense care, advice, and dignity. I think we have some fantastic nurses being trained in this community, and after seeing them in action I am so very hopeful some will stay here and provide that very compassion locally.
And it was that compassion that shone through in every person I spoke to. I noted that every single person there treated the homeless with dignity, respect, and compassion. Perhaps you've never seen it, but I've seen our local homeless population treated very poorly on occasion, and to see them treated in the manner every human being deserves was uplifting. My respect for those organizations and services that attended Homeless Connect is tremendous, as they seemed to not only understand the situation but express genuine care and concern. That, to me, is a treasure.
Photo credit to Weingart
While I was wandering around I spoke briefly to a lovely homeless lady, a First Nations woman who told me a bit about her life. She explained that she had been in a car accident which had affected how her eyes work (meaning they tend to wander) and that because of it everyone assumed she was drunk all the time. She told me that she felt there was a lack of services for women in the homeless population (a comment I heard again and again). She was friendly, and kind, and very sweet, answering my questions honestly and openly. She told me she was having a bad day, and I expressed my sympathy, telling her I hoped it would improve. When she moved on so did I, and I decided it was time to do what I had come to do - listen.
I must admit I had to screw up my courage to approach the first table and ask if I could sit with them and talk. I had no idea how I would be received. I had some expectation that they would tell me to get lost (or worse). Here I was, some nosy woman writer, asking questions about their lives, questions that were bound to be stupid and misguided. Someone who had never experienced homelessness, someone who had no idea what it was like - why would they even speak to me at all? People - I was genuinely humbled. They were, almost every single one I spoke to, kind and open and honest. They treated me with respect and dignity. They told me their stories, they answered my questions, and they welcomed me. I can't even begin to describe how that felt, to have people who have no reason to trust anyone, trust me enough to speak to me in this manner.
I spoke to men who were in their 40's and 50's. They told me of coming here for work, and of subsequent problems that led to being on the streets. One told me of addiction issues, but also assured me he was working on them, that he wanted to work and that he had just recently been placed in housing. More than one told me about injuries that led to job loss, and then to homelessness. This troubled me deeply, people, especially the story of the man who was hit in a crosswalk by one of our own transit busses and badly hurt. He told me about how difficult it is to recover from such injuries on the streets, about how hard it is to sleep on a mat with a fractured hip on one side and fractured ribs on the other. All I could think about was how impossible it would be to to heal when one is living on the streets - and about how a job-ending injury could result in similar dire straights for so many in our city.
I talked to some women, one who has been in Fort McMurray for over nine years, most of them homeless. She told me of winters spent in tents, of surviving in -35 weather. I asked if she was ever afraid on the streets as a woman, and she said no - she told me that she is the city's "toughest bitch", and I told her that I imagined she had to be. She nodded at that - because I think being tough isn't optional when you live on the streets. She told me about how she is treated when she goes into stores, how she is viewed with suspicion and disdain - and she might be tough but I could see the hurt in those eyes, the fundamental anger that she would be treated as any less than anyone else. When she told me I was hurt and angry, too. I spoke to another young woman, newly arrived here and very young, also on the streets - and for her I felt fear and great concern. You see, she is only a few years older than my own child, and I admit my protective instincts rose up - but she too was exuding that aura of toughness, that aura necessary to survive this life, and I knew my protectiveness would not be welcomed.
I spoke to a young man who intrigued me - eloquent, bright, handsome, open - and he told me of 3 years spent in jail and his life on the streets now. He told me about how you make friends on the street quickly - and enemies just as quickly. He asked me questions, too, and they were intelligent and reasonable ones. I spoke to his friend as well, a young man who was a bit guarded but who spoke to me regardless. He'd only been here a few months, but said he planned to never leave. I asked why he would stay here, and he said because he had family here. I thought at first he meant blood family, and then I realized he meant those people he had met here. I said to him "so you are making a family here?", and he replied "no, my family makes me". Simple. Profound. And true for every one of us, I think. Incidentally I'd told him and his friend to tell me if my questions were stupid, and he told me all my questions were stupid - and he's quite right, they probably were, and I'm sorry for that - and yet he still answered them, tolerated dumb questions from someone he had no reason to even speak to. He told me that I couldn't understand life on the streets unless I lived it - and he's right, of course.
I met a man who had been in the same job for 20 years, and lost it due to injury. He had ended up on the streets, and it took him some time to fight his way back, but he had housing lined up, and a job. What intrigued me most about him, though, was that he told me he is a writer. He told me about children's books he has written, and about poetry. He told me his idea for a novel, a book about Buddhist reincarnation with a twist - and it's a damn fine idea, too. I'd read his book, and I told him to never give up on writing. He and I talked about how writing is good for the soul, about how it can help you determine your identity when you have lost it (as he says he did after his job loss). People, he was no different than any other writer I've ever met, including myself, and I so hope he writes his novel. I hope he can write and share and pursue it the way I am doing, because his soul was no different than mine.
Photo credit to The Cord
As I wandered around I kept encountering the First Nations woman I had run into at the beginning. I would ask if her day was getting better, and she would say a little - and that she took things one day at a time. I replied that we all do, some days requiring one hour at a time, and she said sometimes one minute at a time - and we would share a smile and a laugh, moving on to our next conversation.
Around this time I looked up and realized that the McMurray Oil Barons were in the building. Young men dressed in hockey jerseys, they had volunteered their time at this event. Many of the people attending were delighted to see the hockey players, and I could see there were fans in the crowd. Two of the players took over the Christmas card table, and a young homeless man got a card and asked all of the players to autograph it. I joked with him and the players that some day it would be worth something, and he and they laughed, the players saying indeed it would be if all went as planned. I've written before that I am not a hockey fan, and that's true - but yesterday I became a fan of the young men in the MOB, people. Those boys treated the homeless population kindly, with dignity and respect and compassion. They were friendly, and they were community heroes in my eyes. I spoke with one of the players who told me that events like this make him realize how lucky he is to play hockey, to be doing what he is doing, and we talked about how homelessness can occur to anyone - like him, or me. Then I learned that he was arranging free tickets to one of the games for the young homeless man who had asked for their autographs - and I must admit I got a wee bit choked up. I know these players are often far away from their families, staying with others as they pursue their hockey dreams - but I want to go on the record as saying that I think I was as proud of them as all their parents would have been yesterday. I thanked the players before I left, telling them I was proud to have them in our community - and today I say I am quite frankly just proud of them.
One of the things I asked everyone I spoke to was why they stayed in Fort Mac. Every person I spoke to who had come here from somewhere else - BC, or Saskatchewan, further south or further north. Why would they stay here, where surviving the streets in winter is a challenge, where things must seem bleak on those frosty January nights? The answer? Some had left, but they kept coming back - because they see this as home. That cut to the very core, people. They see Fort McMurray as HOME. Some of them had been here longer than I have been, homeless for most of it, and they see this city as their home. I've spoken to people who live in $700,000 houses who don't see this city as home, who see it as nothing more than a stopover - and these people who have nothing see this as home? And what ran through my head every time was this thought : if they see this community as home, then don't they deserve to have a home in it? A place that is safe and warm? If they see Fort McMurray as home then shouldn't they have one? If this is their home even when they live on the streets then shouldn't we make sure they have a real home?
I must admit after a couple of hours I was overwhelmed. I'd heard so many stories, and asked so many (stupid) questions. I'd been treated kindly, shown honesty, and felt I'd made some connections of the sort I rarely have here. I think they were perhaps more honest in some ways than many people I have met, freely admitting their problems and issues, and telling me how they planned to deal with them. They were genuine and kind and friendly, and I truly hope they felt the same way about me. I decided it was time to go, and headed to the door.
At the door was the First Nations woman I had spoken to repeatedly over the day. She asked why I was leaving, and I told her my children would be home from school soon, and that if I didn't get home they'd eat nothing but chips and pop. She laughed and said she had been there, and then she looked me in the eye and said "I love you, my friend". People, I'd been very proud of myself to that point. I hadn't cried once, but those simple words, that show of faith and trust and friendship, brought tears to my eyes. What could I do? I wrapped my arms around her, and hugged her as I would my own daughter. As tears stung the corners of my eyes I said "I love you too, my new friend" - and it's true.
I walked out the door, feeling so many things I couldn't even begin to name. The thing I kept thinking, though, was that every person in that room was someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, wife or husband, mother or father - or friend. They were, at least in one case, my friend. I don't pretend to understand all the issues, or to know the solutions. I don't pretend to think I can contribute a great deal to them, or to help them in any significant way. I can do one thing, though. I can be their friend. I can treat them with respect, dignity, compassion, and friendship. I can practice random acts of kindness, bringing them trays of MacDonald's coffee when I see them huddled downtown on cold days. I can talk to them - and I can listen to their stories. Because in the end we all have a story, people. I heard some of them yesterday - and frankly I want to hear dozens and dozens more. I want them all to know that their stories matter, and that there are people who care enough to listen. Fort Mac, I am one of those people - and I hope you are, too.
I would like to extend my sincere
thanks to the organizers of
"Homeless Connect", the volunteers and
staff from all the organizations who attended -
and most of all to all those who spoke to me,
treated me kindly, and shared their stories.
You have no idea what it meant to me, and I
will never forget the experience.