Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Housing First - Ending Homelessness in Fort McMurray

There are many things in this community that touch my heart. There are so many amazing non-profit groups and organizations, so many people doing such good work in our community. I have met so many incredible individuals, and I have been honoured to attend so many events that are meaningful to me. One issue that keeps drawing me back, that seems to find it's way into my heart every single time, is homelessness.

Perhaps in comparison to other cities we don't seem to have a huge issue with homelessness. But we do, because perhaps it is even more striking to find those here who are homeless when we are in the midst of such profound affluence. We live in a place with tremendous opportunity and potential and astronomical wages and yet we also have those who spend their nights sleeping rough on our streets, and in tents on the Snye. And perhaps it is the dichotomy that breaks my heart, the sharp difference between those who live in huge houses and those who reside tents. Regardless of why the issue touches me, though, it is meeting those who are homeless - or close to it, or who have experienced it - that truly makes me understand why it matters.

I have spent time at events like Homeless Connect, where homeless individuals in our community had an opportunity to access services valuable to them in one place. I have spent time at the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop in centre for our local homeless and at-risk-of-homelessness. I have spent time speaking to those who run programs for our homeless community. I have slept outdoors on a park bench overnight in an attempt to understand what homelessness might feel like. And most important of all I have spoken to those in our community who experience true homelessness. I have listened to their stories. And I have been humbled by them, honoured that they share them with me.

This week I attended an event at Marshall House. It was a BBQ, but a special celebration. It was a celebration of the Housing First program in the RMWB, part of the initiative to end homelessness in our community. Housing First is about securing housing first for the homeless - and then addressing all the other issues that often accompany it, from mental illness to addiction, and just the fundamental basics like proper health care. It's about getting the homeless into homes. It's about solving that very basic problem first and then dealing with all the rest.

I had the chance to speak to someone at the BBQ. She is someone who lived on the streets of our city for 8 years, and who has been part of the Housing First program for 3 years. She now has a place to call home. She is, as most of those I have had the honour to meet during this journey into the world of the homeless, very honest about her problems, and very open about discussing it. And she is, perhaps, one of the most optimistic and kindest people I've ever met in this city. She told me her story, and her experience of homelessness. She told me about being housed, and about the challenges in fighting off her personal demons. And when someone told her about my night on a park bench, about pretending to be homeless, she called me tough - and I almost burst into tears right then and there. This woman who lived on the streets for 8 years, who has endured things I can't even imagine, called me tough. I'm not tough, people. I'm a damn princess with fancy shoes and a laptop and a cell phone and an aversion to being cold and tired and hungry. I'm so far from tough I can't even see the road sign. My one night on a park bench didn't prove I was tough. It proved to me the very opposite, in fact, how fragile I am, and how truly tough those who do it every night - for years, decades, sometimes - must be. I looked at this woman and saw a soul with a huge heart, a person with optimism and faith, and I was completely humbled by both her strength and her warmth. She is the tough one, not me. And perhaps she is the far more wise, too.

After we spoke for a bit she went and spoke to someone else, someone who is still currently homeless and battling his own demons. I listened as she listened to him, and then as she spoke to him. She shared her optimism with him, her faith that things could and would get better, and her belief in him. And once again I was humbled by this woman as I realized how her life experiences would probably have left me bitter and angry, not optimistic and hopeful. And yet there it was - her shining optimism and faith, clear for all to see, like a tiny beacon of light in a world that can get very, very dark.

When she left the BBQ I left too, to go sit in my car and make some notes like I often do after these experiences. I couldn't seem to focus on my notes, though, thinking instead about our community, and all those in it. I couldn't help but think about this lovely woman, and all the other homeless people I have met who have touched my heart. I couldn't help but think about the people who run the programs like Housing First and organizations like the Centre of Hope. I reflected back on my experience of one night of homelessness, and how it impacted me. I thought about how this community has such dichotomy in it, light and dark, good and bad, such different ends of the spectrum in every corner. And I thought about how this woman could have been me instead, and how she could have been the writer and I the one who had lived on the streets for 8 years. I wondered if I would have ended up as optimistic and hopeful as she has, if I would have survived and been able to share my story with a spoiled nosy blogger who is  quite frankly severely lacking in toughness of any sort. I drove away finally, thinking that while sometimes the divide between us - the haves and the have-nots, the homeless and the housed - seems so wide it is truly very, very small. In the end, you see, our differences are insignificant compared to our similarities. In the end we are no different at all. In the end we are all here in this community together, following our own paths. And sometimes those paths cross, and we discover that while we may seem so very different we are, in fact, exactly the same.

My thanks to the staff at
Housing First
for the invitation to the BBQ -
and to my new friend for sharing her story -
and her optimism - with me :)

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