A few months ago I was invited to participate in an initiative aimed at removing some of the stigma from homelessness in our community. As the months wore on my participation in the group lessened (this having a full-time job, a teenage kid, a house, five pets, and some attempt at a personal life tends to cut into my time somewhat), but the group continued on with their efforts to change the way we see the homeless in our community - and I think their efforts will make an impact.
I have written often in this blog about homelessness. It has become an issue close to me for many reasons, but primarily I think because I brushed up against it during a very formative time in my life, when I had just left my small prairie city and moved to the "Big Smoke" of Toronto and discovered a world I hadn't even known existed. I spent a number of years there working in a small business in Cabbagetown, a neighbourhood in the middle of a transition from poverty to wealth as individuals with money moved into the old homes and renovated them, revitalizing an area that had become very old and worn. Caught in the middle were the transient population, the local homeless, and I interacted with them on a daily basis. I had never really dealt with homelessness growing up and so I didn't truly understand it, but my experience in those years helped me to develop not only an understanding but a compassion for those who are homeless, and it taught me the fine line between those who have homes and those who do not. I learned how mental illness or addiction can quickly lead to homelessness, and how even physical injury meaning someone cannot work can lead one down that path. I suppose, in essence, I learned not to judge, because I learned any judgement I made was so far off the mark and so unfair that it was absurd to do so. I stopped seeing the homeless individuals in my world as homeless, really - I saw them as people.
This is what the "I Am A Person First" campaign seeks to do. Instead of seeing people by labels - homeless, mentally ill, addicted - it asks us to simply see them as people first. The labels we use on others (and occasionally ourselves) do far more to distance us than we sometimes realize, and so if we start by removing the labels we can begin from common ground - we are all, in fact, persons first. We are all the product of mothers and fathers, we all have ancestry and history, and we all have a story.
I have spent a lot of time over the past two years listening to the stories of our local homeless population. I have been deeply honoured that they would share them with me, with such faith and trust. I have such admiration for them, their resiliency and their courage in facing a world that few of us can comprehend, with intricacies we do not understand. There is a knowledge of the street and that world that I do not have, and the few glimpses I have had into it have shown me how little about this world I truly know. But I do know something from every story I have been told. They have told me of their challenges and their triumphs - and their parents and their children, their siblings and their pets. They have told me of their childhood dreams and plans (none of which included homelessness, incidentally), and they have told me of what they dream about now. They have told me they are persons.
Today I want to share with you a lovely video made by my friend Ashley. This video shares some of the stories of encounters local people have had with the homeless people in our community. One of the stories comes from a young man I met almost two years ago, named Adam. I first met him when he was living on our streets, and we have stayed in touch off and on over the years, including when he contacted me to share the story you will hear in this video. This is what I know: the people who treated Adam as a person showed him that there are people in this world who saw him as a person first. The elderly lady who left him food tied to a railing above his head and whispered in his ear showed him that not everyone saw him as a label. There were people who saw him as a person, and I think those people are what gave that young man - who is, by the way, incredibly bright and full of potential - hope.
When we strip away the labels we get down to the core. And the core is this: I am a person first - and so is every other person in this world, and if we can begin to treat each other with that fundamental belief in mind we can change lives - and change the world.