Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Back to Daily Blogging ;-)

March 30, 2010
I received an email from a lovely young woman who I met at my brother’s church in Kelowna. Her words of support and encouragement reminded me that I am not just out here for myself. And maybe it isn’t my place to decide that day to day events of my journey are too mundane to be of interest to you. So I return now to my original format…. I will post something every day (barring some technical difficulty) even if it is only a few lines… or a thought for the day.
Once again I was gripped by Mardi Gras.... I went to AVATAR 3D, went for a pizza and bought new undies...OK the last one was a necessity so I guess that really doesn't count. I could go on and on about the movie but for today I'll only share this one thought.
On its face the film says that human kind (in the fictional future), have not evolved at all. In AVATAR we, as a species still cling to ignorance and greed as our inherent nature. But conversely, doesn’t the film’s portrayal of the humans as the villains, speak to our own awareness that these (ignorance and greed) are wrong. I like to think we are evolving.... what do you think?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Walk About

March 27, 2010
Today I’d like you to come along with me on my walk. Obviously I’m not typing and walking so this is more of an invite to come along as I mentally revisit my day.

It is 10:20 am, as I am locking the door behind me my neighbour Bill pokes his head out the door.
“Morin’ you on your way over for breakfast? he asks.”
“Rumor has it there might be pancakes, so I thought I’d check it out”.
Bill tells me they served pancakes on Wednesday but if they are, could I knock on his door when I get back and let him know. So I make a commitment to myself that if breakfast has pancakes or French toast (I’ve only seen that once in the 2 months I’ve been here) I’ll will take a pass on running my errands and come back to tell Bill what’s up.
Breakfast is the usual, ½ citrus or stewed prunes…choice of egg… ham or bacon or sausage…2 toast… hot or cold cereal… 2 beverages… all of this for $2. I always take the ½ citrus, not that I have anything against prunes, but I use the small bowl to cover my hot cereal. This works really well to keep the cream of wheat from forming a rubbery layer on top. Hard cooked egg, 3 links of burned sausage (I prefer it that way) If there is no burned sausage I can always get burned bacon. Brown toast, one 6oz glass of apple juice and one of milk which I use for my cereal. I dump a heaping tablespoon of brown sugar on the back of my tray and take exactly twice as many condiments as I need for this sitting. 2 pats of margarine, 2 blueberry jam, 2 pkgs sugar, 3 salt and 2 pepper. The extras I carry in my purse because often soup kitchens will serve bread dry and soup a little on the bland side… also I might run into someone else who needs such items. I take a seat near the windows and spend the next half hour eating and conversing with the gentleman across from me. The patron at the end of the table donated his ½ grapefruit which I put with my own into a baggie for tomorrows breakfast.As you may recall I first learned the joy of baggies when I was in Edmonton this past summer.
Just before I exit The 44, (Evelyn Saller Centre) the clouds clear and what was a warm pleasant day has become an absolutely beautiful day. In front of the building I see someone on their hands and knees struggling to get up. I ask if she needs any help. She tells me to “Fuck Off”… I respond with “Bite me Bitch” and we continue our separate ways. Two blocks up I round the corner onto Main Street, where the Main Rooms are located. It is a dingy residential hotel reminiscent of something from a Daschle Hammett novel… complete with a flashing neon sign. Today I notice something new… on the third floor south window at the front of the building is a flower box with 3 colourful tulip and crocus plants in full bloom. I’m too far away to tell if the plants are real or silk, but it doesn’t matter, it is enough to make me smile. I’m reminded of a story I once read,” The Greatest Miracle in the World” by Og Mandino. The old man had a window box where he was trying to grow geraniums, I don’t remember if they would not grow or if the story was set in winter but the lead character bought a glass geranium which they placed into the window box. I should give that book another read sometime.
A block up, the street church (every city has one) is handing out loaves of old bread, cups of soup and religious pamphlets. I’m stopped by a familiar face, a young man from Calgary who was a bit surprised that I had made it this far. We spent a few minutes catching up. Then I ran into my breakfast buddy from the shelter, we took a pass on the customary hug since he was in the company of a lady. ;-) Now I am on my way back from the grocery store. Had to pick up some instant oatmeal for late night hunger pangs. I decide to take Hasting Street back, maybe I can find a cheap toaster at the pawn shop… LOL you must be kidding $15. OOOH what have we here… some organization has a table set up and we are lining up for baked potatoes with real butter, sour cream and grated cheese mmmmm. Most of the meals at 44 end up being served with rice and gravy… they don’t call this place Hongcouver for nothing. The nice gentleman at the table packages my potato to go. I place it in the bag on top of my box of oatmeal and continue down the street. A couple blocks down I’m checking out the street vendors as I pass, still hoping to score a toaster. A man walks through the crowd with pamphlets asking “would you like to hear about Jesus?” I resist the temptation follow him around asking if he’d like to hear about Buddha…LOL.
From here I go back to my room, stopping occasionally along the way to chat up the locals and share pleasantries. Hope you enjoyed our little outing and perhaps we will do it again sometime.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The View From Inside

March 22, 2010
It has been almost a year since I first set out on my journey of homelessness, and yes, it has been worth it. I have learned so much about the system that I never could have guessed before actually living the experience. As I suspected for both clients and staff, our personal experiences only provide snapshots of the homeless situation… by moving around I am building an overview. A big picture which I hope will help us take the best elements and use them to create a more productive workable model for service delivery.
Obviously the only real solution to the problem of homelessness is AFFORDABLE HOME OWNERSHIP. This is best accomplished through partnership with Habitat for Humanity… also no down-payment income adjusted mortgages would be a helpful government initiative. I will speak on this subject at nueasium over the next few years… or until we eradicate homelessness and restore the Canadian middle-class. This is not the subject for today’s blog…. today I wish to discuss what I have learned about shelters.
First and foremost bigger is NOT better (I have found that between 8-30 residents is an optimum number) This next part is very important, you (as an agency) CANNOT be all things to all people. The homeless population is comprised of very diverse groups, each with very specific needs. As much as possible these groups should be sheltered and serviced separately. There will be ebb and flow migrations by various individuals as their lives evolve and devolve over time. This is especially true among the street population, as recovery is a process not a distinct decisive moment.
First is the street population (drunks, druggies and dropouts) at the height of their addiction and with no particular interest in change at this time. These people need shelter from the elements and access to food for sustenance. Mat programs (both night and day-time) such as “Inn from the Cold” and soup kitchens serve this population well. While staff should be well versed in what resources are available in their community, their mandate should nonjudgmental acceptance of their clients. Alcohol and drugs brought into the shelter should be seized and disposed of without penalty. The only reason to ban such things is because their presence provokes theft and infighting among clients.
The next step up (in a separate building) is refuge shelter. People need to occasionally escape their environment, (a safe place to escape the presence of toxic substances or toxic people). These facilities should be very tightly monitored, no drugs, no alcohol, curfews strictly enforced, and all medication administered by staff. Services should include substantial healthy meals and snacks. One on one counseling; also referrals to assisting agencies for recovery and reintegration. Another plus would be availability to organized activities, which would aid with esteem building and personal growth. This is a time when change can occur for an individual, so staff should ready to facilitate without expectations. Only a small percentage will push forward from here, so if you can’t deal with the disappointment this is not the job for you. A maximum 30 day stay would allow for movement to rehab facilities or transitional or supportive housing as might be appropriate based on individual needs. Many will stay only until they start feeling strong again, then will return to the folly and rigours of life on the street.
Next are transitional shelters, these are designed for people who are displaced from their former life for whatever reason. A certain level of control is still required while fostering independence and personal responsibility. No drugs or alcohol, on site as some people are in recovery from addictions. Any prescription medication should be submitted to staff, but vitamins, supplements and analgesics can be self monitored. Curfews should be loosely held and people should be encouraged, through weekly reviews (with the same counselor/staff) to create a plan for moving forward. Staff should facilitate access to resources… it is not enough to say, “do this…” direction is required at this time in someone’s life. Give them the name of a contact, a location, a Dr etc, etc. Also it is more important that we as staff respond to the relationships which evolve naturally with our clients. What I am saying is, people will often develop a particular repore… when this occurs between a client and staff it can be a very effective. Every staffer should be available to act as the counselor for a client, once that bond is forged utilize it to the client’s best interests. ALWAYS KEEP PROFESSIONAL BOUNDARIES BETWEEN YOU. These shelters, should be able to provide 3 – 6 months of stable housing while the client settles into a job, housing and re-establishes within the larger community.
This is what I have learned so far by living in the shelter system in western Canada. If you know someone who is a stake holder in the shelter system forward this link to them. This includes city councellors, social workers, client care workers, agency board members, directors… business leaders and social planners. Before we throw good money after bad with more of the same, let us all take a breath and rethink how we approach this problem of homelessness in our country.
copy & paste
I would be happy to discuss specifics about programs with anyone who wants to contact me through email or the comment section of this blog-site.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mardi Gras

March 12, 2010
When I was working at the shelter I was witness to a fundamental change in client behaviour around the day of the month when income support cheques were issued. Regular faces were conspicuously absent from their usual beds. Panhandlers abandoned their favourite corners. Clients showed up sporting new clothes, expensive jewelry, and toys (DVD players, cell phones etc). Acrylic nail manicures and other useless shit that just left me shaking my head. In Calgary we simply referred to this as “cheque day”… in Edmonton I was introduced to the more colourful term of Mardi Gras.
I have always taken great pride in my ability to squeeze a loonie ‘til the duck crapped. So you can imagine my surprise when last Tuesday I succumb to Mardi Gras. It has been a daily struggle the past few months and the stress of trying to find the resources I need, has been a daily grind. A roof at night and a soup kitchen to eat at are fairly accessible, especially in large cities, but added expenses are a struggle. For some people it is feeding an addiction, or buying smokes… for me it was co-payments for my physiotherapy and the bus tickets to get there. On Tuesday, after much waiting, my first EI injury benefit was issued. I didn’t go out a blow it all on a senseless fling, but I did buy a new pair of earrings I had been admiring in one of the shop windows… they cost ($75) 3X what I have ever spent on jewelry before. I can honestly say I understand why people succumb to Mardi Gras. The weight of the uncertainty of day to day survival is suffocating and in that one moment the weight lifts, you can stop and catch a breath.
I can’t speak for those on disability or old age pension, but I know that agencies get them onto waiting lists quickly and into subsidized housing at the earliest opportunity. But I will speak to basic income supports (they have provided me with bridging loans while waiting to find out about my EI). Without housing the personal allowance is $235 per month. There isn’t really enough to create a nest egg, or even provide for monthly groceries. There is no safe place to keep extra cash when living homeless so depending on one’s personal priorities the money goes in the first 4-5 days to “Mardi Gras”. A few nights at a motel, some alone time with your sweetie, or just a few days to relax, away from the rules and routines of shelter living. A few days without having to beg smokes… or booze, or hits, or tokes. A few days in a month when new clothes, a haircut or a manicure can make you feel good… feel special… feel pretty. I love my new earring… they are pretty… but mostly I love that I now have a real understanding of the phenomenon we call Mardi Gras.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Time & Place

March 4, 2010

I stepped out of the soup kitchen, a dozen or so people scattered across the length of the block, smoking and chatting. It is about 6 p.m. in what has been an extremely grey day... in what has been a grey week over all. Out of the harbour there is a rainbow, only about 1/3 of an arch reaching up and fading into the clouds. The colours become more intense with setting of the sun. The whole area becomes radiant, and all the clouds to the west are laced in gold. There is no price on this moment… you only needed to be in that spot at that moment and it was yours to enjoy. Twenty meters away people stood on the sidewalk smoking oblivious to the miracle I had just witnessed (the rainbow was obscured by a 2 story building). The sky in the east was as grey and brooding as it had been all day, and would likely be again tomorrow. For one brief moment, in an otherwise grey week, my sky had a rainbow. And for now my heart has a smile.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


March 2, 2010
This past week has been one of the worst weeks I have had, since leaving Calgary last spring. I have always avoided blogging when I am depressed… mostly for fear of saying something I will regret later. To begin with today, I want to share a little known truth about myself… I have a mental health issue. I have clinical depression, I have been off medication and successfully self-monitoring for 4 years. This means I have to very aware of my mood changes, what is triggering my moods, and how I interact with people during those times. My philosophy is to never do or say anything that I cannot own with pride. So this explains my silence over the past week or so and confirms the presumption that most homeless are mentally ill.
Actually this is a very comforting statistic because it separates us from them (homeless). Allowing us to think it will never happen to me (but it can ...I was into middle age before my first episode of clinical depression). Plus depression is a reasonable and sane response to homelessness. Any major loss in one’s life will trigger sadness (lowering serotonin levels in the brain) If one remains sad over an extended period of months the brain starts considering these levels normal, resulting in a clinical depression. Imagine how much one needs to lose to end up in a shelter, job, family, self-respect, sense of efficacy, social network, furniture… feel free to add to this list. Clinical depression is best treated with the gradual introduction of an SSRI (serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) and close monitoring (weekly) by a physician.
Sadly what I have seen happening with the homeless is that a person is diagnosed with depression handed a one month supply of meds and left to their own devices. I am not blaming any one for this situation… it is a combination of factors not the least of which is the dire shortage of family physicians in most parts of Canada. Using walk-in clinics one is often seen by several different physicians, which does not allow for any real repore to build between patient and professional (this is true of anyone with a chronic disorder). Also the transient nature of the population makes follow-up a very difficult matter. This is why a housing first initiative (affordable housing) would be very productive for the community is saved health care costs, for any health issues, physical or mental.
I will talk more about mental health issues in the future, because like many issues around homelessness myths and misperceptions abound. So look forward to Abnormal Psychology 101 to run as a blog, one day soon.