Last night was an eye-opening experience. One that I will never forget (I pray that I will always remember). ‘Voices from the Street’ … the volunteer opportunity of my lifetime.
What started out as a noble gesture to reach out and provide an opportunity to serve, turned into a life-changing experience, recounted through the eyes of 7 different narrators. Homeless souls on the ‘empty’ streets of Calgary.
Last night I was part of Voices from the Street 2008. A group of social service agencies and volunteers conducting a homeless street count in Calgary on the night of May 14th. Over the course of two to three hours, one hundred volunteers wandered the city streets identifying how many people were without shelter, sleeping rough. Each group had a specific geographic area to walk, a clipboard with census sheet to mark off how many people were ‘visibly homeless’ and a shopping bag full of ‘goodies’ to give away to those willing to engage in conversation.
The purpose of the count is to identify trends — the count has been conducted by the City every second year since 1992. Homelessness has risen by 32% every two years since the first count. Is that continuing? Are more people sleeping out? Are more people drifting into homelessness? The count helps project forward what facilities will be needed. And, helps identify what’s working. What’s not? Where are the gaps?
One thing that this entry didn’t note was this year was the first time the City of Calgary has taken a homelessness census by talllying numbers at the shelters only. Hence, the need for volunteers to go out into the community last night and hear the voices from the street.
From my volunteer experience with the homeless, there are few voices from the street that have the resources and resilience to overcome their addictions, loneliness, mental illness and turmoil that many experience on a daily basis. Thank God for the help of outside institutions who support those living on the street (such as the sponsors of last night’s event: The Salvation Army, The Seed, CDIRC, Alpha House, CUPS Housing Registry Network and the Calgary Homeless Foundation); homelessness is an incredibly dire urgent social human dilemma that goes beyond the tallying of numbers and the rallying of voices.
All of the stories from our conversations with the homeless stick out poignantly in my mind. However, what really burns a vibrant image of remembrance was the sentiment which resoundingly came through with each and every person …. fortitude, honesty, integrity and friendliness. Of course, these are all judgements based on my perspective of what I saw / heard or perhaps wanted to see or hear. But with the fading of the sun and the warm night bearing down on us like a thick fog blanket, I saw light gleam in a few people’s eyes …. pride in strength and resilience seemed to shine through.
Dennis was a perfect example of the unexpected truth to my evening … he was a surprisingly fit, smartly dressed 54 year old First Nations Aboriginal from Saskatchewan pushing a shopping cart [holding what I deemed to be his worldly belongings, carefully bound up next to a scattering of bottle depot returnables]. Dennis was freshly showered with a beautiful bright smile, clear eyes and a curiosity that left me both inquisitive and breathless. His story of being on the streets for over 12 years (his grown children also somewhere displaced in the night), working occasional to full-time as a construction worker for PCL, was typical of the homeless males we encountered in our walkabout of Fort Calgary and the riverbanks. A common thread … seems that there is plenty of work here in Calgary, with money to be made. However, the housing situation is way out of control and hopelessly beyond the means of someone with addictions and / or mental issues that fuels the inability to maintain a stable and supportive lifestyle. Addictions tend to bring out the tragedy in humankind …. instant gratification is a reality of our society, especially prevalent with those that live moment to moment for their next fix. Stability for those on the street is not a common denominator in the lifestyle which I often take for granted.
Life on the street is a tough, rough, cold environment reflected in the pavement the destitute travel and sleep on. Homelessness is often overlooked, hidden and ignored. But last night, I was proud to be a part of this census, helping to support the often unheard voice of our people, our brothers and sisters.