A project for school. I'm a little self conscious about it sounding too preachy and like I am a perfect angel, but I guess that's the point?
Outreach tie-in project – Homelessness in Toronto
For my Outreach, I volunteered at a community meal by the name of “Lawyers Feed the Hungry”. This program runs Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at Osgood Hall in Toronto, Ontario. “Clients” come to the dinners and are given two tickets, one for a meal, and one for dessert. Everyone gets only one meal and one dessert, though soup, and beverages are unlimited (to a degree). Occasionally, a bag lunch is given to them as well for the next day. It is a fantastic program that accepts all sorts of people from all walks of life. I have seen people there old as the moon and babies no older than a few months. I have talked to and gotten to know quite a few of the patrons, who all are amazingly fascinating, brilliant, lovely people.
Would You Hire a Street Kid?: Stigma in Society
One of the first things we have to talk about when discussing homelessness and the reasons for it is that typical question that people who have never had to live in fear of losing their home might ask: Why can't homeless people just “get a job”? Or, “they are just lazy, they don't need help”.
An Anonymous quote says:
“Have you ever tried getting a job when you have no phone number for
potential employees to call, no address, no nice 'interview' clothing, no resume or recent
references, and are so focused on just being able to eat or find a safe place to sleep that you
can hardly think straight?”
I think this quote covers the basics quite nicely. Once you become homeless, it is not just 'being homeless' in the physical sense. Being homeless takes a huge mental toll on you. You are either staying on the street or in a shelter. According to The Toronto Street Needs Assessment in 2009, on August 15, 2009, over 5,086 homeless people stayed in a shelter, and about 400 on the street. Now, okay, so most likely you are in a shelter, which may sound nice- it's indoors, you probably get a meal, there are people to support you, perhaps information about jobs... But there are also crowded rooms with about 100 people. According to the British Medical Journal, 1997), 30% of those over age 30 snore, rising to 40% in middle age. So in a room of about 100 people, that is 35 people snoring. If that wasn't bad enough, Tim Myles of UofT wrote in 2003 about the bed bug infestation in local shelters (http://www.ontariotenants.ca/health/articles/2003/gm-03l20.phtml). As well, every single Shelter in the Out of the Cold program in Toronto kicks people out by 8am latest, 6:30am earliest. So, imagine this. You are trying to sleep on a mat on the floor, after eating frugally. Some people around you are rowdy- perhaps intoxicated. Others are fast asleep, snoring loudly. If you do sleep, bed bugs will come and bite you. You are afraid to fall asleep, but you know you have to go out again tomorrow, so you must.
Now imagine you are the manager of a local chain coffee shop. Some... dirty homeless person comes in, they look very ragged. They give you typed a resume that doesn't have any references, and no recent job experience. You worry what your customers are thinking. “Please,” they ask. “Give me a chance.” “I'll give you a call,” you say.
I think one of the things that scares us about homeless people is their extreme need. Did you ever meet a friend, or even have a partner, someone who you liked very much but they just needed too much from you that you couldn't give? People who have dealt with homelessness can be that many times over. Their need can be very overwhelming, and we are not sure if we can give as much as they need. When you have everything taken away, anything you are given is an opportunity. I noticed, at the meals sometimes clients could be aggressive over their meals. I believe is related – that is, when you have very little, you must protect what you have. Everyone deserves to be treated with patience. Everyone has something inside of them amazing to show if they are treated with dignity. (http://www.covenanthousebc.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Change.mp3)
The point is not feel guilty. The point is: help in the ways that you can, and be willing to learn new ways to help.
Luckily, street homelessness – that is, people living outdoors- is down in Toronto by over half since 2006 (though Aboriginal people still represent 28.7% of street homeless [ and only 3.8 per cent of the total population of Canada). The number of people in emergency shelters and outdoors together, though, is about the same, only 0.7 lower than 2006. This means that yes, we do have more shelters, but there is still quite a ways to go.
The previous mayor David Miller says: “Homeless people are frequent users of expensive emergency services. The math is simple: it’s cheaper to house someone and provide supports than to do nothing.”
A 2004 study by Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, found that 60% of Toronto Homeless had chronic health problems, and that the mean age of death for homeless people in the Toronto study was 45 years. In Ethiopia, the average life span is 49 years of age.
So what can we do?
There would be no use writing this essay if I ended it here. I don't know everything, and I am not about to solve the problems of the world, but I do want to offer some ways that you can help- whoever you are, whatever your situation.
- If you know someone that needs an emergency shelter, tell them to call 311 if they can. 311 is for personal assistance with (Toronto) city related questions, and they can direct anyone to a shelter. If you see someone in an emergency situation, call 911 immediately.
- Treat the under-housed like humans: Give a smile. Eye contact. Some change if you can spare it. A short chat if you have the time. A discussion if you're comfortable. A hand and some help will change a life. Forgive them, and forgive yourself. Kindness can give them the weapons they need to fight depression, paranoia, and isolation.
- Support creative endeavors: One of my favorite places in Toronto is Sketch, an arts studio for street youth. It's a place that homeless or under-housed youth can go and... make art! Being creative and being able to express yourself in a comfortable environment, master-artist or not is very empowering.
- Volunteer: Small changes make a big difference. Even if it helps you, it helps someone. Host a clothing drive. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Find out information by typing in “Volunteer _____ (your city here)” in a search engine.
- Donate: If volunteering is not your style, donate to your proffered homeless charity. Make sure you research the charity first to ensure the money is going toward the people who need it!
- Educate yourself: Take a CPR course. If possible, educate yourself further and take a Mental Illness First Aid Course. http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.ca/Pages/default.aspx
As a supplementary piece, I have attached a calender I created inspired by my time volunteering at Lawyers Feeding the Hungry. It is a list of places to get a free meal in Central Toronto for people of an age or gender, any day of the week, and every meal (except Tuesday dinner! Although you could grab a late lunch at Good Sheppard and save it for later).