Saturday, July 24, 2010

Symptoms of a dying community

A Vancouver policeman is currently being investigated for shoving a woman with Cerebral Palsy to the ground while she tried to walk past him on the street in the east side of the city. Even more unsettling then the violent shove was the fact that the officer wasn't alone. Two other officers were with him at the time and as the woman slammed into the pavement, all three officers merely stood over her before turning on their heels and walking away leaving her to get up on her own. The attack was unprovoked and the response to correct the action was non-existant.

The officer has since written a letter of apology to the woman claiming that he perceived she may have been reaching for his gun as she brushed against his belt walking past. I don't believe that for a second. I think something deeper is going on here. Vancouver's East Side is known for it's homeless population and it's low-income residents. Poverty, drug addiction and homelessness are common in this area of the city and I think for the officers who routinely work this beat, they see the people around them who are poor, disabled and homeless as less human. They don't see any good in the community they're working in and it shows in their attitude.

What they see are the by-products of a poor area of the city and they assume that the social problems they're encountering daily are strictly the fault of those who have them. Perhaps they think of themselves as janitors, running about the city cleaning up the riff-raff before the horn toots at the end of the day and they return to their comfortable, sanitary and affluent lifestyles. It's all in a day's work for them. . 

I think the woman was pushed because she was seen by the officers as a piece of garbage they're tired of seeing in a job where power and authority can sometimes be taken to an unhealthy extreme. The evidence for this attitude comes from their desensitized reaction to pushing a woman with a disability to the ground, standing over her like it's her fault for occupying space and then turning and walking away without a second thought. It really makes you wonder how vigilant these officers are in policing the places they already think are too far gone. What does their job mean to them? It's certainly a question I'd be asking myself if I were one of these police officers.

There's an element of fear that goes along with having feelings of apathy and disrespect. It's easy to dismiss the poor, the homeless and the disabled as people. But, by doing so I think people are giving into their own fears of what getting to know them would actually mean. If they knew what they cared about, what their talents were or what potential they had then they couldn't as easily dismiss them and classify them as the bottom feeders of society. 

Attitudes of fear, apathy and outright disrespect kept these officers them from finding out the positives and it also kept them from doing whatever they could to accept, support and assist their communities. Essentially, their attitudes are keeping them from doing their jobs and in this case the only people who suffer are those who were already suffering from the start. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hope doesn't cost a cent.

As I write the last column of “From Where I Stand” for the print edition of Calgary Street Talk, I’m reminded that what motivated me to write for this newspaper in the first place. It's also what I’ve tried to give back as I’ve shared my thoughts over the years. That thing is hope. Hope is motivating, powerful, positive and strong. It’s also free. You don’t have to pay for it but you can spread it around. An American writer named Orison Swett Marden once said, “There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something better tomorrow.” Hope can be the fuel that drives you to try new things, seek new solutions or to walk into the unknown only believing that what you’re doing will be worth the effort and that better things will come from trying.

When I started to write for Street Talk all I knew was that I wanted to be a better writer. I also knew I wanted a place where I could put my thoughts into print. As I got started and learned more about the people I met and their experiences with homelessness and poverty I realized I had more in common with these people than I thought. I know very well what it’s like to be underestimated, to be pitied, to be stereotyped and to be blamed indirectly for situations beyond my own control. Every day a homeless person stands outside a soup kitchen or a shelter they are judged by many in a community who can’t possibly know their story, their experiences or their hardships. Maybe if they did they’d be less quick to pronounce that the homeless are lazy or that they somehow deserve their own fate.

Fortunately, before I learned how judgmental the world can be, I also happened to learn how to have hope. When I was very young there were a number of doctors, social workers and other experts who advised my family as to what they felt my life potential would be as a person born with Spina Bifida. Many said that I wouldn’t be able to walk, others said that my family shouldn’t expect me to live independently to attend regular school or to hold a job. I was barely in pre-school and my family was already receiving expert speculation as to what my potential might be and the prognosis wasn’t good. Thankfully nobody chose to listen and they moved forward with hope, believing that they had to at least try to see what I could accomplish despite the negative outlook. My life went on. I learned to walk, I went to school, I got a job and an education and I moved away from home not even fully realizing that failure was even possible.

For me that’s why hope is so important. Success isn’t about how successful you appear to be to other people and it isn’t about being right or holding power over others. At the minimum, success comes from deciding to have hope for something positive in life and at the most it is taking that decision and steadily working toward making it become a reality. Hope is about stubbornly showing up and trying to do the thing you most desire even if you have no idea how it could possibly work out. It’s about trying again and believing that your effort will produce something good.

I think too much time in this world is spent watching what others do and not enough time is spent actually doing things ourselves. Many people would rather point out what’s wrong with a situation instead of making any kind of effort to improve it. I think many people fail to see the power that comes through approaching new situations and new people with a hopeful attitude. Being hopeful isn’t just about being positive or saying nice things. It’s also about recognizing the strengths in a person or a situation instead of focusing exclusively on what is missing. Instead of seeing the homeless or people with disabilities for what they apparently lack maybe we should instead see them for the powerful forces they can be. I think we all have that kind of potential. It’s just a matter of finding the strengths we possess and in putting together the hope to go out and actively try to build things until the needed self-confidence and self-worth follows.

Unfortunately, the end of the road has come for Calgary Street Talk but the work being done in our community to house the homeless, to bring hope to those in need and to end homelessness continues. Since I began writing for this newspaper tremendous progress has been made in helping the homeless. It’s been fantastic to see and I hope the movement continues to evolve and grow to bring more people off the streets and into stable homes.  If I’ve been able to do anything through my years of being a Street Talk columnist I would like to believe that maybe I brought a little bit of a hope and unique perspective to this paper. I’ve had a great time and have received much more of a personal benefit from contributing than I ever would have thought possible.

Lastly, I want to thank the vendors for circulating Calgary Street Talk over the years. Their contribution in helping get the world on the street was inspiring and as I spoke with many of them I know I learned a great deal about the complexities of homelessness. I hope all of you keep hope for better days ahead and that you will continue to stubbornly pursue the things in life you desire most.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Twelve years and more than one hundred articles later...


           The first time I had ever heard of the Calgary Street Talk newspaper, I was a student in the journalism program at Mount Royal College. The editor of the newspaper at that time had come to try and recruit new volunteer writers and I had selfishly thought that writing for Street Talk would be a great way to build a portfolio of my writing. I also liked the idea of being published in a newspaper that was not distributed exclusively on the campus. I decided to volunteer, but at the time I knew next to nothing about homelessness and even less about the issues that I would report on. 

            That was 12 years ago and it’s hard to believe the time has gone by so quickly. Writing in Calgary Street Talk literally changed my life and it also changed the way I see the world. When I first started with the paper I was given monthly assignments to write about local service agencies and programs that assist those who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. I learned about the incredible selflessness that many people in Calgary possess and how they give of their time and their resources to both feed the homeless and create housing options for those who need them. I saw a lot of great effort but I also saw a lot of duplication and gaps in the services that were offered. Over the years, I believe we’ve come a long way, as agencies have participated together in Calgary’s 10-year plan to end homelessness and worked toward a housing first model that is steadily being accepted. Yet, there is still more work left to do to reduce the service gaps and fine-tune the services so that clients receive the help they require.

            While writing for Street Talk, I found out what it was like to personally know someone who has slipped through the cracks. I’ll never forget the day, as I was researching a story, when I came across a young man I had attended Sunday School with who was living on the streets. At that time, I had na├»vely believed that homelessness was something that happened to other people. I’d believed it only happened to people who had quit on life or who had made terrible life choices and refused all help available. I’d never really understood that a person could become homeless even as they are doing the best they know how to do.

            Sometimes, the cycle of homelessness where a person can’t get a job because they don’t have an address and they can’t get a place to live because they don’t have a job is all it takes to put a person on the streets. Other times, a set of circumstances far above and beyond anything I could ever imagine happening comes into play and homelessness becomes just one of the results. For people in these situations, being homeless is actually what keeps them from being able to address the real root issues. For example, you can’t easily overcome an addiction while living on the street when you are totally socially segregated amongst people battling similar issues and when alcohol and drugs are more accessible to you than food, milk or a stable place to sleep.

            Yet, despite those factors I’ve also learned how resilient and strong the homeless can be. A few years ago I volunteered as a tutor in the Storefront 101 program. Storefront 101 was designed to foster a love of learning and a desire for social change among those living in poverty. Over four months, the participants completed a university-level course in the liberal arts taught by a professor from a local university. The purpose was to raise awareness on the social issues that cause homelessness and poverty and teach them how to become better self-advocates. As we worked together, I was impressed with the effort that many students put in. Despite the fact many were battling addictions and poverty while they were taking the course, almost all of them could be counted on to do the work required. By the end of the course, many could identify the problems they were facing and could also articulate a plan about how they intended to overcome it. It may not sound like a lot but being able to develop problem solving skills and implement them can sometimes be the difference between having a home and not having one.

            Through my experience writing for the paper and through volunteering, I’ve learned that the little things make a huge difference. Smiling at a homeless person, being friendly to them and acknowledging their existence by not avoiding them are important ways to communicate that there is hope and that there are people who care. Donating to food banks, consignment stores and other agencies mandated to serve the homeless also helps in improving the situation for many. But, more importantly, it’s in spending the time volunteering directly with those who need the assistance that helps the most. There are many in our community who do a great deal more of this than I do and I appreciate their example and dedication.

            For me, volunteering with Calgary Street Talk has been a life-enriching experience. I have learned so much about my community and about all the work that goes on right across this city to try and make it more inclusive, accessible and affordable for everyone. For many years, I’ve also had my own column to express my thoughts on homelessness, poverty and disability issues. I’d like to thank CUPS for that opportunity and my readers for listening to what I’ve had to say. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Calgary loses an important voice for the homeless

The Calgary Street Talk newspaper will go to the presses for the last time in July 2010. As a result, I've decided to take my "From Where I Stand" column and publish it in blog format. This step is easy enough for me to take, but losing Calgary Street Talk silences the voices of many people who are not often heard in society. The vendors of the newspaper made their living off the sale of Street Talk to Calgarians in the downtown core, but the free publication provided daily by Metro News made Street Talk a more expensive and less relevant option for many readers. Sadly, sales declined and the vendors could no longer make the revenue needed to keep the paper in production and it was forced to shut down.

Losing Calgary Street Talk as an independent newspaper is a huge blow to those experiencing poverty in our city. I hope those who write for the paper are able to find other ways of communicating their messages whether it be online or as personal advocates for the homeless in their communities. I also hope the vendors are able to find other jobs that help them earn the money they need for survival. Lastly, I hope everyone who lives in Calgary and is able to donate to agencies that service the homeless or who can volunteer their time will do so. Your contributions make a bigger difference than you realize.

Going forward, I intend to keep writing on this blog about the issues I think are important related to homelessness, poverty, disability issues and our community in general. Feel free to leave a comment and help me get started on this new chapter for "From Where I Stand."

Jon