Yesterday was a big day at work. In fact, it will likely go down as one of the most important in our organization’s history. After several years of collaborative, thoughtful, hard, all-encompassing work, our Community Task Force to End Homelessness and the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council announced a plan to end homelessness in Winnipeg. I will let The Plan do the talking, I don’t need to explain it to you, but I knew I wanted to blog about this day and I didn’t really know what to say. When I got to work yesterday morning though, I picked up one of the summary pieces hot off the printer and read this story:

endhomelessness

I knew it perfectly summed up how I felt about this issue. Our belief in the ability to actually end homelessness, the way we all react when this topic comes up in conversation, our opinions on what led someone to this life – it is perfectly captured in how we react to someone who is a little worse for wear calling out to us on the street. Do you stop and say hello? Do you reach into your pocket to see what change you have? Do you offer a smile? Do you walk past blindly? Do you shrink away and cross the street?

I hope you make some kind of connection with them. I hope you look into their eyes and recognize them. There is a lot of hurt and despair in our world, it comes in many forms and each of us are affected differently by that. We may feel a stronger pull to certain issues because of past experience or personal connection. I understand that and I believe it takes all of us with our different convictions and the organizations that represent them to make up our world. But I hope homelessness becomes an issue that you take the time to learn more about and help make a difference in your own way. Everyone deserves a place to call home and so many people in our country still don’t have that basic right.

So tomorrow when you go on your lunch break and head out of the office to walk around the neighbourhood, don’t just grab your purse and umbrella. Bring your respect, your compassion, your smile, and offer it to someone. Look them square in the eye and show them that you see them. That they matter. That you are equal.

“I know that when I look into the eyes of another woman or man, or into the face of a child; when I hug a stranger as I wander the streets looking for someone who will take my two bags of recycling each week, I know I am giving more than money. I am giving dignity and hope the way someone once gave it to me.” – Dr. Lucy Miller, President & CEO of United Way of Calgary and Area

 

Last week I finally had the chance to volunteer for United Way of Winnipeg’s Poverty Simulation. Living on the Edge is a unique experience giving participants a glimpse into what life could be like living in poverty. It is designed to reflect the experiences and expenses as accurately as possible for the city the simulation is held in. The simulation is a fairly complex and intensive planning process requiring a full-time staff member at our United Way office who recruits approx. 15-20 volunteers per session and around 40+ participants.

The experience takes about three hours to complete. One hour for set-up and an overview so participants know what to expect. For some, the experience can feel goofy and silly acting out their “characters”, for others it can be emotional and overwhelming as they face multiple barriers trying to survive. The second hour is divided into four 15-minute weeks so participants experience a full month living in poverty. The last hour is a chance for volunteers and participants to share their experiences and debrief the process.

Participants are all given characters and some have families while others begin the process as homeless and living in a shelter temporarily. They could be pregnant, employed/unemployed, addicts, single/married, disabled – just like me or you. They could be kids, parents, or seniors. Everyone starts out with a bit of a story – maybe a dad became injured and can’t work, a kid recently got into trouble and is in jail, someone was evicted, etc. As the weeks go on, participants are randomly given “surprise” cards with good or bad news, just as life sometimes throws you for a loop. Everyone has different tasks they have to complete – go to work, look for a job, attend school, and pay the bills on time.

I have desperately wanted to participate in Poverty Simulation for awhile now. The experience was created in Missouri and there are very few United Ways in Canada actually it – still pretty cutting edge! Even though it can be much simpler to fall into a life of poverty than people tend to think, it is still very difficult to convey the hardships and barriers people face through a brochure or speech. Living on the Edge gives United Way the chance to engage our community members further than we have before and show them the impact their support can have. In no way can we accurately convey this life in just an hour, but hopefully a small portrayal will help deepen the community’s understanding.

Some of my favourite comments I heard during the debriefing:

  • People often forget about the “working poor”. Many people are working very hard – even more than one job – but they face so many barriers to move themselves out of poverty.
  • There is a very real stigma that comes with this life. People automatically think you are irresponsible because of the situation you are in.
  • Services are not as accessible as people think. Paying bills online is simple when you have a laptop or computer skills, but often people living in poverty end up standing in line or filling out endless paperwork that takes valuable time away from their family or job search.
  • The way you think can change as time wears on and life becomes harder.  People lose patience quickly and the temptation to steal increases, but once you get a bad name for yourself it is difficult to find a job. One mistake during a tough time can have a long-term impact.
  • Having a family made the experience bearable. Even though it would have likely been simpler to survive as one, having people to come home to and discuss problems with made it easier to keep going.

Can’t attend a poverty simulation yourself? Try a different online version offered by the Urban Ministries of Durham.

Last Saturday night, I really wanted to fall asleep. But breaking news on Twitter that a “Hollywood actor” had died earlier in the day in Vancouver kept me up until I could learn who it was. After I found out it was Cory Monteith, suddenly I wasn’t very tired anymore and stayed up late so I could read and watch the stories about him.

cory

In the days that followed, so many people on my social media networks posted pictures, quotes, and news stories about him, But this Huffington Post article shared by my sister is the one that has stuck with me. In particular, this quote:

This vast social and economic gulf between Mr. Monteith and those that face not only addiction but homelessness too begs the question if someone like Mr. Monteith – with stature and a wealth of resources at his disposal – was not able to conquer his addiction, why do we still express disdain for those individuals of lesser means with multiple, competing health issues who also “fail” to recover?”

Growing up in a small town, I never witnessed many signs of visible poverty. Once my family moved to Kamloops, we would walk through downtown and past panhandlers and street-entrenched homeless people. I often felt scared, nervous, and uncomfortable, but the worst thing I could do is simply walk past. Ignore the person and pretend they were invisible.

Three summers ago I stumbled upon a new career path for myself. I wound up working for United Way and the Kamloops Homelessness Action Plan. I couldn’t begin to understand complex issues like homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions, but over time and through many discussions, my opinions have changed.

Everyone has a story. Walking by someone on the street, you cannot begin to understand what led them to the point of having to ask for money and search for a roof over their head. If we can show compassion, if we can simply make eye contact and offer a “hello”, if we can show that person the same adoration that millions of us felt for Cory Monteith, maybe we can begin to change the attitudes around the issue. 

I’ll leave you with my favourite Glee song of the last four seasons: