Walking into Carmichael Outreach for my job interview in May of 2013. I was a recent graduate from the University of Regina, and I thought I understood all of the challenges surrounding poverty and homelessness. I strutted in with confidence, looked around, and immediately realized I had never encountered or engaged an experience of poverty/homelessness like the experiences of the folks that have become my friends at Carmichael.
I didn’t understand. I still don’t.
I have travelled and volunteered extensively internationally, having spent time in Asia working with impoverished children trying to prevent human trafficking. It was a time where I originally thought that the experiences of poverty for the marginalized in those countries were barbaric and archaic. I remember being flabbergasted seeing starving children on the street, or babies lying face down in the dirt of Kolkata’s streets with no clothes on. There was a certain look of hopelessness that I didn’t know how to deal with or comprehend.
The first time I went in 2008, I soothed myself by thinking how much better those experiencing poverty had it in Canada. The second time I went in 2014, I realized there were, and are, far too many similarities between those afflicted with the experiences of poverty around the world. Women and children disproportionately affected. Minorities disproportionately represented, and the most vulnerable populations exploited, de-humanized, and blamed for their position. In India, mental illness and addiction in their most visible forms were often challenges for those living on the street, and it is the same here.
One of our local advocates in Regina often speaks of the geography of opportunity for folks experiencing homelessness/extreme poverty. It’s the idea that most live their lives finding the things they need to survive within a 10 block radius. Think about the experience of homelessness for a moment – there’s nowhere to store food, clothes, medicine, or toiletries. There’s no mode of transportation unless you have access to public transportation. It shrinks the area that a person functions in their community when they must maximize their time accessing various things for survival.
As an organization, we had an awakening to our part in that narrative. Most of our friends that regularly attend Carmichael Outreach have life experiences that are largely restricted to the downtown/heritage area. They sleep in shelter, detox, or emergency, access needed services during the day, and Soul’s Harbour for supper. Then, they find their way to where they will sleep again and repeat the cycle. Constantly thinking about survival robs someone of his or her inability to plan long-term. Temporal decisions are the only ones available. Where will I find food when I have none? Where will I find a shower? Where will I sleep tonight? Until those basic needs are addressed, there can be no consideration of weeks, months, or years down the road. It is the simple psychology of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to take care of survival first, and it is one that has kept homelessness hidden due to the location of community resources. We are proud of the services we provide, but we cannot simply be another holding space for our city’s homeless populations that separates them from the rest of our community.
We have realized community is more than a set of geographical boundaries. It is not a sign that welcomes you to “the friendly city”, “the bridge city”, or “the queen city”. It is the individuals, experiences, and personalities that occupy those spaces. The more that we refuse to allow division to separate us through misunderstanding and fear, the less power these perceptions have to create social classes. The break down of individual and community social support is the number one factor that leads to homelessness. Our inability to understand homelessness as more than a label limits our ability to empathize with the experiences of those facing homelessness.
Our goal is to have community that shares experiences with each other. These are the reasons we offer art classes, hockey days, guitar lessons, and many other similar services. It is not simply for the novelty of opportunity for the less fortunate, it is so we all have an opportunity to eliminate the invisible barriers that separate us as community.
On day four, we offer the following solution – Community Engagement. We do our best to engage the community, and we are hopeful that as we share our experiences and thoughts that the community wants to engage us. Imagine a community engaged in supporting one another when and where it was needed. It does not breed dependency, but rather results in successful achievement of independence far more frequently than through current policies that ostracize and marginalize already oppressed populations. Come to Carmichael when we have events. Paint with each other, volunteer with us or another CBO.
We are so grateful for the community partnerships we have. We are able to provide services to those in need and we cannot say thank you enough to those who faithfully support us, bring food, donate items, and volunteer. We want to grow that part of our movement. It is our perspective that as we grow the number of people with knowledge of community issues and relationship with those affected, we will see a decrease in the number of people needing to access our food services. We dream of serving 17,000 less meals in a year instead of 17,000 more, or providing housing support and harm reduction services to less people because of improving outcomes. These types of outcomes are possible. Join us in changing the conversation. Let’s become communities rooted in respect and dignity for each other.
** Part 4 in our series of blogs shares the experiences of one of our employees, Tyler who works in the capacity of Communications, Advocacy, and Projects at Carmichael Outreach.