By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Last week I asked for comments and added “social justice” as a possible linking thought to the blog about Sin. Quite a stretch from but I think I can defend it. If we allow that ‘sin’ can ever be a useful term, the biggest collective sin of all time has to be the appallingly uneven distribution of the goods of the earth necessary to life.
The big snowfalls and the falling temperature of this winter keep front and centre my particular social concern, the plight of people who don’t have dry warm places of their own to go to – a necessity of life in a northern winter. The homeless will walk between each of the drop-ins and shelters they know, trying to hit meal times and opening times – you can be turned away if you get it wrong. Are they walking with dry feet? Cracked and chapped wet sore feet are standard.
The really poor living in substandard housing may have a roof but is the room warm and dry? How safe is the stove if it will be used to heat the room? Do they and their children have dry boots to wear when they have to go out in the snow and slush?
At this point, my pondering often stops. Too many manifestations of injustice! Too much pain. How to select one cause over another, when we don’t really know how to make a positive difference anyhow?
It seems to me that many people of good will have given up on the discussion. In part, there seems nothing more to say, and no one to say it to. Or, we buy into the obvious argument about domestic poverty – unavoidable fall-out from a poor economy and globalization? Well, by a single measure of children living in poverty, Canada is listed very close to the bottom of industrialized countries with the same economic factors at play but whose kids aren’t paying the price. Movers and shakers in Canada could do a lot better but it’s a matter of priorities and political will. And those holding tightly to the reins of power don’t seem to have it. But do we? That’s unfair – because lots of people are doing the best they can.
Cathy Crowe in Toronto went to the front lines, using and her nursing and organizational skills to provide direct help to people on the street, and brought that sub-culture to public attention. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee furthered the cause and doesn’t give up. Intelligent and informed comment turns up in Toronto’s two independent newspapers. The Web hums with news of smart social action (for instance, see John Deacon’s blog, www.homelessguide.com . Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti and Greg Mortenson in Pakistan become heroes to the young who are paying attention.
The lack of general willingness to talk about poverty may be because even with clear voices raised, we still can’t see any broad movement or leadership challenging the current blinkered political machines. So back to ourselves and our small communities – what can we do?? I believe that individuals working with a team of like-minded people are able to mobilize amazingly helpful things.
A very individual approach is to determine where you have been excited and most turned on by some work you’ve done in the social field, or felt most effective or come away knowing that something about what just went down feels very worthwhile.
I want to switch focus from the broader picture to the personal experiential, because I think that we can learn from each other’s experiences. Developing a shared perspective on what is important to those who suffer in winter because of poverty may provide a fresh viewpoint on what ordinary people can do. It’s a start. I expect in other weeks to look at different aspects of the experience of poverty, and hope you will contribute some of them.
Downtown Toronto, Out of the Cold
For 13 years, I coordinated the Out of the Cold program at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Toronto and these observations are drawn from experiences there. We all started out as absolute newcomers to working with this population (as did the volunteers at the eventual 65 other OOTC programs, at their height of numbers).
Immediate priorities of a homeless person on a winter’s night
The immediate priorities of a person using shelters in winter are: (1) safety from interference with one’s person; (2) a reasonably comfortable place to lie down, (3) dry conditions, (4) working washrooms, (5) a hot supper that tastes good, (6) juices and coffee available all night, (7) breakfast (preferably warm), (8) absence of hassling from other guests or volunteers and staff.
Needs beyond the essential
More subtle needs come clear as time passes, and these are expressed indirectly. For instance, no one asked for foot care, but after a volunteer saw the battered feet of guest, she organized weekly foot care, with the guidance of a medical specialist. Even with six stations set up, line-ups were standard from Week One. Several cases of heart failure were identified from the condition of feet and legs (and guests taken to hospital).
Other supports that became popular were the clothing table, a range of medical services (non-prescriptive, often including direction to walk-in clinics), housing help, legal queries about available options.
More buried still was the satisfaction expressed in season-end evaluations: how the friendliness, social warmth, kindness, smiles and conversation of the volunteers were what some guests like best – after the food.
Not just a Band-Aid
Over time we realized the program deserved to be seen as more than a Band-Aid activity – the frequent criticism leveled. For some of the men and women who came in, being treated regularly as ‘outsiders’, OOTC had become their place. One long-time user, a musician, spoke of it as his “club”.
Is this a bad thing?
What do you think?
What are your experiences face to face with poverty in the City?
Shall we continue this conversation?