Diary of an Itinerant Writer
Thursday, 22 February 2007
What is community? An interesting question, and one I had not much considered until the last few years.
A decade or so ago, when I was still married and raising a family, my definition of family would have been fairly narrow. My wife and four children. Perhaps the kids I coached in football (as well as their parents.) The one or two people I felt close to. On a generous day possibly a few co-workers.
Then a series of events occurred that began to broaden that definition. I became a single parent and my community began to include the new people in my life, particularly as I moved from the safe and insular world of marriage. Suddenly I was confronted with a new concept of family, and with that my definition of community began to grow. Yet it still had not reached its current broadness. I had yet to experience the events that underscored the truth of "there but for the grace of God go I."
The details aren't important, and rather than sound maudlin, suffice it to say that through errors in judgement I found myself on the street. All the plans I had made as a young father had somehow gone awry. Fortunately for me, and unlike so many others, I had people who could and would care for my children as I tried to regroup.
What does this have to do with community? Once I found myself on the street, living in shelters and eating in kitchens, I realized my community now included: the homeless, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised. Like them I sought more than just a roof over my head at night and food for the day, more than just the proverbial three hots and a cot. Fortunately I was able to find places such as the Shepherds of Good Hope. Here I can get in out of the cold at night, have a coffee while I read or perhaps do some writing, find chapel services to nourish the spirit, and find people with whom to build hope.
The true measure of a society is how it cares for its poor. It is through the care and generosity of those who give that our society grows and flourishes.
Time to address homelessness
This is an article I wrote after the last federal election. In light of this, the $70 million not spent is no surprise.
It would appear politicians have little understanding of the plight of the homeless. The homeless and street people are part of their constituency. Though their votes (and this assumes they feel empowered enough to actually vote) may count as a small percentage in the overall voting scheme their needs and concerns must be understood and addressed. It is not sufficient to pay these people lip service and it is certainly not acceptable to treat them with disdain and arrogance.
The question was recently posed whether any candidates had been seen in the shelters. The answer was of course but through the efforts of a local drop in center people in the community were able to finally bring their concerns forth.
It soon became apparent that not only is this community overlooked and its frustration and despair not understood, candidates are little prepared for the anger that is a day to day presence here. When confronted with this unexpected anger, the reaction was expected: defensive while lashing out. It should be realized, however, that drop in centers are not the House of Commons.
The people posing the questions expect more than pat answers that do little more than patronize. They expect more than "well, that's what you get fop voting in the last government." There is more intelligence than the politicians give credit for. They know more shelters are not the answer. Warehousing the homeless is, at best, a stop gap measure. It simply provides a bed and roof in cold weather and does little to empower a disenfranchised community. Rather it forces people to sleep in rooms with several others, some of whom should be in psychiatric institutions or under medical care. The have no control over the hygiene of their neighbor, the condition of the bedding, the amount of noise to be put with at night, or the safety of their belongings. They are required to stand in line and provide a dehumanizing bed number for their meals. They have little chance of getting a shower in the half hour allotted between wakeup and breakfast. This should not be interpreted as a lack of thankfulness for these services, just a recognition that is not enough and does little to empower.
A move toward transitional housing would be a move in the right direction. (It is recognized that in some areas this has begun, but the pace is too slow and not widespread enough.) This would allow people to have their own space, take responsibility for their own welfare and day-to-day upkeep and feel they have some semblance of control over their lives. This could be coupled with more low income cooperatives where people with a guaranteed disability income or social assistance cheque could group together to obtain a mortgage and run the place on their own. In the short term, the government could guarantee the necessary down payment. Think how empowering this would be. Think about how much better these people would feel about their prospects when they are no longer turning over the bulk of their cheque for a room. These room, by the way, because of affordability are quite often in buildings filled with crack and crystal meth users, alcoholics and violence.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of low income/no income people are not lazy, preferring to take their drug of choice and escape responsibility for their lives. Very few people want to live waiting for their chouse so they can escapte their very painful reality. Most people would love to be gainfully employed, exploring their talents in the arts and living meaningful lives, lives in which they would look forward to the breaking day - not dreading it.
So we've moved them from warehouses through transitional housing to a variety of cooperatives. What next? Two additional steps need to be taken.
The fist is rehabilitation for those with addiction or violence issues. Current rehab programs do not work. (For sake of this article I will consider violence an addiction since it quite often accompanies other addictions and is generally a response to some underlying cause.) Instead they simply add to this sense of disempowerment. The person is considered powerless over their addiction and must turn toward a high power, with little consideration given to harm reduction. In other words, exchange one crutch for another. Does a high power take away the pain of sexual and emotional abuse, generational dependency on social assistance, arrested social development brought about by early exposure to the penal system and generations of abuse or an all encompassing lack of self-worth? So much time is spent in putting out fires that many people are just not being reached.
The second step is retraining and needs to work hand in hand with rehab. Many of these people are lacking in high school education. To the majority they appear lazy and apathetic. How empowering would it be for them to complete their high school or receive training in a trade. To be allowed entrance into an art cooperative where they could explore painting and sculpting, writing or perhaps theatre.
It is not sufficient to simply throw more money at the shelters. This is throwing good money after bad. There needs to be accountability on how these shelters spend the money, the services they provide and how they threat their “clients.” I have chosen to place the word clients in quotation marks because it denotes the power relationship between the homeless and those that would help. Currently solutions to homelessness and mental instability are top down, leaving the clients disemboweled. I am suggesting we need solutions that come from both the top and the bottom, a cooperative effort as it were.
I know what I am suggesting is not without its difficulties and may seem a little naïve. I also realize that homelessness and poor mental health are profit industries (thus the financial success of shelters such as the Salvation Army and the mental health professions.) I realize that some people re not willing to accept help in any form, that they choose to live a life of homelessness and addiction. I also recognize the need to balance our many national and international obligations. However, the measure of a society is how it treats its poor. By that standard we measure up poorly. It is time to improve that measurement.
Tuesday, 20 February 2007
Money not spent
The federal government, in its infinite wisdon, saved $70 million it had earmarked for the homeless. I guess this is another example of the compassion of the Conservative government under Harper. You go to shelters in this city and see that they are in need of repairs. Staff are being cut. The Union Mission recently eliminated the 11:30 meals on Saturday and Sunday. The shelters and food babks rely heavily on donations, and this time of the year is the worst for food banks. Yet the government felt the need to save this $70 million. All the while spending money on a war in Afghanistan that they cannot win.
Just one more example of the government's priorities.
Saturday, 27 January 2007
Division of weath
the continental divide
i've travelled the great divide
between misery and luxury
sidles down the side of rockies
into the state of despair
abandoned farms dotting the wyoming countryside
giving way to progress
and the vast reaches of corporate farms
free roaming ranges of sage and scrub brush
fenced in for the few
gashed by ashphalt and railway
there's money out there
i've seen it
in the lakeside cottages
that could house your family and mine
in the suv's that ignore me on the hgihway
in the gas that feeds those suv's
there's poverty out there too
i've seen it
slip through a town
and the homeless are there
scrabbling for a fix or a meal
the hate filled grafitti
that rises out of frustration and anger
neighborhoods that become nightime warzones
i've travelled the great divide
watched as with time it grows
and the middle fades
on one side the anger
the other insular greed
i await the end
the inevitable violence
and mourn the death of a dream
a dream to young to die
too tired to carry on
i've travelled the great divide
slid down into this state of sadness
© Michael MacKinnon, 01/12/2007
Wednesday, 3 January 2007
Funny how life works. I applied for a volunteer position with Netcorp to work overseas using my computer skills to develop IT infastructure in developing nations, and training the poeple in using that infrastructure. But I also needed to work and so also applied for a position with a prestigious local IT firm. Well, was interviewed by the local firm and was hired. A month into the new job I am contacted by Netcorp for an interview, but in all good conscience I cannot abandon the firm that hired me.
Life does offer second (and third or forth) chances. Netcorp has contacted me again. And the job with the local firm is stressing me to the max. Helping corporate America is not quite as rewarding or valuable as helping developing nations overcome just one more divide we in the wealthy west have created - the information technology divide, perhaps one of the most damaging in this age of a global economy based on information.
Perhaps this time I can get my priorities straight.
Tuesday, 26 December 2006
Happy Christmas - war is over
well, made it through another xmas. did the usual, ate drank and tried to be merry. this season just works to drive home the gap between those who have and those who don't. walked to quebec side to get some beer (ontario not having yet entered the current century) and saw a native woman i know passed out on the bridge. how sad is it that you spend xmas day, alone, drinking on a bridge over the ottawa river. i watched others that i know from the homeless community slipping into the bushes by the river to drink there sherry, again by themselves. i thank god the weather was warm - at least the cold wouldn't kill them.
i am glad this xmas season is over. all of us who feel alienated, for whatever reason, can get back to pretending that we fit in. i think about how jesus would have felt that day on the bridge. i doubt he would have passed by and just left her. and what's sad, is that my heart said to sit with her. and i passed by.
Tuesday, 25 October 2005
well, condi rice was in town last night, and a small number of us protested her presence here outside the prime minister's residence. the number, again, was small - but then it was a last minute plan.
here's a link to the ottawa sun story:
Ottawa Sun story
it was interesting to see two buses full of police in riot gear sitting on a back street. i wasn't aware of their presence until i headed home. they were strategically placed in behind those of protesting.
It's quite interesting. having chosen to chuck most of my material possesions and travel/write i spend a great deal of time in homeless shelters. in fact, sometimes (like now) i actually spend from 3 to 4 months in this community. now i recognize that is a deliberate choice, and certainly if you ar going to be a writer focsing onthe human condition and social issues the homeless cannot be ignored. and yet how to protect yourelf from the lot of this community.
the two biggest issues from a personal point of view are the malaise that permeates this cimmunity in which i find myself, and the prejudice of the rest of the city to those who are homeless. out of this i find it very easy to eventually succumb to this malaise and prejudice. it becomes a matter of perception vs realty, and the line between the two blurs.
it is a struggle to maintain everyday existence and not allow yourself to become a "victim." on the other hand, i have learned many of the requisite skills to survive the streets, and perhaps these will put me in good stead as i travel elsewhere in the world.
Monday, 26 September 2005
no to bush wars protest
well, we had about 200 people turn out for the march. it was good to know this was in conjunction with the protests in washington and elsewhere. i guess my only complaint is the march became a catch all for a number of issues, which i think tends to defuse the focus. however, all the issues are imprortant to address and certainly reveals the fallacy of canada as a natoin of peacekeepers.
Friday, 23 September 2005
tomorrow is the 24th of september and we have a march planned for downtown ottawa. this march will be in conjunction with marches around the world to protest bush's aggressive policies. we are protesting canada's complicity in the wars in afghanistan and iraq. and we want us war resistors to be able to stay in canada.
i hope the turnout is good. more tomorrow.
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