Friday, February 15, 2008

Hope lives

I awoke yesterday morning, my head a cotton ball of fuzziness, stuffed up with cold and flu. I lay in bed and contemplated sleep for just a couple of more hours.

And then, I caught a glimpse of the news as a PR nightmare unfolded before my eyes. There on the screen was one of the satellite shelters we manage. A police car and ambulance, with flashing lights, sat in the driveway, exhaust billowing from their mufflers. A reporter talked about one man critically wounded, another in custody.

I put my fuzzy head aside and took a shower. It was going to be a busy day.

And it was.

Every few moments of every day in this million+ city, someone dies. And someone is born.

Every day, events unfold that draw the attention of media like alley cats drawn to investigate a bad smell emanating from a garbage can.

And everyday, beneath the sound bites and the opinions of neighbours and passers-by and politicians and experts, there is the human tragedy.

It is tragic that a man died at the shelter in what police are calling, a 'suspicious death'.

It is tragic that a homeless shelter resides anywhere in this city.

Yet, the reality is, it does. It must. If not my neighbourhood then whose? If not my backyard, then whose?

The shelter in question is down the street from a senior's housing complex. A resident, once very vocal in her disagreement with its establishment as her neighbour, appeared in the news coverage of the event to say she was once again worried. This is what I feared in the beginning, she claims. And now I fear it once again.

Good neighbours build good fences.

I think of a closely knit seniors community and wonder what they did to support their neighbours.

My mother loves to bake. It is her passion. Most of what she creates in her tiny apartment kitchen is given away. Shared with neighbours, friends and family. It is her statement of love. Her gift she willingly shares.

I wonder how many batches of cookies have been baked over the past eight years that the shelter has peacefully co-existed in that neighbourhood have been shared with the neighbours, friends and families of those living in the senior's complex?

I wonder how many have been shared with the men in the shelter next to them?

I work in a world that reveals, every day, the cuts and bruises of the underbelly of lives in disarray.

I work in a world where people with nothing scrap to gain a tiny foothold of sanity amidst the madness of their lives.

I work in a world of contradictions. Where one man with nothing takes the time to share whatever he's got, even if it's only the butt end of a cigarette, with the man next to him.

I work in a world I sometimes don't understand.

Everyday, I witness the parade of human frailty played out on the tapestry of homelessness.

I witness a man, his breath reeking of Lysol, his clothes reeking of foul odours, gently supported by a friend as he struggles to stay seated on a chair. We discourage people lying on the lobby floor of our building, but on this occassion, I hear a staff say to the friend, "You're best to just let him lie on the floor. He'll only fall off the chair again."

There is no judgement, no condemnation. Just a simple acceptance of where this man is at and what is best for him in the moment. Counselling, intervention, whatever other care is needed to help this man find some solace in his life today, will come later. For the moment, it's best he lie on the floor and sleep it off.

As I help serve lunch on the second floor, I put a plate of food in front of a young, handsome black man whose face is blistered with crack sores. His eyes are bleary, the whites enormous, the pupils dilated. He nods his head as I put the plate in front of him and mumbles a quiet, Thank you.

I walk through the lobby and a toothless, grinning native man stops me. He always smiles at me. Always jokes with me as I pass. "Wanna dance?" he asks as he does every time I stop to say hello. "I couldn't keep up with you," I reply as I do every time he asks. "You'll never know until you try," he jokes, his head nodding, his bloodshot eyes bright with laughter. "I'm ready when you are."

"Maybe tomorrow," I joke with a smile as I move on.

Every day I am part of the tapestry of despair and hope woven together in the lives of people who are lost and frightened.

And every day I wonder where our humanity has gone.

Not one person at the shelter had a dream long ago of being homeless, or of being an addict or afflicted with schizophrenia or a host of other mental health and physical disorders that affect them.

Not one person ever dreamt their lives would lead them to this place where fear is ever present and all they have is what's on their bodies or inside their veins.

A man died yesterday in our shelter and with his passing, all hope died that he will ever find his way home again. His family will never again see his face smiling, never again hear his laughter. His voice has been stilled for ever more.

At the shelter, if we do nothing else, we keep hope alive for the hundreds of people who have lost all hope of ever finding their way home. We keep hope alive for the families who feel the living loss of their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neices, nephews. We keep hope alive for those looking and waiting and praying and hoping for their loved one's to come home.

Yesterday, hope died for one man and his family.

Today, hope still lives for those who continues to struggle beneath the sorrow and pain of whatever is happening in their lives to take them so far from home, so far from their human condition.

Today, I live with the hope that someone, somewhere will awaken to their truth and walk away from despair into the light so that they can claim their right to live up to their magnificence.

Life at the shelter is a struggle. Yet, every day hope alights in the eyes of those who recognize falling down on the road of life is not a death sentence unless you lie there forever.

Until that day, hope lives on as we continue to provide a place for those who have fallen so hard on life's journey they cannot yet look up and see the light.

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