It began with two chairs and an invitation to join in a conversation. An opportunity to be heard, to be listened to, to give voice.
I was the listener. The event was a block party for the inner city neighbourhood where the homeless shelter I work at is located. The exercise is called Two Chairs. No technology. No telephone ringing, blackberry beeping. Two people. Face to face conversation. A chance to talk and be heard.
The people who sat on the chair across from me were residents of the neighbourhood, clients of one of the three shelters in the area, people who work in the neighbourhood, and those just passing through for the day.
It was a day of story-telling. Simple. Direct. Honest. Reflections of those who have found a home in the area, or are searching for a place to call home somewhere, anywhere they can land.
One woman came to Canada from Africa in 1980. It is very different here, she said. But I like it. I see lots of changes, not all good. But this city has treated me well. She told me about her arthritic knees. Knee replacement surgeries. And then she told me about feeling scared to go out at night. This isn't a safe place at night, she whispered, looking around to see if anyone was listening.
I thanked her for her stories and she left, leaving the chair empty for a few moments until someone else sat down.
"I phoned my mother today," a man told me when I invited him to sit down and chat. "It's her birthday. I always call her on her birthday. And Mother's Day. My sister doesn't. She just drops off her one year old baby and leaves. It's been a year. It's really hard on my mom. She's too old to take care of a toddler. But who else will?"
I smiled and asked him if he lives in the neighbourhood.
"I live at the shelter. It's hard in this town to find a place. I've never really had a place actually. I'm trying to get my life in order. I've got to get my life in order. I'm too old for this kind of life. I'm 38. I've been clean for 4 years. But it's hard. Not staying clean. That's easy. I look at the guys who are stoned. See what they're doing and don't like it. And then I remember. That used to be me. I don't want to be like that anymore. It's not nice. I know I'm better than that. But it's hard when you can't find a place to live. It's so expensive."
"Do you feel safe on the streets in the neighbourhood?" I asked.
"Yeah. But I don't go out at night. I stay in the shelter. At least I feel safe there."
I asked him how old he was when he first started using drugs or alcohol.
He sighed. Shrugged a shoulder. "I was ten. I didn't know any better. Now I do. Now I gotta do better."
He's signed up to take a three month course to get the training he needs to get "a real job. On a worksite. You know, with a team and everything. Maybe benefits. That'd be cool. I could get my teeth fixed." He smiled, his teeth yellowed and chipped. A gap where the incisor should have been.
It is a common thread amongst those experiencing life on the street. Broken down teeth. Missing teeth. Yellowed with age and lack of care.
I've lived in this neighbourhood for eight years, said an elderly man who lived in a seniors complex across the street. I never go out at night. Sometimes, I don't like going out during the day.
One of his neighbours sat down and told me she has lived in the seniors complex since June last year. I love this neighbourhood. It's filled with such interesting characters. But you've got to take the time to talk to them. Get to know them. Of course, I don't go out at night.
Captive in their own homes. Captive to the street.
It was a common thread through our discussions. It's okay when the sun is up. But when darkness falls, it's time to stay home, stay put in whatever place you have.
When I got home I had an email from an area resident. Angry. Frustrated. Confused. This is his neighbourhood. He lives in a new condo development in the area. Earlier that day there was an older woman in his building lobby. She was kicking the furniture. He asked her to leave. She exposed herself. Later, when he was at the block party he saw her. She was eating a hotdog. One of 'you people' [a shelter worker] had an arm around her. She asked her if she had a place to stay that night. How can she do that, he wrote. That woman is dangerous. She threatens us, yes threatens us all the time. Says she's going to kill us. It's not right. She should be in jail. She's dangerous.
No. It's not right. The woman is not of right mind. There's nothing right about someone in their sixties who suffers from a mental illness being left to her own devices on the street. She doesn't belong in jail. She does belong somewhere that she can get help.
That man and his fellow residents deserve a neighbourhood where they feel safe. Where they don't worry about tripping over someone messed up on drugs, or a deal going down on their corner, or a john trolling the avenues for a 'girl'. They deserve to be able to walk their streets day and night -- at least to the degree that their fellow citizens can walk their streets.
It was a day of conversations. A day to listen. To hear the stories of those who live on both sides of the street.
I don't have the answers. The answers are tough to find. For a neighbourhood that has been in transition for years, tempers are rising as time passes. As one older woman said. "There's lots of plans for this neighbourhood. I hope they happen soon. I don't have enough time left to wait too long for change to come."