I am on the second floor Day Area of the shelter where I work. It is a large area where people can sit, watch TV, read, chat, sit with their head resting on a tabletop, play cards. We are open 24/7. The area is seldom quiet and today is no exception.
The weather outside is gloomy. Inside almost every chair is filled. Six hundred plus people sitting, waiting, dreaming, scheming, staring silently into space. It is busy. The air abuzz with voices chatting, laughing, arguing, grumbling. There is a closeness to the air, a tiredness to the bodies. The steamy smell of wet clothing, weary bones, tired spirits.
There is a hum in the air, but little urgency. Little sense of 'gotta go'. The weather outside is dreary. There is nowhere else to be.
This is a space of waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for life to appear in some other form. Waiting for the next blip in the flow of energy all around.
I am standing at the front of the large open space talking to one of our staff, a front-line care giver. I'm in search of two clients, both of whom are artists. Both of whom I need to have a conversation with to address two separate situations that need discussing. Neither are on the floor.
The staff member and I talk about the energy on the floor. There is always a rise inside the room of temperature and tempers when the weather starts to turn. Always a closing in of tenseness as hundreds of people adjust to being indoors in close quarters.
The staff member is telling me a funny story about something he'd experienced when he stops, mid sentence, and rushes away.
I hadn't heard the voice calling at first, but his ears, finely tuned to every nuance of the Day Area did.
"Seizure!" a voice rises out above the din. "Seizure!"
I watch the staff member move quickly to a table not far from where we're standing. Three other staff join him. They push the table aside as the three people still sitting, causally move their chairs out of the way.
A woman is lying on the floor. She is convulsing.
I watch a female staff member bend down, place a jacket under her head, move several backpacks out of the way. She talks softly to the woman on the ground. There is care here. Concern. Professionalism and compassion.
Around me, the room holds a collective breath. People stare over towards the tableau of the woman on the ground, the staff member kneeling beside her, three staff standing, waiting, watching.
It's all in the timing. How long does the seizure last?
Within a couple of minutes, it's over.
A collective sigh is released. No need for EMS.
The room begins its hum once again. Activity continues.
It's as if nothing untoward has taken place.
And, in this place of rock bottom and broken spirits, nothing untoward has happened.
In a place where 35% of the people we serve are actively engaged in their addictions, seizures are commonplace. On any given day, a review of our Logs shows 5 to 10 entries about seizures. The majority, like this woman's seizure, do not require medical intervention. The majority, like this woman's, are related to drug or alcohol abuse.
It is the tragedy of addictions. For some people, particularly those in late stage addictions, seizures are a commonplace occurrence, sometimes happening once or twice a day. The brain, no longer able to cope with the constant barrage of chemicals, begins to break down, to lose its ability to cope, to operate smoothly. Electrical charges fire indiscriminately, in tandem with the impact of the individual's drug or alcohol usage upon their body.
It is a tragedy and yet, it is part of the environment. Part of this world called 'homelessness'. The seizures are not an outcome of homelessness though, they are a result of abuse.
I stand at the front of the room. Waiting. Watching.
It doesn't take long. Three, four minutes. The woman stands up. The table is moved back to its original position. Occupants scoot their chairs back into formation around it. The woman sits down again. She looks slightly dazed. Confused. But she's ok.
The hum of voices rises once again. The air takes on its heaviness filled with people for whom this floor, this area of waiting -- for time to pass, for dinner to be served, for the next momentary spike in activity to arise -- a fight, a seizure, a thrown plate. It doesn't matter the disturbance, it is a disruption to the flow, a blip in the dreary circumstances of homelessness.
The staff member returns to finish his story. He mentions the woman's name who had the seizure. She is well-known. She is not generally a 'trouble-maker'. She is mostly compliant. Seizures are commonplace in her daily routine. Late stage alcoholism does that.
It's really tragic, the staff member says, that there isn't more we can do.
And he's right.
It is tragic.
We are doing all we can, but somewhere, long ago, in this woman's past, many things happened to set her on this path, to lead her to this place.
Her journey is our journey.
Her sorrow, our sorrow.
She is in her forties. Native. Raised off reserve by 'whites'. She never knew where she fit in. Never knew which path was hers. Until one day, too far from that place where she once might have had a chance to take a different direction, she found herself here, in this place. This place where the native population is inordinately represented. 19% of our clients are First Nations. It is disproportionately high to our general population.
There isn't much we can do other than what we do. 24/7. 365 days of the year.
Keep her safe. Shelter her. Feed her. Protect her as best we can from feeling the harshness of the reality of her life today.
Like so many, she's tried rehab. Had it with counselling and detox and trying to make sense of the nonsense that has overcome her life.
In this place she's found a safe haven. A safe place to belong.
Somedays, there are no answers to the craziness of the world around us. Somedays, all we can do is hold a space for someone to be exactly where they are, who they are, how they are, as we struggle to stay present to their need to be in that place where we accept, we don't have their answers. We only have a place for them to belong, for as long as they need us, however they need us, whenever that may be.