by Gil Clelland of Sanctuary London
(This was originally a talk delivered at the Multi-Faith Coalition of London’s Rally to End Poverty, on February 22, 2016)
Over 9 years of working downtown with people affected by poverty every day – those who are homeless and street involved.
When I got here, I thought it was going to be very simple – find what these people are lacking and give it to them.
Our friends lack stuff – housing, food, education, and money.
In many ways, those four things are still quite prominent but do not paint the whole picture. Allow me then to add colours and brush strokes to our painting this evening.
My friends deal with:
Bed bugs – I have friends who have to sleep in a bathtub to try to escape the bugs in heir apartment. The tub is the only safe spot.
Prostitution – I know women who call me “papa” selling themselves to Johns for a place to stay, a little cash…
Intense hatred, mistrust, and assumptions about the work ethic of the poor – radio call in show discussing if a man flying a sign deserved help because he was wearing new boots. I gave a new pair of boots away the day before.
Unpaid and uncontrollable debt – Made unbearable by easy to get and impossible to escape plans by furniture companies, unfinished college degrees with free OSAP, and my least favourite of all – the easy cash and loan companies.
Horrifying past – abuse, neglect, and exposure to many things that still send me to tears…
Mental health issues – from depression to schizophrenia. And many other daily mental battles.
Addiction – often trying to escape the hell that life was and has become. We try to say the drugs are the problem often without asking why is he person needing to cover up something anyways? And what can we do about that?
And at every stage, my friends try to weave through a web of societal, structural, and political cords that seem to strangle more often than release our friends from their daily struggle.
Think of the Extreme scrutiny under which our friends live…the constant evaluation
– to determine if you are poor enough for assistance,
– If you love and obey enough under government imposed definitions of both – to see if you are Mother or father enough to keep seeing your own children.
– clean enough from addiction for some housing,
– addicted enough for some care,
– sick enough for hospital admittance,
– and at the end of the day, wondering if you will ever be enough…
Because perhaps the most terrible poverty (described once by Mother Teresa) is loneliness, the constant feeling of being unloved.
I have realized that most people do not hit the street and become homeless because of circumstances – no matter how multi-faceted those circumstances are. They hit the street because somewhere along the way when they looked for help, it was not to be found. A bridge was burned. Sometimes by one of my friends. Sometimes by a parent or guardian. Most often, it’s more complicated than a simple answer. My friends are often “home”-less. No connection. No love. No place to just be. No welcome. No place where mommy makes me cookies because she loves me. Alone…they put up walls to keep others from hurting them again. And wonder if anyone will break through the barriers and demonstrate that deep down, they are human – God’s children, they are worthy of love, they are worthy of dignity…they are worthy.
Because at the end of the day, the poor are not a group of people. They are individuals – each with a story, with hopes, with dreams, with humour, with a drive, with a sense of something better but often unsure how to achieve that better or IF they are worthy of that better…
These folks are my friends. They are Mike, Mel, Eric, and Beth.
They deserve better. And we can do better.
As I’ve outlined, the task is huge….Please do not give up. It is bigger than I could have imaged when I got to London 9 years ago. Don’t give up. Please continue to press our local government towards some of the amazing changes in the Mayor’s Panel’s suggestions. Read it through. Offer ideas. Make your voice heard.
Jesus offered us this simple advice. Love our neighbour. So, I am not asking you all to come downtown and befriend a homeless person. We could use a few of you but not all of you…but this city and the people in it could use all of you to be a neighbour. Love the people right in your neighbourhood. Find out who is struggling and welcome that person. Find freedom to admit your own struggles. Give and receive the social support they need BEFORE they end up homeless. Share meals together. Share life together. Isn’t that the reason we were created in the first place? My friends deserve better. You deserve better. Now, go live it.