Homelessness: A view from the other side

The United Church Observer magazine | July/August 2004 | Circulation: 81,000

Shuddering from the cold, I awake. The sky before daybreak is the hue of dull concrete. All around are reminders of a tough night on the streets of Victoria.

Beneath, I feel the sting of an ice-cold bed of jagged gravel. Nearby is our guide, still asleep in the cathedral yard under a shrub. I talked with this young Native man late into the night. He used to be a drug pusher and user, a convicted criminal, living on the street.

From behind the tree emerge three sleepy Anglican priests, ready to head for warmth and coffee at the Open Door, a United Church street ministry. They are excited to meet up again with the other 20 people who spent a night out on the streets.

The Ash Wednesday event, called “First Steps to Understanding,” was part of an education campaign about the poverty and homelessness that plagues most Canadian cities. It has raised unsettling questions about my own responsibilities and assumptions about the poor.

Most of all, the growing coalition of faith communities coalescing against poverty in British Columbia suggests that it is churches who must take the lead in humanizing our economic system to care for everyone.

11 p.m. — B.C. Legislature

A large crowd is gathered for the Eucharist on the steps of the provincial Legislature buildings. This is no ordinary communion; this is a deeply religious statement about poverty and impending cuts to social assistance for the poor. Since noon, 11 diverse religious communities have led hourly vigils for compassion. Their aim is to humanize B.C.’s welfare system, which the government has slashed under its pro-business “New Era.”

“We created a sacred space where people could share their thoughts and lift up prayers for those most vulnerable in society,” says Susan Draper, an organizer and member of Cadboro Bay United in Victoria. For months now, she has been helping build a powerful multifaith coalition called Faith In Action.

Midnight— Streethope

Twenty-four of us are crammed into the tiny Streethope house which ministers to street youth. Our group reads like an all-star cast of local spiritual leaders — at least four ministers and chaplains from the United Church, as many Anglican clergy, a Catholic student, Quakers, Buddhists, not to mention atheists. We are about to get a fleeting glimpse of what it is like to be homeless for a single night. But before being dispatched, we get a stern warning.

“We’re not going to experience poverty,” cautions Capt. Rick Sandberg of the Church Army in Canada and founder of the Streethope ministry. The point, he says, is to break our ignorance of homelessness and give it a human face. We’re not here to save anyone.

1 a.m. — Douglas St.

After splitting into small groups, the Anglican contingent meets two girls who have been drunk for three days. They are only 14 years old, and one apologizes profusely: “You’re priests. I shouldn’t be acting like this.” Suddenly, the second girl bursts into song — belting out a religious hymn in an angelic voice. For John Mitchell, the girl’s voice is unforgettable.

“The hurt in their eyes, and loneliness, (made us want) to just put our arms around these people and help,” says Mitchell, chair of the social justice committee of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia. “And yet we were in a way powerless, because we weren’t there to help.”

2 a.m.— Public Library

A flowerbed might seem like an unusual place for two United Church ministers to bunk down for a night. Exploring on their own, Rev. Paul Taylor and Rev. Margaret Harper settle in under some shrubbery outside the library. Soon drenched by rain, they leap over a wall into a brightly lit parking garage. After less than an hour, they are awakened by a security guard.

The guard — puzzled by new faces on his turf, and even more so by their explanation — was an unexpected source of compassion for Harper.

“When we told him, he said, ‘Wow, it’s great that you’re trying to experience that’,” says Harper, who ministers at First Metropolitan United Church.

“In an ideal world, he wouldn’t have to be herding people out of the downtown,” she adds. “(But) in an ideal world there would be shelter for all.”

3 a.m.— outside the Open Door

Weary from hours of plodding, I settle on a bench across from the Open Door. Tonight its steps are full of street youth with nowhere else to stay.

Soon, a young man wanders over from the steps. Dominic tells me he owes his life to Open Door founder Rev. Al Tysick, and begins offering food from his bag. First an orange, which we share. Then an apple, and some instant noodles. I feel uncomfortable.

Two more people stroll over now, and I am stunned when one offers me his hard-earned $10 bill — a small fortune for a panhandler. I stumble nervously on my words, and Dominic asks the question I fear most: “You got a home or something?” Pause.

Yes, I reply.

“I understand,” says Dominic, thoughtfully. “Sometimes you just don’t want to go home. Out here, everyone is welcome. We don’t ask about your past.”

4 a.m.— Christchurch Cathedral

Deeply moved by the overwhelming generosity of this community who own almost nothing, I traipse into a cemetery and find the Anglicans setting up camp clumsily on a bed of ice-cold gravel. Despite the cold, I fall asleep there.

5 a.m. — The Open Door

As our group gradually rambles in from the cold, “Reverend Al” Tysick is busy ministering to his street community. Long hair flowing, he strides between tables, occasionally pausing to crack a joke as he serves food, breaks up an argument, and counsels his clients.

For participant Henri Lock, the night has showed that street people are not much different from himself. “(It) opened up the possibility of dialogue as human to human” says Lock, a United Church university chaplain, “as opposed to seeing myself as so fundamentally different that I’m embarrassed at having something they don’t.”

Lock asks what role churches should play in the healing and transformation of society — for instance, advocating for more caring government policies and systemic change.

As Reverend Al trudges past to pour a cup of coffee for a woman with a disability, perhaps Lock’s question seems partly answered. Truly embodying faith in action, he reminds us that our own first step to understanding poverty is exactly that — just one step among many, many more.

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