When a group of people, any combination of family members, friends and co-workers, shows up to volunteer at Haven Toronto, to prepare and serve meals or to help distribute items in the Clothing Room, some appear timid, unsure of themselves, so they hang out in back. This is natural. They don't know what to expect. Some fear the unknown. Others, the stereotype.
We take time to speak with groups prior to volunteering to share with them the issues of poverty, homelessness and social isolation. We address the causes, the stigma, and especially, the stereotypes.
We reassure the volunteers; they will get more from the experience than the clients will, believe it or not. And we assure the volunteers that, in the end, they will feel better about themselves then when they first arrived, knowing that they have made a difference in the lives of others. Our clients will tell them so, and thank the volunteers personally.
Our clients are elder men who have struggled as a result of loss of employment, workplace injury, divorce and health issues; the causes of 75% of homelessness.
When we speak with the volunteers, we, too, will thank them for taking the time to lend a hand - we couldn't provide the services that we do without their support. We will also encourage the volunteers to forget about the stereotypes. Instead, realize today that the people they are helping are truly terrific guys. They're funny. They're smart. They look out for each other. They care about each other. And they care about this place.
Some clients show they care by volunteering, by cleaning up around the drop-in centre, by helping prepare and serve meals. We have almost 70 clients who volunteer. Other clients will show they care by paying for someone else's meal, for someone who’s a little short that day. Clients even donate to our organization to ensure the services are there to help others.
That doesn’t fit the stereotypes.
But it’s stereotypes that have people clutching their purse, bag, or infant a little tighter as they walk past someone who is homeless on the street. Or have people crossing the road to avoid the homeless altogether. Stereotypes cause people to look away, avoid eye contact, and pretend that homelessness doesn’t exist; not in my neighbourhood.
Our job at Haven Toronto is to improve the quality of life of our clients. We do this through the programs and services we provide, in a welcome and safe space that affords our clients dignity and respect. We do this through the relationships we build with our clients, the trust we develop, and through a sincere display of care and compassion for those we serve.
A recent piece in 'Humans of New York', an ongoing blog about the lives and experiences of the poor and the homeless in New York City, was unimaginable and disheartening, and goes against everything we believe in. The article serves as an important reminder of who we are, what we do and why.
In an interview for the blog, a NYC man who was homeless shared the following story:
"Last week I was picking through trash, looking for bottles and cans to recycle, and my social worker walked by with her family. She walked just a few feet away from me. And I know she saw me. But she didn’t say a thing. Not even ‘hello’. I asked her about it during our next meeting, and at first she denied seeing me. But then she told me that she had been in her 'private space.' That really put a stake in my heart. Why can’t you say “hello” to me in your private space? So I’m writing her a letter. I’m using a dictionary because I want the words to be perfect.”
In many ways Toronto is very much like New York. Here, like there, people who are homeless are often ignored. And it does’t matter where they live, the homeless are vulnerable, they are abused, and are often treated less than human. Many have the emotional scars to prove it.
For the fourth largest city in North America, Toronto is pretty small. You are always running into someone you know or someone you see regularly. We know. It happens to us too. It doesn't matter the day or time, we often see clients out and about. We even look for them. And when we are lucky enough to catch their eye, we wave and say, "Hello."
There is no turning-on and turning-off care and compassion, trust and respect. Homelessness isn’t 9 to 5, and neither are we.