Monday, November 19, 2012

Adventure in Homelessness

Last week was quite the adventure. Auxano took it to the street! Word up! Not quite so gangster as that unfortunately but we did go to Victoria for a week of outreach. We lived at the Mustard Seed which is a church and food bank and multi-function community center in one and we did have a so-called "homeless" twenty-four hours on Thursday. The girls slept in the family centre for the week and the boys in the board room. At first I pitied the boys because all they had was a fax machine whereas we had a puppet show, but it turns out there is no time for puppet showing when you are working your a-double-snakes off volunteering (an expression we found hilarious that week). Surprisingly there was time to read most of The Christmas Pony out loud in different voices until it got so wearisome we couldn't continue. The week fit well with my radical experiment for the year: to volunteer in the community, so as you can imagine I was incredibly happy and felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. Steph was just talking about that feeling on Sunday when we led the church service at Saanichton Bible Fellowship and talked about our experience. I agree. It is a pretty great feeling. You should try it sometime but I warn you it probably means doing something outside of your comfort zone to help someone else. We helped out in the back of the food bank organizing all the donated food. I couldn't believe how much food the Mustard Seed gets every day. Most of the Mustard Seed's clients are low-income families, not homeless people, which just goes to show you how many there are. I found out there are around 1500 homeless people in Victoria, but there are thousands more who are living under the poverty line, especially because the cost of living in Victoria is so high. Apparently the issue in Victoria for the homeless is not food but housing.

We also volunteered at Our Place. They offer free meals to 1200 people Monday to Friday (they don't have enough funding to be open on the weekends) and they have 45 rooms for transitional housing that help the homeless get off the streets and give them a chance at, well, life. We helped out in the kitchen making meals, at the clothing exchange and cleaning the showers, which I especially loved. Don't get me wrong, I don't enjoy cleaning showers but I do enjoy giving  people access to something so simple being clean. We all just want to feel clean. For many of the people living on the street it is not a choice, though for a small few it is. We like to think that so we don't have to feel bad for them. The saddest part is that for so many of them who didn't have a choice, in the end they had no choice but to take substances to keep them warm and make them feel something better than what they were feeling. So we think it was their fault that they got addicted to drugs or alcohol and now have to pay the consequences, but for most of them it's just not true. For a few nights we got to volunteer at Sanctuary Youth which is run out of Church of Our Lord and offers a place for youth under 19 to hang out, to feel accepted regardless of who they are or what they have done. The first night we walked past a few young people begging on the street and invited them to Sanctuary Youth for pizza. We walked past this guy wearing a joker's hat and a mask playing his digeridoo, and who turns up at Sanctuary Youth but Mr. Digeridoo himself? We found out he's a pretty cool guy, a complete hippy, and when we saw him the next night happily playing his digeridoo we said, "Come on out to Sanctuary! There's cookies!" It was interesting to go there and hang out with kids who were obviously stoned. How could we judge them when we had no idea where they were coming from? Or better yet, we knew exactly where they were coming from and it made perfect sense that they would rather go through life high than live without the security of a home, the satisfaction of a job, the love of a family and the support of a community. It was here that I felt most aware of how close I had come to being exactly where they were. Growing up my family was the grateful but humiliated recipients of many a food hamper from the Mustard Seed and we lived in low-income housing for most of my life. There was nothing separating me from these kids but the grace of God. Nothing.

Hope Farm is a rehabilitation centre run by
the Mustard Seed in Duncan.
Thursday afternoon we started our twenty-four hours of being homeless. Even though we weren't able to sleep on the streets like we were hoping to do we still hadn't showered in four days and all we had was a handful of change and no place to go - just a little taste of what it would be like. After sleeping in the same clothes on the hard ground we stood in line for mediocre but much appreciated free breakfast Friday morning at Our Place. We were able to talk to quite a few homeless people, hearing their stories and telling a little bit about what we were doing. Brad and I talked to a guy named Jo we had met at Sanctuary Youth. He was high. He was also hilarious and we all laughed a lot. When we asked where he got the crazy fur coat he was wearing he said he killed a Yeti in the Himalayas with his guitar and I for one believe him. It was clear he enjoyed just having someone to talk to, that feeling of loneliness set aside for a short moment. Friday night we helped with something called Drive-by Cafe through the Mustard Seed. If they have enough volunteers for Street Cafe they take a table downtown and give out free food to whoever comes by. We each got a stick of chalk and went down a few different streets writing encouraging words on the sidewalk. I had a lot of fun writing out the lyrics to the song "Dark Horses" by Switchfoot. And yes. It took me a while. I probably looked like a crazy person squatting on the sidewalk with my sidewalk chalk but a little crazy is good for everyone. The song is about the street kids in San Diego and had become a really special song to all of us. It was pretty breathtaking to praise God on the streets of my hometown with such an awesome group of people after volunteering all week and having our eyes opened. I highly recommend it. But FYI you look really weird. 

We all felt very grateful after that week. And humbled. Most of us plan on volunteering at one of those places over the Christmas break and hopefully it will become a life-long passion helping people who need it most. We might not be able to do anything about the substance abuse or the housing problems but we can certainly make their lives a little better, give them a little bit of love and share a little bit of humanity. These people are not just children of God, they are also just someone's children. Wouldn't you want that for your own?

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