In movies characters are more often than not divided into two separate and distinctive categories, the heroes (the good looking, the kind hearted, the “Let’s save the day” kinda dudes and gals) and the villains (the misguided, the dark, the “Let’s take over the planet” kinda figures). But life is no movie and it is much harder to fit people into either one or the other category. In reality, most people are more morally grey than a black or white hero or villain.
Looking at myself, some people may call me a hero. Hell I even have one or two life saves under my belt. I do genuinely try to inspire people, am vocal about equal rights and I do spend a decent amount of time with the homeless plus a lot of time with my two nieces (who doesn’t love an adorable family man?). On paper that is typical movie heroism. On the other end of the spectrum, I am not nearly close to being perfect. I am incredibly flawed and make mistakes. As my closest friends can attest to, I can be downright unlikeable at times. I haven’t committed any crimes as serious as trying to take over the world with my giant death ray but I haven’t always made the best choices. In our hypothetical black and white world, this makes me a villain.
One of the hardest things I struggle with is learning which crimes have been committed by the guests. In the shelter life, it is more uncommon for us to encounter someone who has NOT had some sort of run ins with the wrong side of the law rather than those who never have. In our movie reality this makes them villains. The sad reality to this situation is that movies, tv and the media have convinced us that anyone who has committed a crime is the bad guy. We don’t think twice about why the crime was committed, just that they are bad people who did a bad thing. We rarely look into what roads led to committing the crime. Was it out of necessity? Was it a product of their environment or their upbringing? We don’t make exceptions and sometimes we don’t even allow redemption. We don’t see a person anymore, we see the crime.
There are some awful crimes in this world and please don’t take this as me trying to justify any of these crimes being committed. It takes a lot of work for me to look past the crimes to see the light in a person. I can think of at least one moment with each guest where they showed me their light. Whether it be offering other guests some snacks they managed to bring in with them or an extra smoke (which is a huge deal sharing because smokes are like gold in the shelter) or jumping into a fight to protect myself or any volunteers, I have seen the heroic side of so many of these guests that would be otherwise classified as a villain in the movie version of reality.
The point that I am getting at is that we cannot be defining people as either simply a hero or a villain. This world is not that simple. We live in a morally grey world. In this world, the “good” guys will make mistakes and the “bad” guys will commit acts of kindness and in some cases, seek redemption. Motivations for crimes aren’t always world domination and even heroic actions aren’t always driven by the goodness of one’s heart. Call me naive or stupid but in this field, I have to be able to believe that people can change or find their redemption if they seek it. I have to find their light or I would go crazy. When we see people as only their crimes, we are blocking their chance at redemption. We are not allowing them to move pass it or find a way to forgive themselves. Now please do not get me wrong, I am not asking for everyone to forgive or trust a dangerous offender or someone who has done horrible things to you. I just want us all to pull back and look at things from a different (and uncomfortable) perspective.
I want you to think of the good things you have done in your life. People you have helped, loved and made their lives better. Or even things like helping a little old lady across the street or volunteering at your local Warming Room (see what I did there?). Those are the moments where you know that you did some good. Now I want you to think of the worst thing you have ever done. Have you grown since then? Were you forgiven? Have you forgiven yourself?
Now imagine that the bad thing you did is the only thing people ever see about you. No matter how hard you try, no one will let you move on from that moment or let you forget it. Think about how much that would hurt and no matter how much you grow or try to change, no one accepts it. No one will ever see you as anything more than that awful thing. You are the villain in the world’s eyes. How does that feel?
See? Things are not so simply black and white or heroes and villains. I hope that we can start allowing people who are seeking redemption to find it. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know that people allowing me to redeem myself has made all the difference in shaping the person I have become. I do not know where I would be if friends and family didn’t forgive me for my mistakes.
We all have different paths to take and things are rarely as “hero or villain” as they are in the movies. I hope those of you seeking redemption are granted the chance to do so. And always remember, be kind to each other.
Well, this is it. I’m done. Today is the last day I will be working the Warming Room for the season. I am so thankful for those who allowed me the privilege to serve, for Niki and Christine who encouraged me to step up and do it..But most of all I’m thankful to the homeless who accepted me into their community.
Truly I learned more about Christianity in the past months than I have in years of bible study and “traditional” ways. “Doing church” has changed for me to spending some time out in the community interacting. This past season I tried to offer love and acceptance in a different way and out of my comfort zone. I shared Christ in a bar with a crack addict, I had the most frank talks about Jesus than I have in months. I swallowed hard and did coffee at Tim’s with a transsexual. I’ve done meals out with people that I just used to look away from. I shared more testimony than I have in years, and yes, I was honest about lots of stuff that I don’t share easily. A few times I put myself in harm’s way to ensure the safely of others. I’ve been sworn at, cursed to hell, threatened and was mighty scared. The other day though it struck me,. That’s how it should be, most of the cool stuff Jesus did wasn’t in the synagogue but out and about.
I’ve been living is this nice warm safe comfortable “Christian” place the past years. If we are not out there in the real world how will they ever know about the hope that lies in us? We are the only Jesus most will ever see. Trust me, most non-Christians will never set foot in a church. If we are not out there how will they ever know they how much He loves them?
I’m always amazed how when I remove focus from myself to others God can use me. Even me with all the junk I still am working on. I realize that I will never be fully qualified or holy enough to be worthy to do some of this stuff, thankfully He gives us all we need to serve. How much have I changed the homeless world? Very little I’m afraid, but God has been changing me.
In my head, I logically know facts about people who are homeless.
I know that over 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year or that 35,000 Canadians experience homelessness on any given night. I’ve read the stats that 50,000+ Canadians experience hidden homelessness (couch surfing, sleeping in a car, or other precarious housing). I hear that 10% of Canadian families live below the low income cut off line or that 14% of children live in poverty. I know that youth and aboriginals are more likely to face homelessness, and many people are a paycheque or an unexpected bill away from no longer having a roof over their heads.
It’s not hard to know logically that these people all came from people, just like everyone else. That there was once a mother, a father and/or other people who loved them and cared for them. Many of these people who are homeless still have so many people from their life who care for them, even if they don’t have any extra resources physically or emotionally to offer them or can offer resources that someone will take at this moment. We all know this. We all know that people who are homeless don’t just magically appear. We know that they come from families of all different shapes and sizes. We know that they’ve often faced things that are difficult to deal with, things that would make others crumble; often situations far outside of their control.
But so often we forget.
We forget that somewhere in this world, they had baby pictures lovingly taken. That there were birthdays and anniversaries and celebrations of all of their milestones. We don’t see the joy of Christmas mornings past, or the dreams they had for the future. We don’t know what dish they’re famous for making, or where their passions lie. We don’t know if they liked gym, math or art best in school. We don’t know what songs brings back memories or what colour they love best.
We as a society so often forget.
We forget to see them as people who have kids they lovingly raised with all sorts of hopes and dreams cast forward upon them. We forget that they worked three jobs to try to make ends meet. We forget that their friends and families lie awake at night wondering if they’re okay, and hoping for the best.
We forget that none of us are immune to any of this. We forget that these lives weren’t always like this. That those who happen to be homeless have lives that started out the same as anyone who isn’t homeless – just happening to be born in a certain time and a certain place with a life yet unfolded, stories to be written. We forget that it could be us: that each and everyone one of these people could so easily be someone from the story of our lives, with a simple twist of circumstance.
So often we make assumptions when we should be listening. We often spend more time worrying about ourselves than we do our neighbours – with or without homes. We get wrapped up in the shuffle of our daily lives and we forget about the people behind each person. We lose sight of the fact that these are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and everything else who have so much good to offer this world. We forget to look deeper to see the soul deep within each person. We hear the statistics and turn the page in the newspaper when we should be having real, honest, genuine conversations that start with simple and basic questions;
Where did you come from?
What makes you smile?
Who are you in the corners of your soul?
Who do you want to be in this world?
How can I help?
Oh – and what’s your favourite colour?
On March 3rd, I was in a fairly severe car accident in downtown Peterborough. As this is a small town, the media was quick to cover it making me one of the top stories of the day. Though I wrote off my car and should most likely be dead, I walked away with mild ouchies. I spent the night in the hospital and was unaware that my accident had drawn so much attention on social media. In the morning I received a number of text messages from friends asking if I knew what was being said about me on Facebook.
I checked the Peterborough Examiner Facebook page and under my accident found many negative comments about me (though at the time I was referred to as unknown driver). It was implied by a man I have never met before that it was obvious that I was drunk and on drugs (not that it needs to be said, but I was not). Another man accused me of being a hoarder because the back of my car was filled with what he described as crap (reality is they were clothes and other donations I had collected for the Warming Room). Neither of these men (or the others) knew me personally. They made assumptions based on my age and gender.
The point of this story (I know it’s not actually all about me this time) is that we often do the same thing to those who are homeless. How many times have we passed them on the streets and thought they must be there due to alcohol, drugs or their own life choices? Many times we know nothing of their stories yet we make snap judgements. I don’t think I realized how much these snap judgements hurt. I knew they were wrong about me and the opinion of strangers should not effect me but they did. My heart broke a little bit. It’s the same for those who are homeless. Many of us don’t know their stories but we judge anyways. I think part of it is human nature. Part of it is the poor portrayal of the homeless in the media (movies, TV etc). We don’t know them but we cross the street to avoid them, we don’t give change as we think it will be spent on drugs and we often assume their “sob stories” are made up. I will shamefully admit that I have done this before. I was wrong.
There is a quote that says “The first thought that goes through your head is what we have been conditioned to think. The second defines who we are.” We have been conditioned to judge the homeless on what we have been told but we are wrong. I hope this opens at least one person’s eyes that we should not listen to our first thought we have when we see someone who’s homeless. We should think about them as people who have feelings, who have lived and maybe sit to talk with them about their stories.
It will not be easy for us to stop making snap judgements. Hell I do it all the time, but together and working on it I believe that we can change the way we think. Together we can repair the way we have been taught to judge. We are the people that can change this world. Even if it is just one person who reads this and changes how they think, remember a single pebble can make a ripple effect in the calmest of waters. Let’s be that pebble.
Coming into the Warming Room as a volunteer is a bit daunting and intimidating all at once. My first day I sat wide eyed and just not knowing what to expect, I thought I was somehow different from the homeless. After volunteering a few months I have come to understand a few things.
It is not “us and them,” rather it’s “we.” Every Guest has their own story and I have been honoured to hear a few. Many Guests have taught me that they’re only there because life has just dealt them a difficult hand. Many have not the family support or resources I have. Given their circumstances I would be homeless too. I’m no brighter, tougher or hardworking than our guests. No, actually they are the survivors. I’ve heard stories of how being in jail is so much easier than the rejection of walking the streets every day trying to find work and a warm place to stay. I’ve heard the frustration of the guy whose ID was stolen and cut off from the system for weeks. It’s not easy getting ID when you have no fixed address… Or the woman trying to understand basic application forms when she struggles with literacy. I see many of our guests as heroes just for getting through the day. It takes a strong person to get out of bed and walk the streets at -10 with cold feet. They are often mentally and physically tougher just because they have had to be. Many people who are homeless have addiction issues just like those of us who sleep in our own beds every night. Many have mental health issues just like those of us who go to work every day. As a matter of fact, were it me in their circumstance, I doubt I would be doing so well.
I’m no expert but I think that one of the 1st things we need to give people is respect and empathy. Look at those of us who have less. Say hi! Pretending you don’t see the homeless or looking past them hurts. Simple acknowledgement is a start.
I have seen acceptance in this community that I have not seen elsewhere in my experience. Folks here do not judge rather just accept people where they are at. Wow, many of us could learn from that! I’ve also seen tremendous generosity. I’ve seen people give from what little they have rather than from the “extra” they might have and won’t miss. I’ve seen people who are homeless share their last cigarette with others who need a smoke. I had a guest buy me a drink at the Venue fundraiser. Wow, I was humbled, as I’m sure that was sacrificial giving on his part. I feel privileged to be able to serve in such a place, instead of being the giver, it is I who have received.
Sometimes people call me an inspiration. Sometimes they call me a role model. Sometimes they even go as far as to call me a hero. And while I do love the ego stroke, the fact of the matter is that I am none of those things.
To me the heroes are the 9-5 workers who work all day and still volunteer until 2 am. The heroes are the students who volunteer from 2am to 8 am and then go to class right after (often squeezing in homework and studying between guests’ stories or crises). The heroes are the retirees who could be spending their hard earned free time relaxing but instead spend it volunteering. These heroes help make the Warming Room into a home. You make the lives of both staff and guests so much easier and fuller by giving your time. Without you all, we would not be the place that we are.
To me the role models are Lynda and Liz for organizing the nightly meals that have changed the way the Warming Room runs. The role models are the people who spend all day making delicious food for the guests (and occasionally very grateful and hungry staff members). They keep everyone’s bellies full on those long cold nights (that would be way colder and miserable without the amazing food contributions) and supply us with milk and cream to keep our coffee drinkable (trust me I make the worst coffee known to mankind. The milk and cream helps mask it).
To me the inspirations are the guests. They have every reason in the world to be in awful moods but they always come in with smiles on their faces, willing to join us in movie watching or card games (both often filled with stories from their lives). They share their extreme gratitude for even the smallest of tasks or gestures. They continue to hope for a better future in the face of extreme adversity and that is the most inspiring thing of all. Their courage and never giving up helps me go on in my darkest of days.
As we head into 2016, I want each and every person associated with the Warming Room to remember their roles and how important they all are to us continuing to be the best place we can possibly be. While at times I may get the compliments that you all deserve, make no mistake, I’m not the hero of this story, you all are.
Happy 2016. May it be everything you desire.