every year it’s the same thing
christmas comes in early november
no one is prepared
so with guilt being impoverished
now, I’m currently on a disability pension
and a strange phenomenon occurs
at the same time
the december first cheque
gets spent quicker than most
it’s in knowing
that the january cheque
comes only three weeks later
a seventy-five percent december
a cruel time, living like kings
regret eats away
in tiny nibbles
so instead of taking care yourself
you now buy gifts for everyone else
a christmas sickness
by being paid early
it’s a cruel january
lack of food
not even money for coffee
the helping hands tired and sore
everyday is a prison
and all the rush from the holidays
blood flow slows
damage reports flood in
pulling the trigger
on an empty gun in a time of peace
at least it’s quiet
The other day as I was walking down the street I saw a man who was panhandling sitting on the pavement. He was suffering from an episode of mental illness and was talking to himself loudly and using coarse language.
A couple people walked by and from their faces I could see they were clearly disturbed and disgusted. It wasn’t their fault that they didn’t understand. And it wasn’t the fault of the man panhandling that he was suffering from mental illness. It should, in fact, be upsetting that there’s people sitting on the street in need of money, suffering from illness, with no place to go. This shouldn’t be normal or easy to ignore.
All that being said, it saddened me to see a lack of understanding. We’ve been so separated from people who are different from us. We don’t want to be confronted with the injustice and ugliness that exists in our city.
Later that day I was talking to a volunteer from the Warming Room who was walking downtown and ran into one of his friends who’s a guest at the Warming Room. This guest also has severe mental illness and was apologizing for some things that had happened at the Warming Room a few nights earlier. The two ended up laughing about the incident and chatting for a few minutes until they parted ways.
Seemingly small stories like this fill me with great joy. It’s through relationship that understanding is built. It’s through spending time with others and hearing stories that prejudice begins to melt away. And the result is real meaningful change in our community!
A little light bulb went off in my head that day and I thought… imagine if everyone in Peterborough was a volunteer at the Warming Room. Or at the Youth Shelter or the Brock Mission or the Lighthouse Drop-in Centre or wherever. But imagine if everyone had the chance to build relationships with others and view others as people rather than problems. It would change things! It would change how we talk, how we interact with people on the street, and what we care about.
Of course, no one’s perfect. We’re always learning and always trying to rid ourselves of prejudices. But change is so very possible. I’ve seen it in myself and in many volunteers at the Warming Room.
It’s inspiring to hear from others and to imagine what Peterborough could be and to see what’s already happening.
What do you imagine for Peterborough?
“I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street,
I thought, ‘I can’t just walk past here, this can’t just be true.’
But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet.
It’s amazing the things that we all learn to do.”
-Ani Difranco, from the song ‘Subdivision’
I can relate so well with this quote from Ani Difranco. My first memory of seeing someone on the street was walking with my family in Toronto. I remember being shocked that the person was going to have to sleep all night out there on the pavement. I remember being shocked that everyone was just walking past like they didn’t see the person. It all seemed so different than everything I had been taught about caring for people, looking out for people, sharing with people. But as I grew and I saw this scene over and over I became more and more comfortable with it. I began to be able to pretend I didn’t see them. I began to be able to pretend I had nothing to share. I began to be able to teach people about sharing, loving and caring and then walk past people in need.
How does this happen? How do we become this callous? I mean most people I know are good, caring people. Most people who walk by, like me, don’t like that people are suffering on the street. So how, in a country where we have more than enough money, more than enough homes, and a climate that can kill if people are in the streets, are we OK with homelessness? How are we able to come in contact with it and ignore it?
I think in order to get through life we have begun to believe a lie, a very destructive, but useful lie. As a minister, I am sad to say that it is a lie that often we as religious leaders have helped spread. That lie is that we live in a just world. That good things happen to good people. That I have good things in life because I have earned them. I am able to ignore the injustice, the gap between what I have in comparison to the need of my sister or brother because I believe that I deserve what I have. I believe that we all started with an equal chance and I took advantage of it.
The problem with this belief, the ugly side that we don’t say out loud as much, is that then it must be that those who don’t have, those who struggle, those who are on the streets, well they must deserve that too. They messed up, they didn’t take advantage of their chances, they didn’t try hard enough. And though we will rarely admit any of these beliefs out loud, they come out loud and clear in our interactions with those on the streets, in the policies that we allow to be passed. If people are homeless because of their own bad decisions, then the answer to homelessness must be to help people make better choices.
The reality is that our world is not just. We do not all start at the same place with the same opportunities. We have created a system that is easier for some to achieve in then others. We have created a system that works really well for some, and not for others. And we have created a system that has made it very difficult for people to leave poverty once they are trapped in it. We will not end homelessness by helping people make better decisions. We will only end homelessness when we begin to change the systems that allow homelessness to exist. And the first step in doing this is admitting all this. By admitting that I don’t deserve all the good that has happened to me, just as the person with no home does not deserve their lot. Once we admit this we can begin to dismantle the system that blames the victim and begin to create a system based on neighbour love and the common good for all. Then, we will once again, as when we were children, become uncomfortable walking past the person sleeping on the street.
We will once again, as when we were children, realize the hypocrisy of speaking of sharing, caring, and loving and at the same time ignoring the needs of those in our own community. And through the process of becoming once again uncomfortable, maybe we will begin to regain our humanity.
Take a listen to this recording of a raw and powerful rap written and performed by Jake, a guest at the Warming Room. You can read the lyrics taken out of his notebook in the pictures below.
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I have never been a big fan of mission statements. So often organizations spend so much time wrestling with every word and phrase only to put them on the shelf to collect dust, making very little impact on what the organization actual does.
That being said, I am really proud of the mission statement that we have come up with for the Warming Room:
The Warming Room’s mission is to address poverty in Peterborough by providing a warm, safe place for those who are unable or unwilling to access the current shelter system, by providing a place where relationships can be built that breakdown stigmas and barriers created by our society, and by moving people to a deeper understanding of the systems of poverty in our community and encouraging them to act on them.
This threefold mission is very important to us. The first part is the obvious one, and what people know us for. The shelter system as it currently exists is not able to meet everyone’s needs, there are those who fall through the cracks, and it is exactly those people we want to serve. We believe everyone has a right to a warm, safe environment to sleep in, and we try our hardest to provide that to anyone, no matter how they come to us. We also try to achieve this by helping people find even better and more stable shelter other then just the Warming Room. We work with guests and other agencies to help them find a place that they can call their own. This part of our mission is key, but we believe that without the other two pieces it is incomplete.
We live in an incredibly segregated society. People of different classes, ages, religious backgrounds can spend their lives never building real relationships with each other. This is part of the problem with poverty. We know it is a problem, but to us it is just an abstract concept. We say things like “the poor will always be with us” and go on living our lives without giving it much of a thought. But when the abstract concept gains a face, a name, a story and is your friend, glib statements and inaction become woefully inadequate. It drives us to want to do something, to change things. This is our goal. This is why we engage in a volunteer model. We want people to build relationships, we want friendships to grow so that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We also know that the sort of change that we want to see will only happen when people who normally have not worked together start to. That means working in partnerships with churches that normally wouldn’t work together. That means having volunteers work together who are different ages, who have different educational backgrounds, who vote for different people. We believe this act of breaking down barriers will lead to a broad collective of voices calling for an end to poverty in our city.
This leads us to the third part of our mission. Poverty and homelessness are not simply a matter of individuals making bad decisions. They are a failure of community, they are a result of systems that are at work in our world, in our country, in our city that value the economy over people, that are willing to sacrifice our most vulnerable for their own purposes. If we try and battle these systems by simply running shelters and food banks, then we allow these systems to grow, and the growth we are seeing in our shelters and food banks will continue. While we are housing and feeding people we need to be asking why people need to be housed and fed. What are the roots of the problem? And then with the diverse community that we have built, to collectively raise our voice against that system, and imagine a new system where all have homes, where all are fed, where no one is seen as expendable.
This is the mission of the Warming Room, and we invite you to be a part of this mission, to join us in trying to rid our city, our province, our country of the virus that is poverty.
Together we can make a difference, together we can imagine a new Peterborough.