It was the end of October when the shrill sound of a ring tone jarred me out of a tired haze. It’s not very often in these modern times I actually receive a real phone call, and usually it’s either a wrong number, a lackluster salesperson, or bad news. This time I was certain it was going to be the latter. As I looked upon my phone to investigate the identity of the mysterious incoming call, my stomach dropped when it flashed the name Christian Harvey.
Don’t get me wrong, this in no way reflects my true inclination towards Mr. Harvey; that of a kind, compassionate, and inspiring individual who is a longtime advocate for the homeless community, as director of Warming Room Community Ministries as well as a deacon at St. John’s Anglican Church. The truth is, my cynical anxiety was due to a job interview he recently conducted in my pursuit to work at the Warming Room, a job interview I miserably stuttered my way through, seemingly unprepared, despite what I thought was sensible preparation.
Just like any ordinary millennial, I went through all the classic job interview questions that we have been conditioned to prepare for: What were my weaknesses? What were my strengths? Why do I think I would make a good fit? You get the idea. So as I sat across from Christian Harvey, believing I had all the right, clean answers prepared, you can imagine my panic when the first question he asked was, “Why do you think homelessness exists?” Wait, what?
In retrospect, I am embarrassed that I had never thought the question through before, ashamed that during my two years of volunteer experience at the Warming Room, an emergency shelter in Peterborough for those who find themselves homeless through the winter months, I had never truly reflected on it. The importance of this question is vital, because in order to work towards eliminating homelessness, we must first understand why it exists. And on top of this, we also must take the time to understand the risks involved and the dangers associated with being homeless; the fact that it can often be fatal and yet not much attention is usually given.
For example, just in Toronto alone, there have been over 740 homeless deaths since 1985, and the actual number is likely higher because, according to the Toronto Star, most Ontario municipalities do not track homeless deaths fully, or at all. And this lack of reliable information allows people to fall by the wayside, treated more like a disposable entity than a human being.
Everyone knows jobs are needed in Peterborough, but was the answer really that simple?
When I finally summoned up the courage to answer the dreaded phone call, I was in utter shock when offered a position. Although grateful, I found myself continuing to wrestle with the initial question that threw me off so much on that cold October day. Why did homelessness exist? Or more specifically, why does homelessness exist so rampantly in Peterborough?
I asked a close friend who grew up in an upper-class household in the West End what they thought, and their response was quick and to the point: “lack of employment.” Sure, everyone knows jobs are needed in Peterborough, but was the answer really that simple?
Following my own curiosity, mixed with a certain sense of retribution, I asked Christian if he would allow me to interview him this time around and give me his own take on this very question. “I actually think one of the core reasons homelessness exists is, we truly believe that if life is going well it’s because we deserve it. We’ve worked for it,” he says to me. “I think public policy and all those sorts of things often reflect that kind of understanding. We’ve created ongoing systems that have made it so that it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks; our mental health system for example.”
“[Organizations] should be out on the street, dealing with people a lot more, advocating more for people, and getting people to advocate for themselves as much as they can.”
I met up with a friend who I met at the Warming Room, to get his opinion. He chose to remain anonymous (I’ll call him “Jack”), which allowed him to be very candid about his own experience with once being homeless, how he overcame it, and what Peterborough is doing wrong. “The biggest thing I think that helped me was fighting injustice in the system,” Jack said. “[Organizations] should be out on the street, dealing with people a lot more, advocating more for people, and getting people to advocate for themselves as much as they can. It’s teaching people the skills to advocate for themselves, not just sitting in an office. I know some people’s hearts are in the right place, but it’s common sense. People need to wake up.”
Christian reiterates this notion by stating, “We need to explore a more grace-filled or more humble outlook on life that doesn’t blame homelessness on the homeless.”
The key to this is understanding that “we aren’t starting from equal playing fields at all,” as Christian says. “If we pretend that everyone has equal opportunity to everything then we can be like, ‘Well they are just not taking the opportunities that are given to them.’ But if we acknowledge that the world is not a fair place, that we don’t all have equal opportunities, then we can begin to actually say, ‘Hey, how can we make sure that all people are cared for?’.”
When I asked Jack why he thought homelessness exists, he stated, “There is no specific reason why homelessness exists. Some people have addiction issues, some people have trauma. For some people it’s the way they were brought up. Systemic homelessness, systemic poverty, mental illness… there is no one reason. For some people it’s just bad luck.”
Although it would take a whole book to unpack all of those things individually and fully understand their impacts, I think it’s important to note that at a recent Warming Room training session, I learned that 98% of people who are chronically homeless have experienced some kind of severe trauma. In fact, 25% of people who experience homelessness report physical or sexual abuse as a child. It should be no surprise that this type of severe trauma often leads to isolation, difficulty forming healthy relationships, and the eventual glide into homelessness.
In addition, once someone becomes homeless, the trauma only seems to continue. According to a 2007 study, 50% of homeless adults described experiencing some kind of significant trauma while on the streets, such as rape, assault, or witnessing someone get severely injured or killed.
When we see a panhandler downtown, we often avoid eye contact, refusing to engage with them. Why? Because it’s easier to look away.
This means that most homeless individuals we walk past on the streets of downtown Peterborough have experienced something so horrific in their life that it has likely led them to believe they are not loved, not valued, and not cared for. And on top of that, they are often rejected by us, the non-homeless, and looked at as an ‘other,’ only solidifying the belief that they are not worthy.
All of us have been guilty of this at one time or another. When we see a panhandler downtown, we often avoid eye contact, refusing to engage with them. Why? Because it’s easier to look away. And we can even convince ourselves that it’s okay to look away since ‘homeless people choose to be homeless,’ right? Of course not. It is estimated that only 2% of homeless people choose that lifestyle. The other 98%? They want safe housing. So, what’s stopping them?
When I asked Jack if he thinks anyone ever chooses to be homeless, he explained, “A lot of people don’t want to live in substandard housing or rooming houses because there is a lot of bed bugs, there is a lot of drug use. Some people will camp in the woods instead to escape drugs, bugs, and thugs.” Okay. Let’s really take this in for a moment. Some homeless individuals are actually choosing to sleep outside or in shelters because the housing that is available to them is too dirty and too dangerous.
In addition, the waiting list for social housing in Peterborough is around 1,500 people because there are so few rental units available. And to make matters worse, even if someone can afford a better place, many landlords in Peterborough won’t rent to certain individuals based on their appearance alone.
Christian told me a story about a time he was asked to speak at Trent University. “I go in and they ask me, the nice church boy, to talk about homelessness, but I realize I’m no expert on homelessness, so I invited my friend who is homeless to come and do the lecture with me. I went in first and everyone is like, ‘Hey, thanks so much for coming.’ And when he walks in they are like, ‘Should we call security?’ So right away, without ever meeting him, just the image of him was seen as a threat.”
So, what exactly is Warming Room Community Ministries doing to respond to these issues? “What I hope is that the Warming Room is trying to change the spirituality in our city to become a place where all are welcomed and cared for, and we don’t put up with anyone not having a place to live,” said Christian.
“Part of that is meeting immediate needs now: providing shelter now, providing food now. But I’m hoping it’s more than that. I’m hoping we are transforming the way in which people think about each other. I’m hoping that we are showing people who have been taught to despise themselves that they are worth something. To teach those that are middle- and upper-class that the world was skewed in their favour. I’m hoping we are building relationships across economic barriers where there hasn’t been relationships before. I’m hoping that people are beginning to get involved in their communities differently and see people differently.”
“Love is the heart of who we are. Love is not like unicorns and fairies; it’s something action-based.”
Something that has really struck me from my experience working at the Warming Room is that it is founded on seven values that are taken very seriously: Love, Inclusion, Relationships, Listening, Collaboration, Serving, and Safety. When I once asked how to deal with a difficult person who was treating me disrespectfully, I was told to always take a moment to ask myself, “What would love look like in this situation?” In a culture that often seems addicted to punishment as the first response, this opened my eyes to the countercultural and even, perhaps, revolutionary value that the Warming Room brings to the problem of homelessness in Peterborough.
“What is unique about the Warming Room is the value we put on relationships and love,” says Christian. “And I’m not saying that other [shelters] don’t do that at all, but I think, by holding that at its core, we show love is the heart of who we are. Love is not like unicorns and fairies; it’s something action-based.”
And action-based they are. From their outreach workers, working everyday to find affordable housing, searching through Kijiji and building trusting relationships with local landlords, to connecting with PARN in order to have access to clean needles and educate those that are at risk for HIV. Not to mention, beginning January 7, 2017, the Warming Room will serve lunch and dinner every weekday as well as a meal on both Saturday and Sunday out of the One Roof Community Diner.
As a final interview, I asked a man who is currently homeless, actively seeking housing, but continuing to be rejected for his appearance, why he became homeless. “I’ve had a rough life,” he said. “I wish I could go back and change things. But when I was young, I was a follower, not a leader. I did whatever people told me to do and it started getting me into trouble.” I don’t know about you, but I was once a young follower too, caring more about fitting in than grades or scholarships. So what is the difference between him and I?
It’s hard to say, of course. But if I could take a guess it’s likely that I was surrounded by love, always, and he wasn’t. And by that I mean, I was cared for at home, I was valued at school, always included and rarely feeling left out by my peers, never bullied, never experiencing trauma, and have always been treated with dignity and respect by strangers, which I can only assume is due to my privileged life.
But sometimes this privilege can be blinding. In fact, so blinding, that when you apply for a job working at a shelter, you find that you’ve never asked yourself why homelessness exists in the first place. It’s easy to have clean and rehearsed answers that are pretty and tied up in a bow, but this doesn’t allow for change and, as Christian would say, “it makes us less human.”
To conclude, I asked Christian if he thought homelessness could ever be resolved. “The more easily we are able to walk by someone and go to our homes when that person has nothing, it makes us less human. But the more we begin to give of ourselves and to recognize the humanity in someone who is homeless, the more human we become.”
He finishes the way we started, with a challenging question: “The question is, when we are in a place of privilege, are we willing to create a home for those who, for whatever reason, don’t have one? Are we really willing to do that? To fix it, those of us who have privilege need to give up some stuff and begin to learn from those who have nothing.”
Photos by B Mroz.