The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: homelessness

Enough Already

‘GREAT THINGS ARE NOT ACCOMPLISHED BY THOSE who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”  So said American poet Jack Kerouac.  I wonder what he’d think of the latest trend of taking selfies in front of homeless people.  Never mind; we already know.  He’d be disgusted.  Fortunately, he would also be angered, and in such a state would want to do something about it. Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.45.06 PM

In Europe, America and now Canada, it’s become the big thing – find someone down and out, living on the streets, take a selfie of yourself in front of the person on your cellphone, and then broadcast it out to all your friends.  I know, it’s stupid and insensitive.  But more than that, it speaks to just what we are willing to accept in the modern era.  No permission is ever asked of the person in the street.  The joy is in the placing of oneself in the centre of the frame, not of assisting the struggling and anonymous person in the background.  Just as we take pictures of floods or hurricanes without ever connecting them to the environmental conditions that cause them, so we have entered an era where it’s cool, not to be homeless, but to get your photos captured in front of people who represent the fallout of materialism and a narcissistic society.

In Canada, five out of ten people are two pay cheques away from being without a home, and yet we remain so oblivious of that fact that we merely shake our head in dismay at those who would capture a fleeting moment of photographic fame in front of someone fallen on hard times.

Television celebrity, Anderson Cooper, was aware of this troubling trend in selfie satisfaction, but gave it little thought.  In fact, he confesses to being “annoyed” by a homeless man outside of his door in New York City.  “I just ignored him.  I just pretended he wasn’t there.”  Then, for a “60-Minutes” segment, he did a story about the chronically homeless and saw firsthand the demeaning nature of his own prejudice.  It unnerved him.  “When I finished the story and thought of that man outside my door, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.  This is my issue.  Me pretending not to see this person is insane and offensive.”  He decided to approach the man, an awakening that now causes him to view homelessness through “a different lens.”

Then there is the moving story of 10-year old Natalia Marsh-Welton.  Suffering from a brain tumor, she confessed to getting cold while undergoing chemotherapy.  “I’m cold all of the time,” she says.  “Imagine how cold people without homes must be.”

And then Natalia did a remarkable thing.  With a local chef, she concocted a soup she labeled, “Chef Natalia’s Soup of Love” and began feeding the homeless in her hometown of Cincinnati.  Her own prognosis could easily have drawn attention, but instead Natalia placed herself in the background and brought to public attention the demanding circumstances of the city’s homeless.  Her touching efforts don’t even belong in the same universe as the insensitive “selfies” crowd.

Poverty is hardly some kind of canvas upon which we can paint our own designs.  It represents the dashed hopes, forgotten dreams, and quiet despair of hundreds of thousands among us, and who this country has forgotten.  Worse, modern poverty is about hunger, mental illness, dependency, bitter loneliness, unemployment, broken hearts, no place to live, and no money to feed the children.  Such people are not mere pieces of tapestry occupying some bland background to our busy lives; they are the failure of our dedication to citizenship and country.  They represent our absolute loss of imagination when it comes to politics, capitalism, and their capabilities.  Ultimately, they speak to our inability to build inclusive communities and empathetic humanity.

This isn’t merely about forgetfulness, or, in the case of selfies, even heartlessness.  It’s about the failure of a country and the abject condition of our official policy.  The fact that an increasing number of veterans are filling the ranks of the homeless only adds to this sense of national shame.

Let’s not merely give to those organizations dealing with this blight.  Let’s get to work behind our desks, blogging, tweeting, texting, and exhorting ourselves to building the kind of politics and public space that not only gets the homeless into productive lives, but gets people out from being in front of the camera and into the highways and byways of our communities where they can fight for inclusion in our city streets.

“To perceive is to suffer,” Aristotle said.  Let’s lose our penchant for making ourselves the centre of our own individual universe and build communities bonded in anguish for those lost among us.  That’s a picture I’d love to see.

Counting On Nothing

14767898-3d-people-human-character-on-a-wall-of-numbers-this-is-a-3d-render-illustrationI am one of 9,564,210 Baby Boomers in the country – a group that makes up almost 30% of the population.  For almost 30 years I was one of some 22,000 Canadian professional firefighters.  I am one of the less than 1% of internationals who undertake development programs in south Sudan.  I am part of the 912,600 families in Canada that have three or more children (I have 7).  My blood type is O-negative.  I was a member of the 39th and 40th Canadian Parliaments, and, oh yeah, I was one of the 2,100,000 people who watched Britain’s newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II emerge from her balcony at Buckingham Palace on June 2, 1953 (I was 3 years old).

So, do you think you know me now? Do you know of my hopes, or my deep love of all things humanitarian? Can you discern that I’m inherently shy or that I’m on chemo?  Can you sense the depth of my ache when my parents died over 30 years ago, or when a former slave died in my arms from gunshot wounds in south Sudan?

The truth is that numbers don’t tell the real tale.  They provide some context and some fodder for public policy, but they no more flesh me out than some photo in an album somewhere.

In more ways than we can count, this is how we now view the homeless – over 200,000 people in this country who somehow become important as part of some cohort and not because they are individuals with deep pains and hopes.  In the place of faces they have become statistics.

In so many ways we are as important as people remember us.  But what if they only remember a number – #24601 (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) or #A-25153 (Anne Frank’s likely tattoo number).  I recall what Salman Rushdie wrote in his Midnight’s Children and think that this must be the prayer of every Canadian who has nowhere secure to lay their head:

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done to me.  I am everyone, everything whose being in the world was affected by me.  I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.” 

Why is it that we have the right to claim such identities and hopes for ourselves while the  200,000 homeless barely receive credit for experiencing the same?  When Albert Camus urged people to “live to the point of tears,” what do we say to those who have no more tears to shed because their ducts are dry and their hopes are barren?  Such is the state of the homeless in our nation today.

Perhaps the greatest hidden cost of homelessness in Canada isn’t the price of caring for them or what their lost productivity means to our economy, but our loss of feeling concerning their fate.  As long as they remain numbers, they remain inanimate.

Statistics concerning the homeless are vital to our understanding of the scope of the problem, yet in many ways they might also hurt the cause.  True, statistics help to raise awareness, but we live in a generation in which so many numbers get crunched into our heads from every possible sector of society that we respond like unfeeling automatons to people once they fall under a certain statistical column.

Christine Jocoy, an associate professor of geography at California State University, has been at it long enough to witness the downside of translating people into statistics: “When numbers are merely used to re-prove that a problem exists, approaches to addressing homelessness don’t change much.”  Jocoy also worries that in just tabulating the numbers, many communities feel they are doing enough.

Organizations like My Sister’s Place in London, Ontario have learned to take such statistics and put human faces back on them.  It is a remarkable place that treats homeless women as though the only thing in the world they can truly possess is their own integrity.  And from that basic understanding they begin to build their lives once more.  Instead of promoting the numbers of women they assist, My Sister’s Place opts to have the women speak for themselves through the establishment of a speaker’s bureau.  Suddenly audiences hear their stories and understand homelessness for what it is: a deep human travesty that wrenches hope from the possible.  Those listening hear of no place to wash clothes, children undernourished, not enough money for bus fare, the loss of family, and the inability to shower.  This is real stuff – real human, tragic, and moving stuff.

My Sister’s Place is teaching our community to use statistics as a door to real people as opposed to a calculator that just leaves the person staring at a screen.    At times the greatest transformation of all is that of the formerly benign observers who suddenly find the urge to be human for the sake of the homeless.  Those women seeking assistance at locations like My Sister’s Place are plenty human enough – they live the dearth of human existence every minute of the day.  It is citizens – all of us – who must begin the arduous and enlightening journey from knowledge to action.  When such a transformation begins, statistics give way to empowerment, and numbers move aside for inner understanding.

Homelessness is not a merely a condition, but a national disease.  And its only cure will be citizens who fight for equitable justice against an establishment that merely counts the homeless as ancillary costs to progress.


Homelessness Without a Home

HomelessNew data on homelessness emerged last week and immediately competed for front page attention – some 200,000 Canadians every year are affected by homelessness, with a hefty price tag of 7 billion dollars.  This was the first ever national report on homelessness and the findings spell deep trouble for our communities, especially our cities.

Perhaps it’s time that we just admit that citizens are expecting this to be an ongoing reality – a troubling shift.  Worse still is the fact that our leaders – political, economic, social – are now planning for poverty – it’s enmeshed in our economic system and there are no plans for alleviation. A proper remedial place for tackling this troubling issue within the realm of public policy goes wanting for a lack of political will – the presence of homelessness has no home in our public mindset.  Alberta (Edmonton specifically) gets good marks for its efforts, but in our national narrative homelessness has grown out of all proportion.

My friend, economist Amine Yalnizyan, recently defined these changes as “socialized losses and privatized gains.”  There we have it, spelled out in black and white.  This condition isn’t happening willy-nilly, but is the natural effluent emerging from a financial design that thinks less and less about public policy and the cost to society of not dealing with problems such as homelessness.  The costs of pursuing such a course are now becoming clearer.

Americans woke up recently to learn that their nation’s wealthy gained $5.6 trillion in the recent recovery, while the remainder had to deal with the loss of $669 billion.  This didn’t sit well, but what was troubling was that no one in the Establishment thought to question the current course of action.  Something similar is happening in this country.

There appears to be no plan in any of the Western nations to deal with a global financial system that has gone awry – everything is just tinkering.  Since this is a given, we might as well ‘fess up’ and admit that realities like homelessness and poverty have become the new weapons of mass destruction.  Entire sectors of our society are growing more lost and disconnected everyday, despite all the wealth and technological potential.

By permitting homelessness to become a kind of abstraction, a moving target of formulas, numbers and graphs, Canadians have assumed it to be something like a mathematical problem.  That’s okay for a time, but if, following two decades of inaction, homeless numbers surge and public policy refuses to deal with it, it takes on the form of lost imagination.  And for any nation the loss of the ability to dream and picture the benefits and pains of others is the sign of another kind of impoverishment altogether.

At the London Food Bank we are increasingly dealing with people who lost their homes through economic pressures.  Imagine it.  How do you now house your kids?  What about your pets, or all those precious possessions you acquired when your parents passed them on to you?  Where do you store your winter clothes, and with no car, how do you get your kids, or even yourself, to those amenities that often provide a few moment’s relief in a hard life?  Husbands and wives or partners often feel their relationship slipping away because of the inability to find a place to just “be”.

The reality is that a home was never just a location or the city you lived in.  It is those things which provided meaning, healing, direction, and support for daily living.  It’s where the people we love resided and where we came together.  It wasn’t so much a room but a moment in time where we found one another.  More moments could be strung together in such a place and a kind of communal life and hope could be established that permitted us to go through the ups and downs of life as people who care for each other.  It was a shelter to nurse our wounds, a museum for our past, a classroom for our learning, a bed for our intimacy, a launching point for our dreams, and a proof of our existence.  It was a place from which we could leave and a destination to which we could return.

In every real and viable instance a secure place to live is perhaps the most fundamental necessity for human existence.  Home is not just a place but a hopeful condition, from which all the challenges of life can be faced and hopefully overcome.  It is hard to locate the desires of our heart when it is ever hovering, unable to land, unable to rest, unable to abide.  Above all, home is an ache – like love or memory.  Without it we lose our sense of belonging and the validity of our being alive.

In our house, I sense immediately when Jane or the kids head out on their various excursions and in that moment they are missed.  I feel a sense of loss, of a desire to put the kettle on as soon as Jane gets back, or to dance with the kids when they return.  Having a home means knowing when someone has left and yearning for their return.

In Canada today we have some 200,000 of our citizens who sense that no one cares that they are alone in communities of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people.  It remains one of our great national tragedies – no place for the marginalized in our “home and native land”.


Why I Chose the Stable

When politics was done for me, I had some decisions to make. As job offers started to come in, Jane and I sat down and determined that another approach would be best for me – community activism. It took a few weeks but I eventually opted to begin by helping two London organizations that mattered to me – the London Community Foundation and a remarkable group of women endeavouring to make their mark at My Sisters’ Place. It didn’t take long before I realized I was in a world of hurt and possibility at the same time.

My Sisters’ Place is located in a large old house across the street from the police station. On any given evening you’ll find about 40-50 women coming through the doors, seeking companionship, assistance, and training – almost all of them are completely homeless. Their lives are as difficult as you might imagine, but at My Sisters’ Place they find two commodities that are essential to their physical and mental health: hope and a future.

To put it into a phrase, My Sisters’ Place got to me – plain and simple. Along with my good friend and Sudan co-worker, Lynn Blumas, we were asked to assist the organization in getting more community profile. It turns out that my help wasn’t all that much-needed because it’s a story that tells itself in profound ways.

I recall speaking at one of the organization’s fundraisers over the Christmas season. I spoke of how the entire Christmas story hinged on one young women, unwed, in a strange place, and with nowhere to rest or give birth. The town of Bethlehem had “no room” for her, according to the ancient scriptures, and so she ended up in a stable. Everyone reading these lines knows what happened next. It was the birth of a new hope for humanity, a reminder that a single woman’s life and what comes from it can define a community. I didn’t want London to be like Bethlehem, I said that night. I want the city I live in to have room – lots of it – for women down and out on their luck and striving for a way forward. I broke down somewhat as I spoke in the realization of how little I knew of what these homeless women were facing. Christmas is my favourite time of year, but from that moment on it could never be complete until all those women struggling in London found room in the hearts and minds of local citizens.

What’s going on in our communities when we permit homelessness to continue growing in a city that would never wish it? It doesn’t have to be that way, and organizations like My Sisters’ Place are helping us find a new way forward. A friend of mine – Chief of Police Brad Duncan – reminded me once that without My Sisters’ Place the police would be hard pressed in locating the resources to assist the women. I realized immediately that he was right.

Below you’ll find a video I shot yesterday. It’s about another stable – not the one in Bethlehem, but one built by compassion that is opening its doors to women who struggle in off the street and seek to find a way forward with their lives. You’ll see an old coach house that was built during the American Civil War and yet which still stands today. While it’s main function was once to house horses, today it exudes hope. It will be the micro-enterprise centre for a remarkable new program designed to teach women the kind of skills necessary to make their own products as they make their own way in life.  They will learn how to sell their products and start earning an income. Just as the stable in Bethlehem eventually gave hope to a struggling world, the old stable at My Sisters’ Place is reminding London that we can invest in the lives of women who can eventually find fulfilling and sustainable lives.

In a profound way I have been drawn into that stable behind that big old house and I have learned that I know so little about the challenges so many face, and I am humbled at my own lack of awareness. But these women are teaching me some life lessons and in the process I am becoming more human, more compassionate.

You’ll be drawn in too, if you but take an interest. Go to and learn more. You’ll see some of my wife, Jane’s, drawings, but you’ll learn some remarkable realities. Go to the Capital Campaign part of the site and see how you can help.

Sometimes a home is not really a place but a group of people. The moment you enter My Sisters’ Place you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Let’s never permit our communities to sink to the level where there is “no room” for those who struggle. And let’s never permit our respective communities to house such individuals in a building alone. Their proper place is among us. My Sisters’ Place is starting us on that direction. That’s why I chose the stable to volunteer my time once politics was over. There is something just so practical about it. Please help if you can.

%d bloggers like this: