I was 9 years old when I first found out what homelessness was. Growing up in southwest Edmonton, you weren’t exposed to this issue, nor did you tend to come across homeless people on your street or in the neighbourhood park. But in the summer of 1991, my family visited Washington, DC, a city where homelessness was rampant. I couldn’t fathom the idea that somebody didn’t have a home; it seemed both implausible and unjust.
I spent the morning volunteering at Homeless Connect Edmonton, an event where homeless members of the community, or those at risk of becoming homeless, come and access health services, counselling, get free food and clothing and other services from over 40 agencies and providers. Organized by Homeward Trust, today’s event was the third installment, previous ones being held last October and this May.
It’s well worth one’s time to volunteer at this event. It’s a very important cause, and the event is well-run; I imagine almost every volunteer found it to be a rewarding experience (I certainly did). Being able to help those who are less fortunate or are down on their luck is one thing, but seeing how people benefit from this event, and seeing the gratitude and excitement they feel is another. One day is unlikely to change the lives of most participants, but it will make things better. Maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. In life, change rarely occurs in one fell swoop; most often, it’s the culmination of a series of events that cumulatively bring about change. Events of this nature can be a part of bringing about change, and bringing about a better life for people.
I thought about my experience in DC while reflecting on the morning. Images of that trip are still in my memory 18 years later. Today was a different experience. It’s one thing to see a homeless person, it’s another to interact with one. Most of the people I interacted with today were no different than you and I. Yes, they’re in a tough spot. Perhaps due to upbringing, bad luck, or a couple of bad decisions. Some due to addictions or mental illness, issues we as a society need to devote more attention and support to. But by and large, it felt no different than talking to a neighbour or co-worker. Some of the ladies called me “dear” when I brought them coffee; most of the people smiled back and said hi when you greeted them; one older gentleman told me about an upcoming job interview; another asked why I was spending my Sunday there instead of chasing girls (a fair question, perhaps).
My point is not to romanticize the experience. It’s tough to see some of the young children, and know that life is likely to be an uphill fight for them, and to see some of the people with serious health issues. Hearing them complain about the cold takes on a whole new meaning when you know you’re going back to a heated home and they may not be. The point is to stress the value of this event. As writers such as Paula Simons have stressed, social services often get cut during recessions and tough times. This hurts, and costs, all of us. It’s important, to my mind, to do what we can to help those who aren’t as fortunate as us, especially in tough times, whether it’s donating time, money, or articulating your views to government and decision makers. Fundamentally, in society, we are all in this together. Our neighbours’ struggles hurt us too.
So, congratulations to Homeward Trust and all the participating volunteers and agencies on a well-run event. I’ll be one of the first to sign up for the next one, and I encourage everyone to do the same.