Thursday, January 13, 2011

But for the Grace of God...

...I’d have burdens I couldn’t bear.

I was going to title this post “Housing the Homeless”, but then the biblical phrase rose to mind, which I've chosen to paraphrase. I’m thinking about a few related things: generosity and how it’s affected by what we have and by what we want. I’m thinking about reaching out, and the difference between connecting with and withholding from others. I’m thinking about today’s visit to the welfare office, and how my client was treated there, and about other clients of mine who are struggling, to get or to maintain their housing.

It surprises people when I tell them that one of the biggest challenges my young clients face when they get an apartment is dealing with their friends. Let me paint a picture:

You’ve been living under the Bathurst Bridge. You’ve thrown in with others who sleep there and in the parks, in makeshift cardboard and plywood encampments, and who squeegee and panhandle and fly signs along the avenues. You share a lot with these others. When one shows up with a bottle, it’s passed around. He who brought the bottle – they are mostly males – will likely hog it to some degree, but at least a third of the liquid will go down other throats than his. If someone brings more food than they can consume in one sitting, what’s left will get passed around. Blankets are shared, bikes are borrowed. Folks take turns looking after one another’s dogs. In the sleeping bags at night, body heat is shared, and relationships are born. It doesn’t always have much to do with friendship or with liking, though these are natural bi-products. Sometimes it has more to do with getting by, and with survival. Life is pretty fluid. Someone’s squat tonight is someone else’s tomorrow. Ditto with the favoured panhandling spots, with coats and backpacks, even lovers. Property values and notions of an ordered world become pretty abstract.

So suddenly, your housing worker – maybe me – finds you an affordable apartment to share with the girlfriend of the last two weeks, or with a traveling buddy. Two or three of you together can get a decent place with your housing allowance from social services. If you go solo, you’ll end up in a dank room sporting an anthology of the last decade’s stale odors, and having to share the dismal washroom down the hall that motivates you to save your morning urination for the donut shop down the street.

You like the new place, and the property manager seems fairly tolerant, until he gets complaints from the family upstairs about the drinking party you had with your under-the-bridge crew on your first night. Your housing worker warns you that unless you go middle-class, you’re going lose your new place quicker than you found it. But what can you do when the temperature drops and a couple of buddies come by at midnight, asking to crash on the living room floor? Or when the city clears everyone and everything from under the bridge, leaving everyone to scramble for warm, relatively safe spots? When a friend is sick, or traumatized from a beating, or just out of detox or the Don Jail? Or when the party goes on and on and everyone is drunk, or stoned, or asleep? Are you gonna wake everybody at 2 in the morning and tell them to go sleep in a doorway? Not likely.

Their decision in these situations may not be smart, or mature, but they are very human. Does it have anything to do with it simply being easier to share what you have when you don’t have very much? Maybe it’s more to do with empathy, and with personal proximity to a particular form of suffering, and with suddenly being in a position to save others from experiencing it.

Witnessing the sharing and caring that takes place among my clients is one of those special benefits of the work that I do. I’m amazed over and over again at the virtual Youth shelters that spring up in the apartments of the newly housed – all longing for privacy and quiet and order trumped by the needs of their communities. But it’s this very sharing they will have to put limits on, if they are to re-integrate into the world of the housed.


  1. Hey man, you are incredible at taking situations where the social service system has a cast in stone opinion (kids are bad tenants, blah, blah) and twisting the lense so slightly but opening up a whole new vista. I am glad you write, it gives me hope.

    Can I share this post with some architects I am meeting with next week? We are talking about taking on the issue of what makes housing affordable and how to pay for it, this is a great discussion point.

  2. Thanks, Kirby. You have always been a very humane human being.