It’s not every Friday night you get to stroll around downtown Calgary with a former drug and alcohol addict as guide along with other surburbanites interested in learning more about inner-city homelessness.
But that’s what I did Sept. 22nd during Homeless Awareness Calgary’s final Homeless Awareness Week event. The night tour was the big finale to a week dedicated to raising awareness about homelessness in the city. (www.homelessawareness.ca)
John* the guide who took my group of five around downtown for the evening, has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for ages. A ward of the State of California, he started using at the ripe age of 13. He moved to Canada and ended up homeless, doing and dealing drugs and getting into trouble with the cops.
He eventually went through rehab, got of the street, got married and had kids, only to find he hadn’t entirely quit the alcohol habit. So he left house and home to protect his family, and signed up at the Calgary Dream Centre, a faith-based organization dedicated to re-integrating their clients into society through education and residential care. http://www.calgarydreamcentre.com/
He now works at the Dream Centre as an outreach worker and is transitioning back home to be with his wife and kids.
As walked around downtown Calgary, down Centre street from 7th Avenue to the riverfront, we passed Crack Cul-de-Sac and a myriad of other places John said people find places to sleep at night. The bottom of the sloped riverbank just north of Chinatown is a spot out of view of the casual passerby and frequented by those who don’t have a place to sleep or stay.
As we walked by the Calgary Drop-In Centre, affectionately known as the DI in these circles, swarms of homeless people waited in line for a slice of floor to sleep on at night and a hot meal. Street Church blared praise and worship music across the street, volunteers handing out sandwiches to anyone who passed by.
Walking down Stephen’s Avenue, the hotspot for trendy restaurants, boutiques, and bars, we passed a woman asking a group of Asian businessmen for change. I’m not even sure they understood her request.
Mary* an outreach worker along on the tour said she didn’t have change but gave gave her a smoke instead. Mary said later that she always tries to remember the human factor. Addictions or not, there’s a human being there.
That might have been the turning point for me that evening. It’s easier to lower my head and refuse to make eye contact with those of the street. It’s easier to ignore it and make a hundred excuses about why not to give panhandlers spare change. It’s a lot easier to say under my breath, “go get a job,” or a hundred other remarks I imagine most people think in their hearts, but somehow I doubt Jesus would have done that.
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them,” Mother Theresa once said. I can’t help but agree. And yet it’s the hardest thing to put into practice.
True, poverty and homelessness are a factor of big-city living anywhere in the world. What’s most striking however, and most ludicrous, is poverty and homelessness in one of Canada’s hottest economies.
Why does homelessness seem to rise in the face of widespread economic progress? In 2004, the top 20 percent of Alberta’s population made an average income of $152,800 while the lowest 20 percent made an average of $13,100. (Income Trends 2004, Statistics Canada: www.statscan.ca)
Between 1999-2004, the top 20 percent of incomes in Alberta grew by 16.8 percent while the bottom 20 percent grew only by 8.5 percent. (Income Trends 2004, Statistics Canada: www.statscan.ca)
With oil being such a hot commodity and Calgary’s ongoing boom, I can’t help but imagine that income trends from 1999-2004 will repeat themselves again in the next few years. It would seem logical that in the land of plenty, wealth could be shared. But it’s not. And to that, I don’t have any solutions…just more and more questions.
*Name changed for anonymity purposes*