Tag Archives: Shelter Life

Ho-Ho-Homeless For The Holidays

Spirit for the season can be near impossible to muster when every brain cell is busy wrestling with worry. Worry over where you and your children are going to rest your heads once the silver and gold of the holidays has tarnished, worry over balancing the decision of choosing appropriate housing and sacrificing your food budget or settling into below standard accommodations with fuller dinner plates, and even worry of finding a job in a city where the unemployment rate is higher than your debts and university educated citizens are fighting over minimum wage positions like most everyone else. For a person finding themselves without a permanent roof to colour their children’s imagination with visions of Rudolph tripping over a string of twinkling lights, most would rather blink into hibernation and have the entire December shenanigans nothing but a blip in their past they pray won’t be repeated the following year.
For those Grinchy folks we YWCA staffers have a solution…

Glue a Santa beard to their chins and over-sized elf ears to their heads in their sleep?

Nah, but the visual is far more entertaining to me than it probably should be!
Instead we amp up the already pumped season to remind them that just because their life is a hopscotch field from where you want it to be, this doesn’t mean Holiday cheer is a candy cane length too far from their grasp.  
Items on the list for mission “Inject Holiday Enthusiasm”: Over-decorating the house with positively anything containing mass amounts of glitter, Santa, holiday greetings, hand-crafted snowflakes more perfect than found in nature, plus a wind-up – nearly driving you out of your mind – carol-singing snow globe – CHECK. Crafting beautiful hand-made Christmas cards for family and friends – CHECK. Erecting a tree dripping in lights, colorful ornaments and candy canes pilfered before the following day – CHECK. Chowing down on a button-popping, calorie boosting, holiday inspired feast – CHECK. Not to mention, along with all the holiday overload, was a visit from the big guy in red, Santa himself, taking a break from his yearly preparations to sit and read to the kids before tackling the all-important wish list.
Much better than waiting in line at a stuffy, packed elbow to elbow mall, and can still plaster a smile on the face of any child hoping they skirted the “Naughty” list.
Being in the shelter, on the naughty list or not, by no means denotes a free ride no matter the time of year. Ask any guest who has crossed our doors and they will have no qualms about telling you that taking that step across the threshold in a reach for help was one of the hardest decisions they ever made. For us lucky staff, the holidays gives us a chance to remind these strength-building ladies that making that leap doesn’t stamp them as a cast-off until they re-establish a foothold back into the society the feel they stepped out of. 
Alternatively, being within the shelter is a time to pause, reflect, establish a simple and manageable plan, and have the breathing room to enact said plan with a measure of dignity. Doing this while everyone is sticking season’s greetings into every call while telling you the rental you really wanted has already been rented, is tantamount to a helpful hand across an icy road before they push you face first into a snow drift, and for many, it occurs again and again. Something hard to watch when you spend your shifts trying to keep up everyone’s drowning moods and erase negative thoughts of letting down family.
Just because you’re homeless, most assume this means you have zero family or loved ones you hoped to buy the perfect gift that tells them you pay attention to their wants and needs, and took your time in landing on a decision you wrap and anticipate them unveiling. Far from reality. Most times that family doesn’t have the means or accommodations to set another up, but they still gather for a yarn around the tree, setting up a homeless person for the embarrassing moment when presents are being circulated by everyone else but you. Unfortunately, the “perfect gift” tends to come tethered to a less-than-perfect price tag you’d swear the cash register crafted out of spite. When you have rent and moving expenses to consider, settling for something smaller or homemade is the sensible choice.
As a kid your dread grew resentful, crossed arms when you found the sweater-sized wrapped box beneath the tree. As an adult that feeling only duplicates depending on the gift-giver. In shelter, we like to have those boxes contain something useful yet still wanted. A plush house coat with matching slippers, cozy PJ’s for cold nights, winter gear to hug old man winter without the frostbite…anything a woman or child would open and gasp in delight instead of disguised disgust is what we strive to gift when possible.
Accessing community resources gets you necessities; A few warm items on your back, hygiene products to look your best, and some food to fill your tummy. Most times room for anything else is not sought after when those necessities are no longer a worry, but the YWCA isn’t all about providing strictly needs. We are about making women and their families their best and empowering them to face the world with open eyes and bolstered confidence in the success their hard work will lead them to.
To do this, a person needs to feel worthy of receiving that special something. Contrary to belief, it doesn’t take a lot to accomplish. A sparkly pair of earrings, a fashionable scarf, a book they were waiting to delve into, anything to fortify their spirits and inspire motivation. Add a gift that spreads a wide-toothed grin on their kids face and you have a person ready to scrape away the outer shell weighing them down to expose the women equipped to lift a confident chin, and obtain the next steps needed to regain a self-sufficient existence.
Times of the year like this tend to remind people of loved ones, especially those they lost who will miss out on the celebration. Some don’t possess the “This one year…” stories to recite over hot cocoa and a smile to regale the crowd with, having never possessed the childhood to foster such laughter-evoking tales. In the business of recreation, we do our utmost to reset that notion, focus on moving forward, and color a new tradition filled with a drive to multiply joy.
Whatever the guest celebrates during the holidays, no matter the Bahumbug in their bonnets, we endeavor to wedge a glitter-dripping fissure into a time when some would think taking a breath to celebrate would be counterproductive, when really it’s the fuel to keep going.
Happy Holidays from everyone at the YWCA, including our shelter guests, ones swimming in the deep-end filled to their Santa hats with tinsel, and even more so from the ones needing a little more convincing that the season is what you make of it and not dependent on the roof over your head.

Now and Then

Today I drive a BMW.
Today I live in a 4 bedroom house of my own. 
Today I wear diamonds and jewels and dine in 4 star restaurants.
But it wasn’t always this way.

When I was 14 my mother ran away with my father’s best friend. He wanted my mother, not us 3 kids. So, for the next 2 years he made my life unbearable. He constantly accused me of being up to no good and told me I was worthless. When I turned 15, I got a social worker through my guidance counselor at school and made plans to leave my dysfunctional family.

The week after I turned 16, I committed myself to the Niagara Youth Centre in Welland. Everyone there were runaways, abandoned, or there by court order. I had never see anything like that before. So many damaged children. Most of them through no fault of their own. Most of the girls had been molested as young children and wore their scars like a badge of honour. It was the first time I was ever asked to use Kwellada to delouse. It was a degrading, humiliating experience; one I will never forget. I can still feel the sting in my nostrils and the burn on my skin.

I lived there for 3 weeks before I ran away with a girl named Mary to Toronto. The first night in Toronto we slept in a cemetery. We had $11.00 between us. The next day we went to the Salvation Army who referred us to a Womans Shelter. Again, I had to do the delousing procedure. I slept in a room with 3 other beds. My room and board was $4.00/day and I had rotating chores to do. I got a temporary job at the Schneiders factory and was able to take care of my rent and my basic needs.

Life in a shelter is not guaranteed and every 30 days you had to look for new housing. There was one night I couldn’t find a shelter so I sat in the lobby of the police station all night. I was told I had to leave at 7 in the morning. I then found my way to the Native Womens Centre in Hamilton and was humbled by how kind these women were to me.

When my time was up I called my father, collect-call from a bus station in Hamilton and begged him to let me and my friend come stay with him in his 2 bedroom apartment. He said I would have to return to his church. I told him I didn’t believe in his religious ideas. He hung up on me. It was February and storming outside. We slept in the bus terminal that night. The next morning we hitchhiked to Toronto and found a new co-ed youth shelter to reside in. I was so grateful the workers in the shelter. They brought me in, washed my clothes and provided a hot shower, followed by a hot meal. They empowered me to believe in myself. They gave me the tools to become independent.

I went back to school and got a job. I eventually got my own apartment and continued to upgrade my education.

Today I am a Certified Personal Support Worker, Dietary Aide, and a Medical Office Assistant.

I believe in giving back and I have always given donations over the years to various shelters. I want people to know that there is hope for everyone. I want women to believe in themselves and know that no matter how desperate times can be, things can always improve. I had to learn to believe in myself and treat myself with respect and dignity in order for others to do the same. I have also learned that not all men are evil and to trust myself before anyone else.

I will never forget the compassion and empathy showed to me during my darkest hours. I will spend the rest of my life giving back to my community in any way I can.

Written by a YW volunteer. 

The Connections We Make

Shifts pass when your feet hardly touch the ground, you’re busy prioritizing 10 plates of needs and wants, in a Cirque Du Soleil worthy juggle above your head and you’re craving the moment your office chair creaks beneath the weight of your exhausted bones.

Among the program posters, inspirational quotes, fact sheets, filing cabinets and client files, you can find tokens of appreciation left behind in the Advocate’s office as reminders of the reason why we return for the next shift to resume the juggling act.
A new intake comes in with set expectations that are – in a perfect workday – met and exceeded. The impact of their stay can be a drop in a pool or a cannonball in a puddle but when a woman moves on from the YW’s services, sometimes she leaves behind more than a success story and an earned pat on the back.

As proverbial House Mom’s we get all kinds of crafty goodies and sentimental cards in lieu of thanks. Whether they are personal gifts, as in a Pug-nosed card for a certain Pug-nose lover (Adore their squishy faces!) or something for everyone to utilize, like the nifty hand-painted rock that will not only prop open our office door but aid in ushering in the next wave of women in need with motivational script and crafty colours, we keep them around for years and reflect.

These tokens stick around on billboards, hang from tacks in the wall and prop our door open as reminders of the connections we have made to the women and families we serve. Housing may be their primary reason for being beneath our roof, but once they come under the umbrella of the YW’s services they find that much more happens beyond the doors then housing searches.
Since frontline staff don’t always get the pleasure of following-up with our ladies and their families once they have procured housing and moved on from the cameo spent with us in their lives, every so often, it’s nice to remember that the door-stopper rock, hand-written cards and beaded dream catchers were crafted with intentions that convey much more than “I was here”. 

The Opening of My Eyes

I never really knew what working in a non-profit organization would be like until several months after I started working for the YWCA. I never really knew or thought about what it would be like to be homeless and desperate, nor did I think about whether working with the homeless and desperate was something I could handle. You see, the entire idea had just simply never crossed my mind. In fact, I’d never even heard of the YWCA until after my mother had begun her journey with them, and even then, I didn’t understand what they were truly about until my first few shifts at the front desk as a volunteer. 
My oh my that was quite the eye opener in so many ways.
I think I was a little shell shocked my first couple of shifts. There is so much being thrown at you: learning to answer the phones and transfer calls, trying to get staff names straight, figuring out the massive photocopier and hanging file system, and figuring out who to go to with each new issue that arose.
There was the dawning understanding that it is O.K. to look our clients in the eye, and that in fact, they need that. The realization that it was my role to make them feel as welcomed as if they were coming to stay in a grand resort — that they had come to a safe place.
It didn’t take me too long to get into the swing of things and I was lucky enough to be offered a position as the receptionist for the front desk within a few months of volunteering. I soon began taking on several different roles and responsibilities, but I think that no matter what I was doing, no matter whether I was working up in our communications department, working with our volunteers, working in administration,  I’ve always known that I’m actually working for HER. That we, as an organization are FIGHTING for THEM.
I’ve learned many things over the years. While I’ve personally experienced the shame and pain of feeling judged and looked down upon, I’ve realized that it hurts me more seeing it happen to those around me. It hurts to see massive funding cuts that hinder these women and families even more, and to see the tears as a woman cries over the frustration of a landlord who sneakily refuses to rent to her because she is on O.W. 
Our clients come from all walks of life. Some of them are angry. Some of them have given up and tried again so many times that it is stunning. Some of them are here for a stopgap, some of them think of us as family. Some of them are so incredibly grateful and humble that it’s painful to see. Seeing a woman ask only for some new underwear and socks for Christmas, is painful. Is that all she really feels she can ask for?
I’ve often been asked why I work where I do, or how I can handle working where I do. The answer is not simple. We are short-staffed, and most staff members here have found themselves working in different areas, many at the same time. Sometimes, you find yourself so emotionally drained you scare yourself. Sometimes you find yourself angry with not just the system, but even some of those clients that you so desperately want to see doing well.
There’s the frustration of having the same conversation over and over.  For example: having to explain to one of our high school co-op student placements (who was incredibly offended by the fact that one of our clients could “afford” a cell phone and had just gotten her nails done) that not everyone was raised in a stable family, and therefore stability to her was not an apartment (because she more than likely had never experienced that kind of stability).  Stability to her, was in the things that made her feel safe and good about herself, however small they were. I explained that it is our role to teach her about finding another kind of stability.  That conversation was frustrating.
Speaking of stability, I’ve also learned what it is like to work for a non-profit. There is little true stability to speak of. It is a constant battle to ensure our doors are open. Sometimes it feels like you win one battle, only to realize you have another much larger one looming ahead. These kind of organizations are basically on a see-saw — tipping one way and then the other often so quickly you’re not sure if you’re going to stay safely seated.
But in all honesty, it’s the little things that negate all of those issues. It’s knowing that I work for an organization that would FIGHT for me, and that understands that everyone has problems at some point or another. It’s seeing the look of gratitude someone gives when receiving some new socks and underwear. It’s hearing the WHOOOOPPP!! through our hallways when one of our clients has received good news. It’s unscheduled tea and tete-a tete breaks to unwind, decompress, and find a moment to laugh. It’s the familiarity, the family, and the sense of home that you can feel within these walls. It’s the encouragement given and received, the hugs given and received, and the solidarity of a group of people hoping and working hard to see a future that doesn’t involve women showing up at our doors in tears because they have nowhere else to go.
Yes, I could make more money elsewhere. Yes, I could have a clearer mind when I get home. But, I wouldn’t have a sense of doing something worthwhile. I wouldn’t have a chance to give back. I wouldn’t have let go of my shame and embarrassment from my earlier years, because through this job, I have learned that there is nothing to be shamed or embarrassed about when you are asking for a little help. 

Photo credit: helgabj / Foter.com / CC BY