About Inn From The Cold

Monday, February 28, 2011

Shelter closed tonight. Now what?

Shelter's main hall, uncharacteristically empty and filled with sunlight, just after we closed this morning.  At night, 16 sleeping mats are placed around the perimeter of the room.

The shelter is closed tonight, after 6 successive nights of offering shelter, food and warmth.    We ended with a bang, or rather a sparkler on top of a birthday cake for "Dave" who  turned 60 yesterday.  We'd made his favourite dish (Hungarian chicken parprikash) a couple nights earlier, not knowing if we'd be open on his birthday, but there was enough left over for him to enjoy again last night.

The weather has been so variable of late (and the forecasts have been changing regularly) that it's hard to predict when next we'll open.   Last time we closed (also on a Monday), we reopened the next night.   The Extreme Weather Shelter season ends March 31st, so that's the last possible day we'd be open until November.

We had a core group of 5 guests who stayed with us almost every night this time and six others who stayed for a night or 2 when the weather got really ugly.  We had a max. of 8 guests during this period.

It's always tough closing.  You naturally wonder  how our guests will fare.  The people who drop in for a night or 2 only when the weather's really extreme are clearly able to cope in all but the nastiest of weather.    The 5 regulars who are there night after night are also survivors and each has a spot (tent, camper, abandoned building) out of the weather, with sleeping bags (or "comfort coats" we handed out).    And social services has leads on housing for two of them: "Will" is visiting a potential apartment placement in Surrey Wednesday and Dave, at 60, is now eligible for seniors housing.  He  visited 5 places in Richmond last week with his worker, although there's one big barrier that needs to be removed, by him, before he'll be accepted.  

A huge draw for our regulars is the food and the social side of the shelter -- the warmth and camaraderie of fellow human beings -- and most of them would likely join us right through the summer if we were open.  So, the concern for their welfare is not so much their ability to cope with the weather, but how they'll fare with being less well fed, less accepted and more isolated.  Some of our guests are just down on their luck or between jobs and we hope they'll get a break and get their lives back together.  Some are suffering from mental illness and this is perhaps the toughest situation, but hopefully they have access to professional care and take advantage of organizations like Pathways Clubhouse in Richmond who provide a welcoming atmosphere, affordable food and programs for those with mental illnesses.  And the other main group consists of those stuck in their addictions and  perhaps the change in experiences they feel between the shelter being open and closed may help them realize they've got to make a change in themselves to be able to live the lives they deserve.    If closing a shelter has a silver lining, perhaps this is it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Breakfast time at the Inn

Breakfasts are a special time at the Inn. In contrast to dinner (where people arrive at various times throughout the night, some dead tired, some under the influence), at breakfast time, guests eat at pretty much the same time, are usually well rested (except last night we had a snorer), mellower and generally sober. We've recently started to use the round tables for meals -- more sociable than the very long table we've been using. Yesterday the five guests, 3 volunteers and 3 staff all fit around one table and enjoyed some nice conversation, ranging from favourite restaurants, to skydiving, to Dr Seuss titles and poetry.

The tone for the day had been set by Jean M, who played her flute as a wake up call. A couple nights earlier, "Marie" asked Jean if she'd play her flute and Jean agreed. The next evening when Marie arrived the first thing she mentioned was how much she was looking forward to hearing Jean play. She'd had a bad day - actually a string of bad days -- and was soon in tears telling her story: feeling used and betrayed by family and friends, making some wrong choices herself and just so tired of it all, but she also said how much better she felt at the shelter: so welcomed and safe and comfortable. Some nice women's clothing had been donated recently (thanks, Sylvie) and some almost new jackets by another person, and she chose ones she liked.  People who live on the margins "can't be choosers", i.e. they often don't get a lot of choice when it comes to clothing, food or shelter.  So, we go out of our way to offer them choices at the Inn.   They can be choosers.  At meal time we always ask if they'd like potatoes or vegetables or whatever, or how many pieces of toast would you like, etc.    A couple other people selected jackets, including "Will" who plans to only wear his new jacket to church on Sunday. He'll store it at his camp.

Some of our guests aren't used to eating with others or interacting with others, and tend to spend time on their own. I was glad to see everyone join the single table for breakfast that day, especially one fellow who's particularly quiet. When the conversation turned to books, he started to chime in as this is his favourite passtime. Someone mentioned Rudyard Kipling and he rushed away and returned with a photocopied poem by Kipling, called "The Thousandth Man". Jean P (the volunteer who made breakfast, not the Jean M who played the flute) read it aloud for everyone. It's a pretty powerful piece, and likely spoke of this man's feelings: the rarity of a good friend, who accepts you as you are, unlike the 999 who judge you "by your looks, or your acts, or your glory" and that one in a thousand person that stands by you when the whole world is against you. You can read it here: The Thousandth Man

Afterwards as we were cleaning up in the kitchen, Jean P's husband Stuart asked: "that guy with the poem -- is he homeless?" He sure is. Hard to believe -- almost as hard to believe as the sounds of flute music and poetry at breakfast time, in a homeless shelter.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday, 25 Feb update

We've been open three nights now, some of the coldest weather of the season. Numbers are double what we saw the previous time we were open, so temperature does make a difference. Eight people joined us the last two nights, including two new men. This brings our total to 37 individuals who have stayed the night this season. We also had two returning women, and one returning pug, also female. I mention the dog because I attended the Homeless Count training session in Surrey yesterday and one of the questions surveyors ask is "Is there anybody with you today?" And one of the possible answers is "pet", to acknowledge the importance of pets to a homeless person. The results of the Homeless Count will help inform social service providers, funding sources, etc. Many facilities do not allow pets and this is one of the barriers to some homeless people seeking shelter. Not at our facility. Our rule is "absolutely no pets unless accompanied by a homeless person, staff member or volunteer".

It's heartwarming to see new volunteers continue to join our team. Welcome to Poona, Munesh, Carolyn, CathyP who helped out this week and to Boni, Tina, Jamie and Lisa who are on tonight and tomorrow night. Just outstanding. Poona arrived Sunday with a Greek meal completely cooked and ready to serve. Carolyn worked her magic with Leek and Potato soup. And Munesh and CathyP have been on standby for Thursday night for many weeks, but the weather's never cooperated till last night. Unfortunately, last night, the Canucks were in town and Munesh had seats at the game, but he gave his ticket away to help out. Special kudos to Munesh! Last night was another musical chairs night in that the blood donor clinic was using the main hall, kitchen and lounge, but we managed fine. We heated up the church and the guests spent the first couple hours there, warming up with some hot split pea and ham soup with a special treat from 7:30 onwards the St Alban choir practiced -- sounded great. At 8, we were able to move into the lounge for the main meal, then around 9:30 finally able to set up the mats and some tired people went straight to bed.

In terms of our new guests, the one man is quite young, from Toronto, his first winter away from home. The police drove him to our facility -- not because he was making trouble -- but when there's an extreme weather alert, they are on the lookout for people who might need shelter. And starting this year, have the power to forcibly take people to shelters, not force them to enter or stay the night, but at least bring them to the door, if their lives appear to be in danger. This young man was very happy for the ride and has stayed with us the last two nights.

The other new person is an unemployed cook, who had been at Richmond House shelter, but they have a 30 day maximum stay, so he's been forced to live outside for a few weeks. Real nice fellow, neatly dressed, freshly showered and shaved thanks to a well-known facility in city centre. He's been very impressed with social services - first time he's ever been on assistance - they've helped him get various certifications, helping with the job hunt etc and he's on the search for accommodation (assistance includes $375 per month housing allowance). You'd easily walk right by him or have a conversation and you'd never guess he was homeless. You may have already walked by him or some other "invisible homeless" person if you ever visit a library or shop at a mall in Richmond. And, I digress, but this is one of the weaknesses of the Homeless Counts in cities like Richmond where most homeless people are invisible. The Homeless Count pretty much only surveys people who appear to be homeless -- either by their looks, or actions (e.g. panhandling) or where they hang out (e.g. outside a bottle depot).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Shelter update for 3 night activation

The shelter is closed tonight, after 3 nights activation. Very good chance it will reopen again soon, as an Arctic cold front is coming our way.  I've extended the volunteer schedule  out through the weekend, so kindly confirm the shift proposed, cancel or suggest another shift.  My best guess is we'll open again Wednesday night, but that's just a guess -- I'd like to be ready to open as early as tomorrow.

Note to breakfast shift volunteers: we have new and improved hours.  The breakfast shift will now start at 6:30 am, rather than 6 am, as we're finding we have lots of time to make breakfast before the guests wake up.  Enjoy your sleep-in.

We had very few people the past few nights: 2, 3 and 4 -- all familiar faces and it was great to see them.  We had really outstanding meals: turkey pot pie, mashed potatoes, salads, baked chicken, a Greek meal, apple crisp, eggs, pancakes, home made baked beans.    It was a small enough group that we were able to sit around one round table for eating and it really made for a nice social gathering.   

Disappointing that more people didn't come to spend the night and enjoy the food and socializing. I've been asking our guests why more people don't come to shelters (Richmond House had one person the first night and zero the next) and there are dozens of homeless people in Richmond (some would say hundreds).  Last Wednesday was cheque day so some people had money to help with other accommodations.  Some may not know the shelter is open.  And some may already be in a spring mindset with the  longer daylight hours and flowers up in some gardens and don't even think about the shelter.  When you are living the lives most of our guests live:  their efforts focussed on scraping up whatever they need to get through  another day, it's easy to not even think about a service like ours that's only open sporadically.  Another reason why Richmond needs more permanent shelter spaces, more permanent housing etc 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Judging a book by its cover

You’ve all seen homeless people, either in person or in photos: pushing carts laden with stuff, cycling around with enormous bags of empties strapped to their bikes, sitting on a cold sidewalk waiting for hand out, battered and dirty.  But, you’ve probably also walked right by people who are homeless and you never realized it.  The latter are so-called “invisible homeless” – they look and act just like the rest of us and don’t stand out in a crowd.   We have both types at the Inn and we welcome them all.

I related the story of Sonny in an earlier post and he's an example of the former.  He looks homeless: he pushes a cart or walks along beside his bike, his wears layers of clothing to shield him from the weather and his hands are perpetually grimy from his trade.  But inside, he's blessed with a sharp mind, he's a great story teller and has a heart of gold.

 “Maurice" is an example of the invisible homeless – he's clean and neatly dressed.  Instead of a cart or loaded bike, he carries his belongings in a shopping bag, from a high-end shopping centre.  If you spent time talking with him, you’d learn he’s articulate, polite and well read and still never guess he was homeless.

Maurice first walked through our doors the third night we were open and has stayed with us for 22 consecutive nights.   The only person who’s stayed more nights is Dave, who arrived opening night and has joined us every night since, except one – he spent cheque day in November at the “GRC hotel”, as he calls it, at the corner of Minoru and Granville.

Maurice spends hours reading the daily papers and doing the crosswords. One morning I asked if he's a Province man or a Sun man.  His answer: "Globe & Mail".   His other love is hockey and he generally catches the games at a nearby McDonald’s, before coming to the shelter, often arriving well after dinner service has ended,  but he’s grateful for the leftovers we heat up for him.

A couple times, I've asked him about his plan for the day.  Both times, his answer surprised me.   The first time, he said he was planning to get a haircut.  It had been over a year since his last cut, his hair was shoulder length, so it was a big deal for him.  He'd been setting aside some of his "bottle money" (from collecting empties) for this occasion, had walked past the barbershop about a dozen times the day before, but never went in.   When he arrived back that night, he looked the same, so I figured this process might take a while. But the next night, his locks were gone -- and I didn't recognize him at first.

The next time I asked him about his plan was the last morning we were open.  His answer: "I'm going to sort out my pension."  What kind of pension?   "I filed late for my CPP and Old Age Pension and I'm trying to get the money retroactive to last July."   I had no idea Maurice was 65 – he doesn’t look it -- and there’s no good age to be homeless, but 65 is definitely too old.  Unfortunately, senior homelessness is not uncommon, especially in Richmond.  In the last regional homeless count (2008), Richmond had the highest percentage of homeless persons who were seniors (defined to be 55 and older): 17%.  

And, Richmond has the second highest rates of household and child poverty in the province (reference city of Richmond website,  click here).

On the exterior, we appear to be an affluent community: mega homes and expensive cars.   But like individuals, you can’t judge a municipality by appearances.  You have to look beyond external appearances to discover what's really going on.

I wonder how many other seniors, families and children in Richmond are homeless or teetering on the edge?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Busy times at the Inn

Nine guests Sunday night and fifteen guests last night and a sixteenth arrived at 7:30 am for breakfast -- our largest crowd so far. Six first timers and three women last night.  No problems whatsoever aside from a very large pile of dishes to clean up.

More younger people than usual -- 4 or 5 in their twenties.  One fellow called me from Steveston Hwy and arrived later on foot.  He said he's been struggling with substance abuse, had spent a few months in treatment, relapsed badly (said you don't want to know him when he's using) and is consequently no longer welcome at home or his friends' places.  "Matt", another young fellow. joined our conversation and shared that he's waitlisted at a recovery home and suggests the new guy apply too.  He seemed very keen at the time, but didn't follow through this morning.

Another young man (23) arrived around 4 a.m.   I know this because I drove him there.  I had been sound asleep at home when my phone rang about 3:30.   Not usually good news at that hour.   On the line was a worried mother in Alberta who'd just been woken up by a collect call from her son in Richmond, who had spent the night wandering the streets.  He asked her to do an internet search for shelters in Richmond and would be calling her back to get the info.  She found our site,  called me and told me he'd left home 3 months ago, has alcohol problems and was planning to take the bus to his brother's in Langley the next day.  I initially gave her directions to St Alban to pass on to her son, but ended up driving over to pick him up as it was probably an hour's walk.    He was a fine young man and was warmly greeted by our two overnight staffers, who fed him and gave him a blanket and a mat. In the morning,  he had breakfast, picked out a warm sweater and left with a lunch and a bus ticket.  He was very grateful.   His mother left a message later asking that we pass on to all people involved in the shelter: "thank you very much and God bless you all".

As I've said before I have hope for all our guests, but I have a special hope for our younger guests.  They are struggling with many of the same issues as the older guests, but they have time on their side, and enough of it to figure things out, grow into fine adults and put all this behind them.  Chances are it will take years, but with their youth, they have that time.  I know one young man who spent ten years struggling with addiction and homelessness in his teens and twenties but is now clean and sober and has a new life.  He puts it this way: "I wasted 10 years of my life, but it was only 10 years".

An update on some of our regular guests:

Our young "Dorothy" and her wee dog arrived under their own steam for the first time since early December.  (We'd given her a lift in a couple times since).  Her dog is pretty much fully recovered from her accident and is now well enough to travel by bike to the shelter.

"Dave", our veteran cycling recycler, had been waitlisted for a recovery house, a slot became available last week, but he wasn't quite ready and did not follow through.  He turns 60 this month.

"Bud" who went into detox, went missing for a few days then resurfaced in hospital is still in hospital and we've learned he was transferred there directly from detox due to illness.   His illness is not life threatening but still quite serious.

Our married couple ("June" and "Ward") are back.  June has been ill and they spent several hours each of the last two days waiting for care in emergency, eventually got some, and she seemed much improved last night.  Ward has been getting some work in the construction industry allowing them to stay in a local hotel, at a reduced rate, when the shelter is closed.

Both "Neil" and "Wally" are still in the rooming house in Burnaby, and "Carl", our senior who has a temporary suite in Burnaby is still enjoying life there.   "Neil" and "Carl" each spent a night or two at the shelter this week for various reasons, even though they have homes.

Finally, yesterday morning "Sonny"asked if I could give him a lift to a metal recycler on Mitchell Island (under the  Knight Street bridge).   I've never been to Mitchell Island,  and I hadn't spent a lot of one-on-one time with Sonny, so it sounded like an experience not to be missed.   En route we stopped to pick up the metal.  First, at his van, permanently parked with two flat tires behind an apartment building his friend lives in.   It is jammed to the ceiling with stuff, including metal bits.   We transferred over a couple boxes of used brass doorknobs that he'd found in a dumpster.  Next, we stopped at a processing plant that has  an agreement with Sonny that he empty their bin of scrap metal every week, no matter what's in there.   Normally, it contains some scrap steel that fetches 10 cents a pound.   Today, he struck gold: well, copper (and aluminum) to be exact.   Copper goes for $3 per pound and our little trip to Mitchell Island netted him $270 cash.

What $270 worth of copper and aluminum looks like

He handed me a $20 bill as thanks, but I declined.  On the way back, he was filled with joy and asked if it'd be ok if he sang some hymns.  The sun was shining, his voice was strong (he's sung in a few choirs) and he told me a few times of his love of the Lord.   I asked if he's part of a community.  His eyes teared up and he said "no, but I sometimes stand outside a church on Sunday and listen to the singing".  I asked if he doesn't feel welcomed. "It's not that.  I don't want to go in front of the Lord until I've cleaned myself up: had a shower and have some clean clothes on."  What went unsaid between us is that the clean clothes are not likely the real barrier -- it's most likely related to where this newfound cash would end up.   I dropped him off near a bottle depot, as he requested, and we wished each other well.

Would I go back to Mitchell Island with Sonny?  Not likely.  But I look forward to spending some more one-on-one time with him again, whether he's in the mood for singing a hymn of thanks or singing the blues.