About Inn From The Cold

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A shelter is not a home ... or is it?

I stole the title of this posting from a book by Ralph Nunez who runs several shelters for families in New York City.   Here at Inn from the Cold,  we try to provide basics of a home for our guests.  I sometimes tongue in cheek refer to our shelter as a Bed and Breakfast.  Certainly our homemade breakfasts are top notch, but the bed portion of the billing might charitably be described as spartan: individual mats on the floor of a large gym, each with a single Red Cross issued blanket.   But it's warm and safe and many of our guests tell us they've enjoyed their best night's sleep in a while.

Over the years, we've made a few improvements to the sleeping facility.  We now set up a folding chair beside each mat that helps define personal space, provides a place to hang belongings or sit away from the eating area.    And starting this year, we also offer each guest a pillow.  Dianne scrounged a dozen or so from a local hotel and each guest gets their own pillow that's theirs for the season.  We seal each pillow up in a bag with our guest's name on it each  each morning so they're ready for the next night.  Pillows offer our guests a comfortable sleep, but also a level of dignity they all deserve.

For the awake hours, we've added  a TV (thanks, Vic) and it's great to see our guests chilling in front of the tube, catching up on favourite shows like Coronation Street (who knew!?).  The TV does tend to squelch conversation so we don't bring it out every evening, but when we do it's a special treat.

Marcella generously donated a laptop and this is always popular, although the first night it was mostly used to check out bizarre YouTube videos of a Russian fellow demonstrating weapons, including a fully automatic shotgun.  I learned later that this wasn't as obscure as I thought: that shotgun video has been viewed over 23 million times on YouTube...   Since then, the laptop use has settled into people looking for jobs, connecting up with friends and family on Facebook and watching the hockey game on nights the Canucks games aren't broadcast on TV. And coincidentally, a young Russian guest was skyping with his family back in Russia.

We have a few other ideas to make the shelter more homelike, such as adding a shower, but is this where our efforts should be focussed?   Would we be better off working towards permanent housing for our guests, by finding willing landlords, lobbying elected officials etc?

I think we need to do both: improve our shelter, including more services and shelter space open year round, plus lobbying for more affordable housing and finding ways to transition our guests into this affordable housing.

Ralph Nunez says that "people don't like to hear it, but shelters are going to be the low-income housing of the future".   Our shelters are no comparison to what they have in New York city -- fantastic "Family Inns" with enrichment programs for the children, job clubs.  Here's a link with a short description of some of their services: Family Inn services and the main link to his website Homes for the Homeless.   The scale of homelessness in Richmond also has no comparison to New York city, where 10,000 families and 15,000 children live in shelters, and up to 100 new families apply for shelter each day.  But our problem should be more easily solvable.

Perhaps when your head nestles into your pillow tonight, you could give some thought as to how we could help create more homes for those who need a place, either by making our shelter more homelike, creating more shelter space or making more real homes available.  Let me know your ideas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It takes a child

Bud's cart
Olivia and Dad Brian
One bitterly cold evening early in January, “Bud” was the first person through the door.  He told me his  hands were freezing because he'd lost his gloves and he'd spent the day pushing around his metal-handled shopping cart.   I told him it was his lucky day because someone special would be dropping by later that evening with gloves.    That someone special was twelve-year old Olivia who arrived with her Dad, Brian, loaded down with brand new gloves, hats and socks.    Olivia took on the project of providing clothing for our guests as a social action project for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  She heard about the shelter from her Bat Mitzvah teacher, Kathe, a longtime shelter volunteer.  Olivia first raised funds, then purchased the clothing from Mark's Work Wearhouse, who agreed to match the donations.

Many people are content to simply drop off their donations but I offered Olivia and Brian a tour and a chance to meet our guests, to which they replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!"  In we went.   Olivia offered gloves and socks to the guests, who were all gathered around the dinner table. All were gratefully received and Bud, in particular, was delighted with his new gloves.    She then fished out a fantastic fur-lined bomber hat that suited Bud perfectly.

I'm not sure who was smiling more -- Bud, with his gifts or Olivia for the joy of giving.

The next morning, we had more gifts for our guests, also from children.  The grade three students of another volunteer, Vilma, made scarves in December that were intended as Christmas gifts, but we were closed during Christmas and had just reopened, so I brought them out at breakfast to give out just before people head off into the day.   What made these handmade fleece scarves so special were the handcrafted cards, carefully coloured and featuring personalized messages.

The next time Vilma volunteered for a dinner shift, I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and how special it made everyone feel seeing the gifts and reading the messages of love from her students  But it was powerfully brought home when Bud walked in the door, sporting his new scarf tied around his neck.  Vilma explained to him that 8 year olds had made the scarves and how excited they'll be to learn that she met him wearing one of their scarves.

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child.   From what I've witnessed this season, I'd say it takes a child to help make a village, a village where people are caring and take action to show they care through simple gifts of kindness and love.

[update: I regularly see Bud at the Tuesday Community Meal at St Alban and as I write this (26 March) he's still looking great in what has become his trademark bomber hat and scarf.]