Safe At Home? Be Grateful

I did a fair bit of driving this weekend. Saturday it was the trip from Lindsay to Toronto and home again, then Sunday the drive from Lindsay to Mississauga and back again. As I made the final turn onto our Crescent both evenings, the Christmas lights on the front lawn and house itself brought me a measure of both happiness and relief; we were home.

Home is sanctuary; the place with which within I am calm, protected and at peace. It’s where I recharge, relax, settle back with a blanket and at this time of year, enjoy the festive decorations, the Christmas tree, and perhaps a cup of tea. Yes, every time I make that last turn in the road and ascend the hill to our home, the promise of such sanctuary awaits me.

I imagine many of you might have similar feelings as you travel home from both near and far, whether it’s a house, condominium or apartment you return to. Once inside, it’s your space; your private sanctuary from everything beyond your door.

Of course it’s not the case for everyone. I can’t truly imagine what it must be like to live without that promise of a safe and secure place to take my rest at the end of a day. When temperatures outside are below zero degrees Celsius, not only does being homeless rob a person of much of their physical energy, it has to be incredibly taxing on the mind to constantly have to focus on finding a place to spend the night. Can you picture having to spend much of your day scrounging for shelter and then when you wake up the following day from a restless sleep, you have to move on and repeat the same process; wondering again where your head will rest that night?

Now were it you or I, we likely believe we wouldn’t be in such a predicament long. We’d likely use our resources acquired over time, including our interpersonal skills to locate and secure some place of safety and warmth. We’d turn quickly to finding work, then use our earned money to rent a place and begin to improve our lot.

The difference I suppose though is were we truly homeless, the mind that we rely and trust to make good decisions each day would be adversely affected. The mental strain upon us is not something I believe we would be prepared for. The lack of a place to shower and clean ourselves would be an eye opener, then even if we had such a basic resource, how upset would we be putting on the same garments, unwashed themselves and thus carry with us the grime, the odour? Without money, how would we feed ourselves? How might the quality of the food we do consume when we find it differ from what we eat now?

You and I, we not be rich, but we are rich by comparison. We can not only close our doors to the world each night, we sleep in comfortable beds, we eat without having to guard our plates; when thirsty we find options in our fridges. We don clean clothes each day, we snuggle in against the bitter cold, raise a thermostat if we so choose. Lucky? Well, yes I suppose we are.

Now yes, we do make our own luck I’ll affirm, but what we make our luck with is an educated mind. We have had resources our entire lives some never will have. If you grew up with a mother and father, lived in a house, had three meals a day and went to school, you likely took much of that for granted. As a child,  perhaps this is how you believed we all started out. Not so. If you’ve never had to visit a foodbank other than to drop off a donation, or never had to leave some items at the checkout because you haven’t got enough money to pay for them, you’re lucky indeed.

The nights are dark and cold, the daylight shorter at this time of year in my part of the world where winter is upon us. The streets are often slushy, which makes it trickier to walk for some in heels and harder still to push those shopping carts and buggies with worldly possessions in them for others.

If you think the simple solution is to get a job and be self-supporting, think of what herculean effort that must take. A homeless person has to concentrate on where to sleep, where to eat. They have few items to improve their personal hygiene and fewer to clean and maintain the cleanliness of their clothes. They are often shunned for their appearance, their smell, their cleanliness and much of the time lack personal identification such as birth certificates, health cards and social insurance numbers.

Luxuries are things like haircuts, dental visits, prescription glasses, non-processed foods, undamaged fruits and vegetables. Families are typically dysfunctional, relationships hard to establish and harder still to maintain. Without an address, services are hard to get, being always on the move, they have no sanctuary at the close of a day, sleeping with one eye open out of fear until absolutely exhausted.

Enjoy your home as do I, but be benevolent when you can. Consider a donation, be it a used article of warmth, food, toiletries, or your time. Be grateful, be humble.

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs And The Hotdog Guy

“I don’t know why the City doesn’t do something about them. They just lie there all month until their welfare cheques come. Just get a job!”

The above words were spoken to me only yesterday around noon as I chatted with a hotdog vendor while out on a walk. He was referring to the 4 or 5 people who have taken to occupying a patch of grass on the fringes of a public trail adjoining a downtown mall and parking lot. I’ve noticed them too; one or two sound asleep while a few others sit and chat watching over them and out for them.

The hotdog vendor operates about 5 feet away from them, and while we were there one of the guys came over and gave him the $3.50 for a hotdog. Interesting to hear how the topic changed immediately as he took the change and threw a hotdog on the grill.

I suppose many people see panhandlers and people living rough and feel the same feelings as the hotdog guy. “Just get a job!” But it’s far from that simple. To test that out, I actually asked him when the guy buying the hotdog had walked away, “Would you hire one of them yourself?” and he said, “No way! Nada! Never! Shiftless layabouts.”

That’s probably the case with a lot of others too; they want these people working and contributing and not taking from the tax base, but at the same time they don’t want to be the employer taking them on. Why? Presumably they come with a lot of headaches; reliability, trustworthiness, mental health problems and low motivation.

To an entrepreneur like my hotdog vendor, they are the epitome of everything he’s not. He’s self-reliant, having no one else to rely on to make his income. He can’t just walk away from the job on his lunch, and if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid – no sick days or paid vacations.

Way back in my College days I recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Does that ring a bell? You know, the pyramid with basic physiological needs at the bottom and way up at the top you’d find self-actualization; things like creativity, problem-solving and these just above self-esteem. Here’s your living proof of that pyramid. The hotdog guy expects people to just get up off the grass and function at the top of that pyramid and is angry and frustrated that the system doesn’t punish them for anything less by withholding their money. I suppose he sees that money as his money via his tax contributions.

Before a person can go out and find work they’ll be able to keep, certain things have to be in place. Those basic needs of Maslow’s like food, water and sleep. When you don’t know where you’re next meal is coming from, when it’s coming, where you can sleep in safety for example, a job is hardly your first priority. I know of course that the hotdog guy would argue that the income from a job would provide food and water plus a secure place to live. This is the chicken or the egg problem though, and we’d come down on opposite sides of what needs to happen first.

Without a secure place to live, there’s no income for luxuries like a razor for a shave, and where on earth would a person secure any personal possessions when they have no safe storage place? Moving from area to area around town to avoid charges of loitering and worse, where are they to keep their personal ID? ID that’s needed for so many things we take for granted in society.

If you look up an image of Maslow’s Hierarchy, you’ll find employment and the safety it brings to a person is just above the basic physiological needs. It doesn’t seem like much is need to make it to level 2. Get your food and water, air to breathe and you’re on to stage 2. So if it’s that simple, why are people stuck forever in some cases at stage 1? That answer would take more time than I’ve got here to share.

Recall a time when you were stressed about something and couldn’t turn off your thoughts; that sleepless night worrying over something. If you’ve had a time like this that went on for a few days, your performance at work might have slipped a bit, you may have reduced your social calendar until you felt better, and while you were out of sorts, you probably did your best to work things out. Eventually, you did get out of that bad place, your mood improved and you carried on.

Now magnify that if you will. Imagine multiple problems; anxiety, low self-worth, family dysfunction, vulnerable relationships, poor resolution skills, unable to multi-task, hygiene issues, homelessness, judgement from others, financial dependence, chronic sleeplessness, no family doctor, poor social supports (being others in the same predicament), poor nutrition, lack of shelter, clean clothes, good footwear. Can you picture one person with these issues? What if that person were you? Got that image? Okay, now go get a job.

This piece is going to end without a nice solution. Societies have been struggling to resolve this very problem for thousands of years and have different models of trying to do so. Until they do, some compassion and understanding at the least would be nice if we’re unable to truly empathize at best.

You With The Chip On Your Shoulder

Hey you. (Sorry about that; I don’t know your name.) You with the chip on your shoulder that’s so large no one could fail to notice it. I bet you’ve had a lot of bad breaks over your life that keep adding to it. Maybe it was rough right from your birth into this world and it’s been that way ever since, or perhaps your early years were pretty decent and it was only as you grew up that your life and all the people you’ve met in it have made it a tough go.

Either way it doesn’t really matter right now does it? I mean let’s face it; you’re the kind of person who just wakes up to battle one day at a time. I don’t know you of course, (which is exactly what you’d tell me if I was standing in front of you); yeah you’d tell me not to think I know you either. But just like you, I’ve come to eyeball people and size them up pretty quickly. You do it to survive and get what you need while I do it to size up what they need. We both have to be pretty good at reading people in order to get on.

Anyhow, we’re agreed on one thing I hope; life isn’t anywhere near what you once thought, and it’s not getting better. On the outside you’ll tell anybody who will listen that you don’t need their help or their charity; you’ve got this image to protect of being the lone wolf after all – but every now and then you’d be more than open to some help from the right person. Don’t worry; I’m not going to tell you I’m that guy. I’m too far away from where you are anyhow, and if you saw me, you’d just peg me on sight as some old guy who thinks he’s got all the answers.

Well I don’t have all the answers – no one does. All of us though, have some of the answers; it just depends on the questions we’re being asked as to whether or not the answers we have fit. Take you for example. When it comes to fending for yourself, maybe you’re the go-to guy. You know people on a first-name basis who can get you what you need so you can survive. You get what you take; nobody gives you anything for free unless its stuff no one needs or wants.

I suppose if somebody followed you around unseen, they might from time-to-time actually see that chip on your shoulder ease up ever so slightly. You’ve been known to drop a few bills in some homeless persons coffee cup, stare down some punk who otherwise would have verbally or physically abused him or her on the street as they begged for change. Imagine that, you with your own demons protecting someone else from the taunts and jeers of the better off. You can be intimidating, and when it suits you, you notch it up and that feeds both your power and your view of the world as a cold place.

This much I get – no seriously I understand this much. But it’s draining isn’t it? I mean all this energy to live on the edge, keep up that scowl that looks out and down on just about everybody you meet. Even if you wanted to drop the chip on the shoulder; (and its long past being a chip anyhow isn’t it? It’s more like a boulder now), it’s hard to let people in and take a chance on them because so far anyway, it almost always backfires and ends in disappointment. You’ve tried in the past and been burned; people making promises of a better life if you only do this or that, and even when you give it a shot, they let you down. Things don’t change; people don’t change. You’re pegged as more trouble than you’re worth; a bad one, one to stay clear of, not redeemable.  And every time things go sour, you just add one more layer to your tough exterior in order to protect yourself; you’re a survivor after all and can’t rely on anyone but you.

Okay enough. At what point do you own up and decide that despite the raw deal you’ve had in the past, you are responsible for what happens in your future based on what you do in the here and now? Look at people older than you going through the world with this chip on their shoulders and you’ll see they almost always look older than they really are. They may have bodies that are lean and mean on the outside, but they’re also hollow and thin on substance on the inside. They chose to continue to live with the chip on their shoulders when they stood where you stand now.  You can choose to keep on living the way you are now of course; you’re call and yours alone; always has been and always will be.

Not everybody is against you; the world and what you experience is how you view it and what you allow in. So you’ve been burned before? That makes you normal. Give Life and people in it a chance and you might find you get the odd break; breaking down that chip just a little – making it easier to carry.

Give A Gift To Someone In Need

So you’re out in some mall looking for that perfect gift that someone on your Christmas list would appreciate. Or perhaps you’re sitting in your favourite seat at home tapping your fingers and wrestling with the thought of what the people on your list, ‘need’. If you are like many people I know, many of those on your list don’t, ‘need’ much at all.

Each gift received not only comes with the ribbons, bows, wrapping paper and scotch tape; each gift comes with the message, “I am thinking of you.” The gift may be homemade or store-bought, expensive or not, but still each one says, “I think enough of you that I wanted to present you with something to let you know I appreciate you.” Well something like that anyhow.

Sometimes the gifts we give are given to people we’ll never know personally; people we don’t necessarily want to know personally, but we give them just the same. Take the financial donation or food donation you make to the local food bank; the clothes you donate to the Diabetes Foundation, the change you throw into a Salvation Army kettle or some other charity box.

Maybe – just maybe mind you – you’re like the little drummer boy who doesn’t have any money or items of value to give and you wonder, “What could I do?”

And so, here’s some ideas for giving both during this festive holiday season and for other times of the year.

First and foremost, one of the easiest and free things you can do is acknowledge the presence of the down-and-out, the destitute, the poor, and the homeless when you see them on the street. You and I both know they aren’t invisible. You know they are there because you look everywhere but where they sit or stand as you pass them by without a glance. Maybe just having the courage, assertiveness or whatever it is that you need to look them in the eye and actually give them a slight smile would help them feel visible. Sure it’s a small thing; but it’s a start.

When I was in Toronto this fall I was out with my daughter and some people were handing out free bottles of water on the street. While I drank mine down due to my thirst, my daughter hung on to hers for a few blocks and then without breaking stride set hers down beside a sleeping man on the street. Again, not much, but he awoke with something he didn’t have when he fell asleep.

You can also hold back on your judgement of others; we don’t know what they’ve endured or continue to endure. Even when the decisions they make contribute to their current plight and we would rather they made better decisions, we don’t know what events in their past have shaped their present. They probably have multiple problems, some of which are of their own making. Maybe a little tolerance, a little support, or even holding back from voicing our opinions would be a small start.

You can volunteer your time too if you’ve got it to give but draw the line on contributing financially. Yes, you can join a non-profit organization, contribute your talents in bookkeeping, leadership, organization etc. Helping to guide an organization, support the people who staff it and the users who benefit from its services; do it and if you need something for yourself, add it to your resume. Why not?

If you run a cleaning business, offer free cleaning for people who have job interviews coming up and can’t afford your services because they are jobless at present. If they get a job, think how much they might appreciate your help. If you have that, “why don’t they just get a job?” mentality, you’ll actually help them get one and pay their taxes if your motivation must be so inclined.

You can opt to be more courteous too. It costs nothing to give up your seat on a bus or subway, to actually smile instead of frown, to actually look at people and talk instead of walking around with a perpetual frown. When you enter a fast-food restaurant drive-thru, thank the person who takes your money and gives you your food. Break up their monotony with a ‘thank you! Have a nice day!” or ask them where their smile is. You’ll get a smile immediately and make their day.

That harried check-out Cashier who gets verbally abused by customers who think they alone should be served first and hold up the line examining their bills to make sure they aren’t overcharged? Why not thank them for doing a great job and telling them to forgive that rude person. These folks usually make minimum wage and are people too.

It’s not hard to think of all the small things you; you and I, could do to make the lives of others around us just a tad better. If you see a couple with a dog on the street trying to get by begging for change, don’t forget the dog. If you pass them every day, drop off some dog food every now and then – something they can easily carry. That’s just cool.

When you do any of the above, you send them the message, “I’m thinking of you – you’re not invisible.” Good on you for your act of kindness. You never know what your small act might mean.

Beware The Refugee Employment Backlash

Canada and other countries around the world are opening their borders to refugees in war-torn countries, especially those fleeing Syria at the moment.

When we hear of people dodging bullets and grenades, witnessing beheadings, beatings and human suffering, it’s not difficult to understand the urgency they feel in fleeing with their families to reach safety. If their situation was yours; with armed invaders going door to door down the street only 7 houses away, how much time would you take grabbing your precious belongings?

So on the one hand, I would like to think that most of us can understand the need to flee and find people and places willing to assist them. Our humanitarian response kicks in borne out of compassion for others experiencing unspeakable horrors.

There are of course concerns that have been raised however by those residing in the countries where the refugees are headed. Some are concerned about terrorists assimilating into the refugees and wrecking havoc in the future in our relatively peaceful societies. Others are concerned about the sheer numbers and the capacity of the receiving cities and communities to bear the costs of housing, feeding and supporting them. Then there are the people concerned about the ongoing financial drain they may be if they don’t get jobs.

I wonder if all the adult refugees had guaranteed employment within 3 months of arrival, would the outcries from some would subside or not? I’m sure a number of people would then start voicing outrage or at least great concern that these refugees were getting jobs ahead of the existing unemployed who are native to the countries the refugees enter.

It would appear this becomes an ethical dilemma; provide a safe haven for refugees and invest in the social costs out of humanitarian compassion, or close the borders and wish them the best as they fend for themselves elsewhere. Do we or do we not have a compassionate society?

On the local scene, we may in the very near future meet face-to-face with at least some of these refugees. They may be in unemployment lines, English as a Second Language classes, riding the buses to get to doctors reception rooms, they might be applying for welfare or indeed they may be sitting a row over from you in a religious synagogue or mosque. Do they look different from us? Sure they might. Rather than thinking the difference is something to be afraid of, maybe it’s an opportunity for us to learn from.

Now if they are here but beaten down, repulsed, spat upon, ignored, humiliated or any other words you might want to substitute, how does that help any of us? If you’re concern is that they are stealing jobs and services away from the homeless or unemployed that you see on the way to work now, do you honestly think there will come a time when all who are homeless are sheltered and all who are unemployed are working? A refugee who gets a job will become a taxpayer immediately and if they open a business will soon hire other unemployed people therefore multiplying that independence.

An unemployed person needs help to become employed no matter which country they were born in. We all come from somewhere. How we respond to a human crisis defines who we are; our prejudices, values and beliefs come out in the process. Do we only value diversity and inclusion when the people we are talking about are so small in numbers that our own way of living isn’t inconvenienced?

When you wed someone, you change and compromise as you learn about the other persons likes, dislikes, beliefs and values. Sometimes you argue, disagree, give in or hold out – but if you are wise you always listen. Welcoming refugees into our societies and our workplaces is no different. They will not only be trying to learn a new job and meet a new employers expectations, they will be trying to assimilate into an entirely new community and country. Expecting an entire conversion to our religion, our foods, our language, our way of doing things is hardly realistic. Were you and I to emigrate to another country, we may not full immerse ourselves in new ways and abandon what to us has been the norm. Even if we had every wish to do so, it would take time, and dirty looks, rude comments and hostile attitudes wouldn’t help.

I’ll point out that some (not all) of the unemployed screaming the loudest about losing jobs to refugees are the same people who refuse help with their resumes, turn down attending interview preparation classes, refuse work outside of a 4 block area and lose jobs due to poor attendance and adherence to company policies. Don’t believe me? Ask the employers and you’ll get examples where people sabotaged their own jobs through bad behaviour and poor judgement. If you are struggling to find employment at the present time, the refugee factor isn’t a current issue for you; find out what is and address it.

Let’s not get into who deserves a job more than someone else. The sooner we embrace change; in this case an influx of refugees into our communities who will need employment in order to be self-sufficient as soon as possible, the better for us as a collective, inclusive community.

Treat others as you’d like to be treated. We learned this in kindergarten; or rather, we heard the phrase. Whether we learned it or not is soon to be seen.


Constantly Consumed With Your Problems?

Working with so many people who are unemployed or underemployed, it is only natural that most of them have problems. Actually, all of them have problems, issues and barriers. Some of those barriers and problems they openly share, and some of them they keep locked away and are only revealed after establishing a deep trusting relationship.

Now these problems usually tend to mirror many of the problems that others have who have shared them with me. Their issues typically include stress over being in debt, family problems, relationship issues, low self-esteem, a lack of purpose, housing instability, mental health and literacy issues and of course unemployment.

Any one of the above is in its own right, difficult to deal with. Imagine trying to juggle all of them and possibly throw in an addiction or a criminal record, seeing a counsellor, a probation officer or going through the court system to obtain full custody of a child. So, it is very understandable to me to see how such a person dealing with so many weighty issues could be entirely overwhelmed.

From the time the brain moves from dreamland in the morning to wakefulness, right up until sleep comes again, how must it feel to be so constantly aware of all these things that need fixing? What if you didn’t have the skills or knowledge that you need to actually do much of anything to start dealing with the problems in the first place?  I think therefore it is not such a stretch to start to see why some people appear to give up or give in.

Think about when you have a problem of your own. Life is good except for the stress you feel over that one single thing; maybe the brakes on the car that are going to cost money you have but didn’t plan on spending. Aside from the brakes, you’ve got a home to return to, a job and the income that goes with it, golf on the weekend with your buddies, movie and dinner tonight with the spouse and a pretty decent closet of clothes. Ah but those brakes are stressing you out!

Not to diminish the unexpected cost of replacing your brakes, but you’ve got one thing to stress over and you know that it’s a time-bound stressor. When the car goes in the shop tomorrow, by the evening your brakes are fixed and your one problem solved. Can you imagine having 5 – 9 additional sources of stress all at the same time and each of those stressors goes on and on with no end in sight of being ‘fixed’ and done with? So maybe some empathy for those dealing as best they can with their issues would be the least you and I could do.

Okay. So you’ve got some major issues that are getting in the way of leading the life you want. When you say you just want to live a, ‘normal’ life, what you really mean is living with normal pressures and stresses, not dealing with major stressors all the time and all at once. Yes? That’s not such a strange thing to understand; in fact it’s reasonable.

One possible idea if you are open to hearing one, is to do something that might seem unpleasant but is fairly easy. Start by writing down all the things you can think of that are causing you stress. Just putting them down in black and white on a piece of paper will be a good place to start. This alone will help you if you feel totally stressed out and can’t understand why. It is however only a first step.

Then if you are willing, look at picking one thing that’s freaking you out and decide to put most of your energy into tackling that one issue. So if getting a stable place to live that you can afford is constantly stressing you, it might be a good idea to put most of your energy into that one thing. When you do get an apartment to call your own – even if it’s not your ideal residence – you can give yourself some credit for dealing with that one thing. Having dealt successfully with one thing might give you the motivation to deal with another source of stress.

Now let’s say you are so overwhelmed you just don’t have the skills or ability to even know how to go about getting affordable housing, but this is the one thing you want to resolve first. Perfectly normal by the way. Congratulate yourself for two things: 1) you know what you want to work on and 2) you’re smart enough to know you need someone’s help to fix things.

No matter where you live, look into visiting a social services agency nearby. It doesn’t matter which one you contact first, if they can’t help you directly, they will point you in the right direction and give you the phone number, address, maybe a name of the people who will help you out. They are all connected, know what each other do, and so they can provide you with support and help. Share your troubles and the problems might be less heavy to carry on your own.

Everybody has problems and issues. Most of us manage things well but some better than others. It is a sign of your strength and wisdom to reach out for help, and there’s no shame in that. All the best.