Connecting With Our Homeless Neighbours

Fall is by far my favorite time of year. The heat and lazy feel of summer is behind us, and the air has that crispness that inspires activity. We get refocused, get back to school, get back to work and we get ready for winter. Unfortunately for some of us, school and work seem like little more than long forgotten fantasy. Instead they are dreading the coming of winter. They worry because they don’t have a job to go to, a job to pay for a place to stay warm, but they dread winter. For them the challenge is far beyond the discomfort that we all feel during our long cold winters, during our harshest season these people’s very lives will be in jeopardy.

I take my dog to the local off-leash park every day. I usually love to get outside this time of year, but my enjoyment is tempered with sympathy for some of the patrons that have become more common to this area. There are picnic areas all around the park with fire boxes and tables meant to facilitate a fun family outing; but this time of year I find those same table benches are turned into make shift beds, and those fire boxes become a poor substitute for a furnace. I passed by a neatly folded blanket and pillow left on one of those benches, a blanket that had seen firsthand just how harsh the elements can be here. I thought of my own pillow and how much comfort it brings me at the end of the day, and I couldn’t imagine that pillow being the same comfort. The fire had long been extinguished and the owner of the blanket and pillow had left the park for the day; to toil away in the exhausting cycle of being without a home, a job, of being without hope.

It's cold now at night, but we all know how much colder it will get. I have walked through that same park in the dead cold of January, walked past make shift shelters occupied by some of our nearly frozen neighbors. It breaks my heart. I know there is a tendency to assume that these people are in this situation because of decisions that they made, it helps us sleep at night and takes the responsibility off of us. No one chooses to be homeless, hungry or half frozen in January – I am quite certain of that. In many cases life dealt these people a horrible hand before they were even born, and one can argue that given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could have found ourselves in the same situation.

We’ve probably all heard this classic argument at one point or another – “Why don’t they just get a job?” That would solve the problem wouldn’t it? Well, besides the insurmountable mental health issues that have crippled some of these individuals since birth, lets take a second to think critically about the likelihood of being successful in that regard. Would you hire someone that just slept in a park? Someone who hadn’t had a haircut or even a shower recently? Someone who doesn’t have a permanent address (or any address for that matter) on his or her resume? Someone who doesn’t have a phone number or email address? Someone that doesn’t have the appropriate attire or equipment for the job? Someone that can’t even show you ID? Of course not.

Philanthropy aside, HR departments everywhere have to make good business decisions. So how exactly do these people stand a chance? Homeless Connect, an event happening this Sunday at the Shaw Conference Centre, is a great start. This happens every spring and fall, it’s an opportunity for those that are struggling with the vicious cycle of homelessness to get some support and assistance. Warm coats and clothing, and valuable assets like work boats and socks, are distributed to our less fortunate neighbors. They can also get haircuts and physical exams; they can get help applying for government assistance, help applying for identification. They will be given things that you and I take for granted – toothpaste and toothbrushes, deodorant and soap, a chance to do laundry. They can receive invaluable immunizations, pre-natal support and housing information. They can receive employment and work related training services so that “getting a job” is something that is actually a possibility.

This isn’t a just hand out, it’s a very significant hand up and one that I am proud to be helping with this coming weekend. For more information please visit Homeless Connect Edmonton’s website.

Keep it here – and keep it real.

Brandon Kelm is a Campaign Manager for United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.