Many of us have had the experience of feeling helpless in the face of what seems an impossible situation: homelessness. I’ve often heard friends and family tell of a time they tried to help, only to be refused, even insulted for their efforts. Other times, I’ve heard people relate their ‘good deed’, only to shake my head at actions that have more to do with boosting egos than actually bringing comfort to someone in need of it. To be fair, the issue of homelessness is complex, and everyone in a shelter ended up there for a variety of reasons. Everyone has a story.
Here in Niagara, the Region’s action plan for housing and homelessness makes clear the lack of housing units, as well as a lack of adequate funding for outreach services. The issues here in Niagara are not unique. Cities across North America are facing similar concerns when it comes to those who are under-housed. In fact, Niagara is doing better than many in terms of a response. In places like California, some mayors are calling for those on the streets to be placed in mandatory shelters, and not let out until they have met certain criteria. In other words, incarceration.
Pastor Bill, or if you want to be formal about things, Reverend Bill DeGuire, knows the issues faced by Niagara’s homeless population. Pastor Bill is a front line worker, and as of September 2019, is the Founder and Executive Director of Working The Streets Niagara, a not-for-profit that aims to support outreach workers and raise the level of care provided to Niagara’s street family. I had the chance to visit Working The Streets Niagara’s new centre, and chat with Pastor Bill and board member, Mishelle Stephenson.
About five years ago, Pastor Bill was facing a problem: an influx of people wanting to help, but unsure of how. It was apparent there needed to be better supports in place for training those wanting to work with individuals who were experiencing homelessness. There needed to be a conversation, and an understanding about how to interact with people who are most likely going through one of the most difficult periods of their life. From that, the idea of Working the Streets Niagara was born.
During my tour of the centre, Pastor Bill highlighted the importance of creating a safe environment for participants, and those working with them. When it comes to street work, as in most professional settings, it’s all about relationships. Working the Streets Niagara is unique in that not only does the organization provide training, but does on-the-ground outreach to many who are weary of approaching public services. Bill gets to know those he helps, but it takes time.
People who are ‘sleeping rough’, have often experienced a significant degree of trauma. They’ve been let down. They’ve been kicked out of front foyers, and repeatedly told that they’re unwelcome. Many live with substance use and mental health issues. With this in mind, Pastor Bill points out that anyone looking to work the streets shouldn’t expect a slap on the back for showing up with a sandwich or a hot cup of coffee. Just as in any social setting, one should not assume a level of familiarity that has not yet been earned. Asking for someone’s ‘story’, trying to take pictures, or even just waking someone up can undo months of slow relationship building efforts. Everyone may have a story, but nothing says you’re entitled to it.
The best way to help, is to get trained and involved on a long-term basis. Failing that, a donation to a reputable organization comes in at a close second – especially as many people are starting to get into a giving holiday spirit.
However, getting trained in how to respond to homelessness does not have to be strictly a ‘social good’ exercise. As Pastor Bill pointed out, many businesses could benefit. Walking down St. Paul Street on any given day, it’s hard to miss the number of people who call the streets home. Baristas, those in the service industry, even bank employees could take advantage of Working The Streets Niagara’s courses. If trained, these workers who often come face-to-face with Niagara’s homeless, may be able to avoid clashes between businesses and members of the homeless community.
If taking some courses does not appeal, then at the very least, Working the Streets Niagara provides an answer to that feeling of helplessness. If you find someone in distress, or in need of support, Pastor Bill and his team are trained and able. In most cases, calling 911 is unnecessary and often just ties up emergency services. Even if you do call, chances are the person you are calling for will not want to go to the hospital. Instead, there’s Pastor Bill and his team. They know how to get someone into an emergency shelter, or perform a welfare check. They have blankets, socks and emergency kits ready for distribution. It may not do anything for your saviour complex, but involving those who know how to be involved, may just save a life.
For more information on Working the Streets Niagara, please visit: workingthestreetsniagara.com