By Rita Button
We’re okay. We have keys that unlock doors that welcome us home, a place where we belong and where we are allowed to enter without permission. When I was younger, I worried that I might have worn out my welcome because I had left the dirty dishes in the sink or had made my younger brother cry. I’d slink back into the house where I had to answer for my anti-social behavior, but I was always accepted as a part of the family.
So it’s hard for many of us to understand the condition of having no place to go where you’re unconditionally welcome. Our Place on Pandora is a place that welcomes people with true respect. It’s a place where individuals become family, as they’re known in the building. Grant McKenzie, the director of communications, sees them as family, as do all who are a part of Our Place.
Families need a lot of stuff—food, clothes, places to shower, people to talk to, places that let the conversation happen, spaces to be quiet, and ways to help you get what you need. Our Place has built these qualities into their process of becoming family. Above all, the people who work there build trust for all who need a family and a place to be.
Grant showed me around. Coffee, a nutritional snack, breakfast and dinner are offered along with conversation to begin to understand what is needed. Our Place feeds over 1000 people a day. On January 22, a particularly cold and miserable day at the end of the month when money is scarce, 620 people came in for dinner. It was a challenge to feed that many at once, but those sitting at the table would never have known. Our Place is a place for all; if we’re there, it’s our place!
“It’s a matter of changing perceptions not only of those on the inside but also of those on the outside,” Grant says. To that end, special breakfasts are often paid for and served by various local businesses such as Truffles Group. Business staff who donate their time to serve breakfast are often overwhelmed at the gratitude shown for the food; thus, a conventional perception of the homeless begins to change.
“We’re a low barrier place,” Grant continues. That means everyone is welcome—even those who are high or drunk—as long as they do not interfere with others. This has the consequence of barring people under the age of nineteen from the building—it’s a matter of safety—unless there’s a special occasion in which, for example, a family might have organized a dinner to celebrate the life of one of their children who has died but who had a wonderfully generous character. In such a case, the younger siblings would be welcome, but they are very carefully supervised—just as in a family, the younger children are kept within the sights of the older family members.
Another way that Our Place helps their family to respect themselves is to offer shower facilities. Four shower stalls are available. Lockers line the wall so that those who are using the facility can put their stuff away without worrying about it. Bins of shampoo, soaps, deodorants and other necessities are available for each person’s thirty minute shower. After each use, a volunteer cleans the shower.
Diversity is celebrated at Our Place! However, in order to allow people to find their own roots and to explore their values and challenges, volunteers of various backgrounds are available for the conversation. Since 30% of the family members are First Nations, a number of First Nations healing processes led by First Nations volunteers are in place such as smudges, healing circles, and spiritual cures. Available to any family member are chaplains, priests and other denominational spiritual leaders.
These are some of the elements of creating community at Our Place. Although there’s much more to tell—later articles will tell more of the story—I think I heard Grant use the word “trust” about thirty times in an hour. Trust is the required ingredient in each interaction. Because many of the family have been betrayed, trust is incredibly necessary.
Developing community is what Laurel Collins, Victoria city councilor, believes can make the difference for many. While Grant thinks about developing programs to welcome the world, Laurel worries about what happens when programs are cut: “Cutting essential social programs creates a divisive society,” she insisted when I talked to her a few days ago. Often the programs that are cut are those that help the marginalized, those who do not have the wherewithal to protest, and who likely do not vote.
However, she believes that having a home is foundational, a necessary beginning in building a community, for her values are similar to Grant’s. While her approach is more process oriented than what Our Place seems to be, she wants to build places for people that fit the demographic of Victoria, being sure to include those who are sidelined. This is an echo of Our Place where programs are built specifically for the people who need them. Laurel makes a distinction between supportive and affordable housing, and was instrumental on council in passing the bill that defines affordable housing as housing that uses a maximum of 30% of one’s income. Supportive housing is for those whom Grant describes as needing a “hand up, not a hand out!” A number of ideas are being considered, but the support is a provincial government matter, although the city is keen to become part of the solution. In fact, the storage facility being built at Our Place’s courtyard so that people will be able to store their possessions in private secure totes is being funded by the city.
“How do we come together when we cut services for the most marginalized people in our society?” Laurel wonders. She believes that “providing for the people on the edge creates a safer and more inclusive society.” She would like to be a part of the community that moves toward establishing such a society in Victoria.
That’s the beginning. Our Place and Victoria City Council both want to tailor-make programs to fit Victoria’s current demographic. As well, both see that supportive and affordable housing needs attention and thoughtful budgeting. Both believe that guaranteed basic needs enables people to turn their minds toward the community instead of worrying about where they will find the next mouth full of food or a safe place for the night.
Drug addiction, mental health, poverty, conventional beliefs about the marginalized, and maintaining effective emergency services are a few of the issues in the complex challenge to find ways of connecting people to what they need. Creating community is one of the ways that invites participation in beginning to meet these needs.