Last Wednesday I did something that I have wanted to do for a long time, I spent the day volunteering at Dans la rue.
What is Dans la rue?
It is an organization that helps street kids. It provides food, shelter, support and guidance when they need it most, providing a consistent source of support and giving youths the confidence to move forward and make positive changes in their lives.
Why have I wanted to do this for so long?
Because I have always felt: There but for the grace of God go I.
No, thankfully with the parents, family and friends that I have I don’t think that I could ever have ended up on the street, but I have learned through being on the board at l’Anonyme a few years ago and the habit I have of stopping and talking with street people, that there are many reasons that people end up on the street and some of them are not at all what you would think.
Get a job!
Homelessness encompasses a range of economic and social factors that have negative impact upon health and well-being. Such factors include poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of health care supports and social supports — all of which may be understood as problems of social inequality and social exclusion. The chronic nature of these problems is perpetuated by ideological stances that are significantly different at the community, provincial and national levels. While many communities across the country are working to develop and maintain homelessness initiatives, these initiatives are difficult to sustain in the absence of adequate awareness and funding. Dealing with homelessness necessitates collective action, and truly effective collective action demands a pragmatic shift in how homelessness is viewed. With estimates between 150,000 to as many as 300,000 Canadians living on the streets, a movement beyond ideological fixations on “self-reliance” is necessary. It requires an emphasis on equality and inclusivity in the social contract, in civil society, and in the community. (Via Intraspec.ca)
Holding Back the Tears
I arrived at the Dans la rue facility in the east end of Montreal and was given the tour and the history of the place before I was put to work. Sue Medleg, the Development Co-ordinator, told me the story of how Father Emmett Johns, “Pops” – as he is known, started it all back in 1988. She walked me through the place and watched as I did all that I could to hold back the tears as I heard the stories of what they do and what kids do who end up on the street. There is nothing that I did not know or had not heard before, but it doesn’t seem to matter how often I hear these stories that it hurts, it makes me angry, and it makes me sad, and it reminds that that I can still feel.
After getting the walk through and hearing about the front-line services, I was put to work in the basement. My job was to help get ready a few thousand hotdogs that would get handed out to kids on the street between the ages of 12 and 25 (yes, I said 12) over the next week on The Van. At first it was just me, Jordan and Chris and then Mike that work there. Then, as part of how the program works, kids would come down to help out. We put on our rubber gloves and we took hotdogs and put them in buns, and put them in wrappers and then packed plastic boxes that then got stored in the fridge to be used over the next five nights when The Van went out staffed with volunteers to give out hotdogs, hot chocolate and the services Dans la rue has to help kids living on the streets.
I am not sure that I will ever eat another hotdog. I am not sure that the kids that depend on them each night really want to either.
I can’t stand the pain
For me it was just a few hours. I got pretty good at putting the hotdogs in the buns, into the wrappers and then packing the boxes. They do this every Wednesday to get ready for the week. Often there are volunteers that come in from different companies as part of initiatives to give back to the community. I was lucky as there was no group and so it was just me and the guys that work there and the kids. We talked. We sang along to the words in the music playing in the background. We talked about dogs and tattoos. They asked me if I had a tattoo and I laughed and said, “No, I couldn’t stand the pain.” They laughed with me and told me it wasn’t so bad. They talked and I listened. I fit right in standing there in my shorts and t-shirt except when it was all over I was going to get in my car and go home. For the people that work there they deal with this day in and day out. For the kids that live on the street, this is part of their life. I think it was at that point that I started to go a little numb.
At noon we took a break for lunch. We went upstairs to the cafeteria and lined up and had a burger and a baked potato. All the staff and the kids who are doing some work there get to eat first. Then they open the doors and the kids from the street come in through the side door and they can get a hot meal. I sat and talked with the staff and watched as the kids came in. They were dirty and tattooed and pierced and hungry. They lined up and they got their food. They sat with their friends and they were polite and respectful of those around them and they ate. I watched as a girl took her baked potato, wrapped it up and put it in her pocket for later. I got a little number.
How long is long when you are living on the street?
We sat and we talked, Chris, Jordan, and Mike. I asked a lot of questions. I asked what was the hardest thing they did. The answer was always a version of, “can’t give enough or can’t help enough.” I heard a lot of caring and a lot of compassion in a place where it must be easy to get hard, to put the walls up to protect yourself.
Then I remembered a kid I had met a few years back one night when I was out on the bus with l’Anonyme. It was a Sunday night about 3 AM and this kid had got on the bus and he was a mess. He had piercing blue eyes that I remember to this day, and dreads, blond dreads. He was upset because his best friend had just died of a drug overdoes. What shocked me was not that his friend had died, but that this kid had a friend that he was so close to and he was so upset about. I didn’t think that people that lived on the streets really had friends. I realized, that I didn’t think that people on the streets were people.
I asked if anyone knew him, I still remembered his name. “It depends who’s asking,” a young woman said who had just sat down beside me. I explained who I was and why I was there. “Yes, he’s still around, he works sometimes in the garden project that I look after. He is doing okay.” I had met him back in 2006 and he is still on the street. That is a long time to still be on the streets.
Don’t you see it?
I have an innocent belief that deep down inside each of us there is a good person full of love. I believe that with all my heart and you will never convince me to think otherwise. What I was reminded of in seeing these kids and in listening to the staff that work at Dans la rue is that for many of these kids, it is pretty hard to see good. Their lives have taken so many twists and turns that it is hard to believe that there is good in anything or anyone. What hit me the hardest is that they very often cannot see that good exists in themselves.
Imagine that for whatever reason, and there are so many, that you are a kid on the street. It may start with a feeling of freedom those first few days, freedom from the situation you were living in, until the money runs out. Until you aren’t able to eat when you are hungry, or have a place to sleep and then you resort to things you never thought you would do. Things that no child should ever have to do. But you do them. And then the good is gone. And it is very hard to get it back. Trust becomes a word you don’t know the meaning of. You become someone you don’t know anymore. You have to hide that person that you used to know. The person that had a chance. That knew deep down inside that there was good, in yourself and in those around you. But that is gone now.
Back to work
We went back down after lunch and we finished getting all the hotdogs ready. There were a few more kids that came down to help. We cleaned up and my day as a volunteer was over. I was going to go home. The people that worked there were going to continue on and then go back tomorrow. And next Wednesday they would be packing hot dogs with someone else. The kids were going to go back on the streets for now. Or some of them that had started to get involved in the different programs of music, or art, or the school that Dans la rue has, would be back and start to build a future. That is what Dans la rue does, it gives any kid who wants it, a chance again, and a real chance.
As I was leaving I got a tour of The Van and saw where all those hotdogs will get passed out. I saw where the kids sit and talk and get warm in the winter and have a hot chocolate. I saw the window at the back of The Van where the street people over 25 get served because Pops knows that you can’t refuse anyone in need. Or at least he can’t. And perhaps that is why this organization works, and these kids trust it and the people that work there. I know I certainly do.
I walked back to my car now completely numb with no real idea of how to deal with what I had just seen. Except then I remembered the hope that was there everywhere I turned. It was there if you wanted to see it, to take it, to have it. And there were people willing to help you see it if you couldn’t.