I am pleased to re-circulate my Essay originally published in 2004.
By Michael L. Kehoe
Calgary Herald August 2004
“ABORIGINAL WOMAN WHOSE CHARRED BODY WAS FOUND IN A GARBAGE BIN MIGHT HAVE BEEN BURNED ALIVE”
“46 year old Cheryl Lynn Black of the Siksika First Nation east of Calgary, was recently identified through medical records after police spent three months poring over dozens of missing person files and interviewing scores of homeless people and shelter staff…Her death in May is being investigated as suspicious and police believe the homeless woman was alive when the container was set on fire. Her body was burned beyond recognition.”
I wondered what happened to her. The missing person posters at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Center (CDIC) had faded away. I had served her dinner over the counter at the Drop In Centre kitchen. I had looked into face, her eyes avoiding mine but saying a polite thank you for the plate. Those close to the street claimed that a few years earlier she had allegedly murdered her husband on the reserve. It was rumored that the late husband’s brothers came into town, hunted her down and had their revenge.
The first thing you notice is the aroma. The scent of the Calgary Drop in Centre (CDIC) was unmistakable in the early winter 2001 as I entered the big doors and climbed the concrete stairs past the in-tox lobby to the second floor dining area. That fragrant combination of BO, urine and vomit is unforgettable and far from the rarified air of the corporate boardrooms just a few blocks away. I recall a meeting on the 42nd floor of Bankers Hall in my blue suit involving a high profile commercial real estate transaction related to my day job as a commercial real estate broker. An hour later dressed in my jeans volunteering at the CDIC and experiencing first hand the gap between rich and poor that seems to widen every year.
Every night the CDIC accommodates 120 - 140 souls on the first floor in-tox sleeping on mats, another 180 on the third floor sleeping on cots, 140 men on the fourth floor in dormitory style bunk beds and 128 men and women on the fifth floor in a similar manner as the floor below. At peak capacity in the depth of winter up to 800 sleep in this amazing facility Around nine every night the buses roll up and hundreds more are shipped off to other sleeping quarters in satellite shelters around town. Caring for the homeless and the working poor is a huge undertaking in Calgary, Canada’s fourth most expensive city and the country’s lowest minimum wage province. The Mustard Seed Street Ministry, the Salvation Army Centre of Hope located near by serve a similar function. The urban area bounded by The Mustard Seed, The Salvation Army and the CDIC are in urban planning circles referred to as the “social corridor” that includes the East Village of downtown Calgary. These facilities are among around 75 social agencies in Calgary that comprise a form of “social safety net”. The booklet “Calgary Street Survival Guide” published by the City of Calgary Community & Neighborhood Services lists every one.
The Globe & Mail September 28, 2004.
“Record oil prices! – As record falls, ‘It’s great to be in Alberta’ – You can’t stroll more than a block or two in downtown Calgary without seeing evidence of the new boom. Help wanted signs hang in windows left right and a flush waiter boasts of a 50% tip and Mercedes-Benzes fly out of showrooms where there is little regard for six-figure price tags. And it seems, oil money is stuffed in every pocket.”
Well, almost every pocket. Homelessness in a city where the streets are paved with oil and gas gold? The streets are also paved with a constant human struggle to survive with dignity. Homelessness affects every race, culture and creed.
The second thing that I notice is the angry men, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the powerless. Those that the corporate and suburban juggernaught that Calgary has left behind. If there truly is a social safety net I see it in action every week. Many become homeless because of events in their work environment such as layoffs, bankruptcy and injury. Other factors include personal problems including marital breakdowns, mental illness, personal grief and addictions.
I arrived one evening in October 2001 to work in the kitchen with my community group to volunteer to serve dinner. Little did I know what a profound impact the CDIC would have on me. I worked on a volunteer basis in the kitchen for almost two years one or two nights every week year-round. I worked the line serving meals to the Clients usually ladling stew or soup or scooping rice or pasta or potatoes. This is cooking and serving on an industrial scale. Up to 800 meals a night or more when the winter weather sets in. Over the stainless-steel counter, I watched their faces every week. The faces were so interesting, and they did tell a story to me. Faces that I could never see in my everyday life. Faces that have had a hard life. Weathered faces of different cultures and races and social tribes. At that point in my volunteer activities my interaction with the clients was limited to a greeting of appreciation for the meal or a quick “enjoy your meal or take care” over the counter.
That day I stood on the other side of that stainless-steel counter out on the floor was interesting. I felt naked and vulnerable. I was one of the first volunteers to make the transition to full Client interaction on “the floor”. Working among the clients can be intimidating at first. To eliminate my angst and feeling of being an “Outsider” I implemented my personal modus aperendai “When you meet a man without a smile, give him one of yours” I practice lots of smiling and was taught by a staff member to “always do the compassionate thing” and to learn the first name of at least two clients each week. That advice has served me well over the recent past as my volunteer activities at the CDIC become more fulfilling each week.
Tuesday night was my night at the CDIC. 48 of the past 52 Tuesdays I arrived about 5:30PM and huddled with the CDIC staff and my fellow volunteers. We would serve dinner from 6 - 7PM and assist and interact with the Clients. We served 7 -800 meals and then assisted the Clients with settling in for the night. I assisted the 4th floor dormitory helping staff members and clients to ensure that things roll along and then leave at 9:00PM when the full-time night staff arrives.
A Typical Tuesday Night at the CDIC - October 19 2004 – minus14c and windy.
545PM – It is a cold night and the Centre is busy with the bad weather. I drop by the hygiene room and the hair salon. A busy place with Clients booking haircuts with the volunteer hair stylist from Super Cuts and Great Clips, or Clients booking one of the nine showers and utilizing the eight free washing machines and eight dryers.
530PM – A scuffle breaks out on the second floor and the CDIC staff members are on the scene within seconds to restore order. The proverbial triple witching hour has begun. The trifactor of a full moon, early winter cold and those with addictions are fueled with the arrival of the government cheques.
555PM – Helped Mr. M. get some juice from the kitchen. He has just entered the Methadone program…
600PM – Dinner is served. A group of corporate volunteers from First Calgary Financial has arrived to serve the Clients their meals.
645PM – Spoke to Mr. F. who works days on the front desk at a local low rent hotel. Tough town down therein the “Social corridor”. He speculated that the police had installed facial recognition cameras in the lobby and on the exterior of the hotel. Big Brother is watching according to Mr. F.
650PM – Spoke to Mr. A. who is in the AADAC cocaine and alcohol program. He was a successful draftsman for 30 years before he lost it all.
655PM - I looked out the window and saw a rainbow and glanced across the street to “Needle Park” where the “hard core” congregate around the clock.
700PM – Spoke to Mr. J. who operated a jack hammer all day at a local construction site for cash. CDIC – Home of the working poor.
I assist as I do every Tuesday a staff member to open the 4th floor dormitory living facility at the CDIC for 120 men to permit the 4th floor residents to settle in early. The floor usually does not open until 9PM when the night staff arrives. Opening early allows the guys to leave the busy and often chaotic second floor dining area where trouble and temptation are never too far away. The 4th floor residents, the working poor appreciate early access to the showers, the TV lounge and the bunk style sleeping accommodations.
845PM – Took Mr. R. up the elevator to the 4th. He has been in Calgary since ’47 and served in Korea and Germany in the 50’s & 60’s with the Canadian military. He told me of his frustration with his ongoing battle with Veterans Affairs of the Canadian government for compensation. He spoke of his bitterness that many First Nations veterans recently settled for $20,000 each but he can make no progress.
900PM – My volunteer shift is over. I leave for home and my warm bed. It is a time of organized chaos as the main floor in-tox fills up with the most vulnerable. The clients line up for third floor bed tickets. EMS has been in and out and the CPS paddy wagon delivers another intoxicated client. I interacted with dozens of Clients on this night and provided a positive word to as many as I can. I know some days for some of these men and women I am perhaps one of the only people from the outside world who will say a kind word or share a smile.
EVERYONE HAS A STORY…
Calgary Herald October 16, 2004
“Drifter relives brutal beating – Graphic home video of incident shown in court as victim watches”
A homeless Calgary man relived the vicious beating he endured 115 months ago, watching a graphic home video of his attackers hitting him with a baton and a beer bottle. Kelly Littlelight watched as lawyers played the video in Calgary Court of Queen’s Bench that shows a young man urinating on Littlelight following the attack in a city alley. The laughter of the man’s friends who were in their late teens at the time of the July 6, 2003 incident is caught on the amateur video they recorded. One teen remarks: Dude, ‘that is fucking hilarious’. ‘All I remember is sitting there and that is when the urine came on’ testified Littlelight, a 35 year old aboriginal. ‘I wasn’t doing anything to them. I was sitting there, minding my own business,’ said Littlelight who had passed out in the alley after a night of drinking alcohol, Listerine and hairspray. The video captures the teens approaching Littlelight sleeping in a corner of the alley, They begin punching and kicking him. One man beats Littlelight with a baton, while another is seen hurling a glass bottle at him. ‘I thought it was sweat, but it wasn’t sweat. I touched my hand to my head and it was blood’ said the soft-spoken man. Littlelight still lives on the street”.
Kelly Littlelight is a client of the CDIC. His two attackers received six month jail sentences each for aggravated assault, kidnapping, beating and urinating on Mr. Littlelight. The defense lawyer has appealed.”
-Mr. M. is 78 years old and had a career as a successful commercial photographer. He once owned and operated a newsmagazine in Toronto. He lives at the CDIC. A retirement made easier by those who care. Anyone and everyone can wind up at the CDIC.
-Mr. C. is 21 yrs old and works in construction and struggles with addiction. He hails from Newfoundland and wants to study to become a Pharmacist Technician. He came to Calgary to get a fresh start. The CDIC is helping him in a time of personal transition.
-Mr. J. is the “Grand slam” of challenges. He is aboriginal, addicted, homeless and blind. With his white cane he signals for a meal on the second floor. He told me he is applying for training for job placement perhaps in a call centre. He has hopes for a better life and the CDIC will help him along the way.
-Mr. Y. is a refugee from Gambia in West Africa. He flew in this afternoon from Montreal where he claimed refugee status. In 72 hours he flew from Gambia to Senegal to Paris and on to Calgary via Montreal. His jet black skin, pink tongue and red eyes looked most out of place at the CDIC that early winter night. It was a cold night and there were many new arrivals but none as unique as Mr. Y. He told me he was cold as I provided an extra blanket for his bunk on the 4th floor. I opened the door to the concrete landing in the emergency stairwell so he could say his evening prayers on his little mat. He spoke of his days as a teacher at the University in Gambia and about his passion for human rights and his organizing protests against the corrupt government. About night fourteen security police came to his parent’s house looking for him. I made him a makeshift pillow with a sleeping bag and pillowcase. I never saw him again after that night.
- Ms. J. an aboriginal lady who hitched a ride in an 18 wheeler from Yellowknife en route to Manitoba to visit her ailing mother. On a rest stop in Calgary the trucker abandoned her and she lost her back pack with her ID, money and medications for her mental health disorder. She was sitting alone disoriented in the second floor dining area. I served her a late meal from the kitchen. The CDIC arranged for her to go to the medical clinic to secure her meds and provided a warm place to stay.
-It’s men’s rec night on the 4th floor. A pot of coffee and day old Tim bits, occasionally some pizza and a video movie after the World Cup of hockey. Canada 3 - Finland 2. There is a good vibe tonight on the 4th floor fueled by the ever caring and generous staff counsellor. There are ten counsellors at the CDIC providing a range of services including advocacy, addictions, life skills and public education.
-Ms. J. I believe is a “lady of the night”. She was in town for a few days and asked for a bagged lunch. Did you know that three people over eight hours can make 5,000 tuna and egg salad sandwiches? Outside and Client volunteers make it happen at the CDIC. CDIC staff estimate that 600 – 700 bagged lunches are prepared at the CDIC every day with two sandwiches per bag.
-Mr. B. was digging trenches all day. He calls himself the “Newfie Backhoe”. The CDIC is the home of the worker bees of the Calgary economy. The swampers and army ants that carry the 100lb bags of potatoes unload the trucks, do the heavy lifting and the dirty jobs mostly for minimum wages. They say that only the strong survive. That is the case at the CDIC as the strong, independent minded toil each and every day. In the event of a nuceular disaster they say “Duck and cover”. Me, I will be at the CDIC with the street wise clients and their finely honed survival instincts.
WHAT A YEAR!
Just a few days before Christmas 2004 and it was my last night on the 4th floor before the break. Mr. T, a 4th floor resident ordered a pizza for me, to thank me for opening the floor early on Tuesdays. I was touched by this expression of gratitude and I know the regulars appreciated the service I provide. Mr. V. thanked me twenty times as I enjoyed my pizza. I shared the rest of the all meat pie with some of my 4th floor favorites.
The Fall of 2004 has been a sort of jumping off point for the East Village district of downtown Calgary as City Hall charts the redevelopment course for this prime inner city neighborhood that is home to the Social Corridor. My personal opinion: The “Developer friendly” city fathers are to be reminded that the Social Corridor is an integral part of the inner city and that it was their predecessors at city hall that have fumbled the East Village ball for over almost forty years in the district formerly known as Churchill. The East Village must remain socially diverse in contrast to the homogeneous Calgary suburbs and avoid the recent high-rise condo-farm style of development that is the recent scourge of the west end of the downtown core. A cold concrete high rise district devoid of character and streetscape. I challenge the City planners and urban developers to reinvent the East Village with a well thought out pedestrian friendly human scale of block and building that will enhance the streetscape and embrace the social diversity in the very heart of our city. Recent editorial comment in the Calgary media to my shock and amazement cited senior management of the social agencies accusing them of reverse NIMBYism and being anti progress and anti-development. The Calgary Herald wrote “In the end, there’s no good argument for indefinitely deferring quality homes for 10,000 downtown workers to reserve the agglomeration of squalor for a few hundred transients to occupy”. I suggest that the Herald editorial writers look deep into the social corridor and take the compassionate path. Leave no man behind. Social Engineering through zoning is not the answer.
*Author’s Footnote – November 2013 - The East Village under the guidance of the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation has done a stellar job on the creation of an inner-city urban oasis. Since this essay was published in 2004 the East Village has risen like a phoenix with wonderful pedestrian friendly pathways and amenities in concert with well planned residential and commercial development. Glad the DI remains an important component that adds social diversity in the East Village big picture. MK
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP THE HOMELESS
- Respect the homeless as individuals, make eye contact, respond with kindness, educate yourself and your family, volunteer at a shelter, buy “Street Talk”, give clothing, become a tutor, carry fast food certificates, publish shelter information and supportive stories in community association newsletters, donate admission fees or tickets for an event, recruit workplace colleagues to do something special for the homeless regularly.
THE CIDC NEEDS
-Hygiene Products such as: Toothbrushes, hairbrushes, deodorant spray, shaving cream, razors, Depends, laundry soap, Bounce, Kleenex, small Dixie Cups.
-Clothing such as: underwear, socks, pants, jeans, shirts, sweaters, mitts/gloves, hats/toques, winter boots, and winter jackets.
Donate to the Calgary Drop-In Centre & Rehab Centre Society
423 4th Avenue SE Calgary AB T2G 0C8
Ph – 403-263-5707 – Website – www.thedi.ca
Epilogue – I worked part-time as an Adult-client-care-provider 2008 & 2009 at the Calgary Drop-in & Rehab Centre. It was an amazing experience. I have a file folder of notes and quotes that future stories will be written. Maybe even a song or two. The need for donations and assistance is even more important in these challenging times. MK