During this festive season I am reminded of a unique experience I had two years ago, right before CBC Radio Edmonton had their annual Turkey Drive. I was in my second year of the Journalism program at Grant MacEwan University and we had started our radio class off with a bang. Our professor asked us if we would be interested in participating in a hands-on experience. The class was all for it until we were told we would be experiencing being homeless for three days in the innner city. Now you can imagine some would have reservations about this. I myself thought our prof had gone a bit off the deep end on this one until she explained things further.
This excerpt was taken from an article published on the Grant MacEwan website: “The plan? Students would live on the streets of Edmonton for three days in order to familiarize themselves with poverty in their community. No money, no cell phones – students would sleep in shelters, wait in food lines and perform tasks for the Mustard Seed, an inner-city not-for-profit that assists people living in poverty.”
Our class would partner with the Mustard Seed Edmonton, Grant MacEwan University and CBC Radio Edmonton to shine a light on poverty within Edmonton. No easy task. Our project was to learn first hand what it meant to be a person living in poverty for 3 days in the inner city. This included staying in a house next to the Mustard Seed which was used to simulate staying in a shelter. Afterwards, we would go back to the Mustard Seed and cook a meal to repay the organization and provide a meal to their patrons. The last task we had to accomplish was to interview someone about the poverty situation in Edmonton. This could be a homeless person willing to go on record with their full name, a volunteer, a food bank worker or anyone else who had first hand knowledge/experience with homelessness and poverty in Edmonton.
Here We Go
Day One (Friday afternoon/evening): consisted of us learning about what we should and should not do while interacting with the community. We bounced ideas off one another about what we thought the whole experience would be like. Fears, excitement, every and any emotion or thought.
That night we slept in bunks with thin mattresses, except there were more bodies than beds so some people slept on couches or the floor.
Day Two (All Day Saturday): We were kicked out of the house in the wee hours of the morning. Our guide/supervisor gave us a list of tasks to complete, items to find and locations to visit while we waited for the Mustard Seed to open for dinner. We were on our own for 9 hours. Our class split into teams or 4 or 5 people and left to explore. My group walked all over downtown. This project was going on the same time as Occupy Edmonton and we came upon people handing out donuts, coffee and water bottles. There was breakfast. It wasn’t pretty but we didn’t complain because it was better than nothing. We checked off some of the items on our list, but mostly we just tried to stay warm. This was a chilly November day after all. Some of the other groups went to Hope Mission and ate lunch with many of Edmonton’s poverty-stricken population. One group tried to go warm up in the library and started falling asleep in the comfy chairs, only to be asked to leave by one of the librarians. Apparently they have that happen a lot. After 9 cold hours walking around outside we stood in line outside of the Mustard Seed waiting to be let in to eat dinner. We chatted with some of the other people in the line and made a few friends before going inside. Most people were very friendly and liked to chat. One man pulled up his truck with a handmade camper-looking wooden living space (I know its a mouthful but it is difficult to explain), and proceeded to hand out hot chocolate and coffee. He told us he lives in the camper and comes to eat meals here.
Upon entering the Mustard Seed church we were welcomed and asked to sit until everyone else was seated. Grace was said and then tables were called up to be served. Everything was very organized. Dinner at the Mustard Seed is a balanced meal accompanied by a dessert and portion of multivitamins recommended for people who do not receive balanced meals everyday in order to stay healthy. The vitamins are an option and are sometimes refused.
After dinner, if you are done your meal you are asked to exit your seat so that more people can be let in to eat. The Mustard Seed does not operate over capacity and also does not let anyone in who looks/acts like they are under the influence of alcohol or illegal substances.
Once everything is cleaned up, the Mustard Seed will sometimes put on a movie or if a sports team is playing that night the game will be put on the tv/projector.
There are board games for the kids to play and coffee and treats for the adults. Sometimes cupcakes or donuts are donated. I was so exhausted after the day. I stayed for a bit after supper but went to bed as soon as we were allowed back into the house, which wasn’t until a few hours after dinner.
Day Three (Sunday Morning): we reflected on what happened and parted ways. Everyone went back to their lives of warm beds, showers and school.
What I Learned
Three things I learned while in the first part of our project were:
1. Not every person who uses food banks, the Mustard Seed, Hope Mission, etc. is necessarily homeless. The slum population in Edmonton is enormous and many families utilize the services.
2. The sense of community is very strong. Even stronger at times than my own university community.
3. Most people living in poverty do not want sympathy or charity. Some people choose to live off the grid as a lifestyle and the most they want from you is for you to listen to their story.
I’d like to tell the short version of stories from some of the people I met.
Gail – She told me she was a mother of three. Her children are all in foster care because she has a crack addiction and supports her habit by selling her body on the streets. She wore yoga pants and a thin hoodie. She had glasses that sat low on her nose and she had quite the sweet tooth. If someone didn’t want their dessert they would give it to her.
The Roofer – I came in part way this story which was already being told to some of my fellow classmates. He worked all day as a roofer and usually didn’t eat lunch. He was treated different by his co-workers and not very nicely from what he told us. He would go all day without eating and then end up at the Mustard Seed if he made it in time after work. He could never seem to get ahead between working all day and trying to pay for rent. I’m not sure if he was even living anywhere at the time. (Slum landlords will go as far as to rent out the hallway of their building or supply closets at outrageous prices. People trying to stay warm for even one night will take the bait and spend all of their cheque on a place to sleep) This man had a choice of whether to eat for the day or sleep some place warm. Most often only one need is met.
Sharing the Stories
Everyone had the same assignment but we could pick anyone as long as they would go on record with their full name. I chose a volunteer who had come with a group a few weeks after our class. Check out all the great interviews my classmates did as well in partnership with CBC Radio’s Turkey Drive.This was our final assignment of the year and I’m very proud of what learned and accomplished.
Now, we weren’t the only ones to try out this great assignment. Community engagement on a base level is encouraged within other faculties with MacEwan University as well as in highschools throughout Edmonton. There are summer and fall programs available.
The last action was to publish our stories online, with some of the top stories to be aired live on CBC Radio during their annual Turkey Drive. After that we were congratulated on our projects and some of us were asked to speak to a group of MacEwan faculty members on our overall experience and the effectiveness of the project.
I’m writing about this story during this time of year because Edmonton is a cold city to live in, poverty within our city is ever-present and is not something to be ignored or pitied. If you have the time to listen to someone’s story of living on the streets or in the slums do it. Buy them a coffee instead of throwing change their way. I don’t understand people who refuse to give out money, because they don’t know what the person is going to spend it on. If you have reservations about giving out money, go and buy that person a coffee or sandwich. Chances are they’ll appreciate it and you’ll know where your money went.
Above all, appreciate your life because every person who has a warm place to sleep and food on the table is richer than so many people living in poverty and yet some are still dissatisfied with their lives. This is the season to be merry and look at all the great things you already have. Happy and healthy families, a steady job, good grades in school or maybe a bonus this year because working hard paid off. Whatever it may be, just realize how great it all is. And if you’ve got a day off, maybe head on down to the food bank, Mustard Seed or Hope Mission and spread the holiday cheer.
Happy Holidays and stay classy!