During my time at OIM, Jason gave me a book to read by someone who volunteered in the downtown eastside of Vancouver. It delves into the complicated world of poverty. As I began to read it, I couldn't put it down. Though not written by a Christian, the author, Bart Campbell, had much to say about we who are Christian, and others who help out. He had much to say about those who live on the streets of Vancouver too. Below is a summary of the points that struck me the most in the book.....
1. Definition of Skid Row: Came "over a century ago in Victoria amongst lumberjacks who patronized one seedy neighbourhood for heavy drinking and brothel visits. . . [and] . . . nicknamed the place 'skid road' after the greased log runways down which they slid lumbers to the rivers . . . [so] . . . 'skid row' suggests fast, slippery descent, an unstable way of life, a hopeless address" (16).
2. There are "various styles of homelessness . . . vans and cars that barely run. . . 'squatting' . . .sleeping in parks and hedges. . . emergency shelters . . .etc." (23)
3. For many homeless people "all those years of living completely in the present make chronology difficult for them. They often can't tell you if the event they are describing occurred last year, or five days ago. Everything is completely arbitrary; there is no emotional sequence" (24).
4. "If you take the time to think about it, you realize that homeless people are not stupid, 'cause nobody stupid is gonna survive on the street. You gotta be smart and strong when you're homeless" (25).
5. Comment about the food homeless people receive from the eight sisters at St. Paul's church, "The sisters should try eating what they serve" (30).
6. "Christian Charities . . . want to help in some small, Christ-like fashion. Creating and maintaining soup kitchens is a compassionate response to the shock of seeing hungry, homeless people on the streets" (31).
7. "Poverty is extraordinarily complicated. . . a single person . . . has to memorize the business hours of every soup kitchen or they will starve . . . breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a matter of persistence" (31).
8. "Soup kitchens are popular not because of their free food, but because they are one of the only places left for the poor urban nomad to find social acceptance - sort of like warm public living rooms where they are never treated as specimens of some disease" (33).
9. "Acceptance is so paramount that soup kitchen protocol insists you don't stare at people who may be pacing, laughing out of context, or talking to themselves . . . total acceptance is the only thing that can connect with such a restless, transitional society. . . " (33).
10. "Once when a pious volunteer asked Brother Tim why he refused to start up a Bible study class, or form a prayer group, like in many of the other Christian Charities, I overheard Brother Tim reply flatly: 'Because I'm not an asshole' (34).
11. Here's an interesting quote: "Christian zealots man the skid row soup kitchens . . . not necessarily to convert, but because it is the only place they can be truly open about their embarrassing Christianity. In a soup kitchen their zeal is tolerated, their blind faith is accepted, just as long as it respects certain limits. Joyous Christians are welcomed - just as are alcoholics, junkies, and the untreated mentally ill - in the same open patient way that everyone else is accepted" (37-38).
12. The author says of himself, "I know now that all that separates me from the homeless men and women I serve is a couple of pay cheques . . . [and I see] . . . how lives can come crashing down in a heartbeat because of some accident, layoff, illness, death of a loved one, or a divorce" (38).
13. Examining our motives for doing what we do.....A woman who says we are winning the war against poverty and "belonged to a suburban prayer group that drives into the city one Tuesday morning a month and makes sandwiches for the sisters. 'But didn't you drive through the neighborhood on your way here?' I incredulously asked. 'Yes, but all those gross drug addicts and sleazy hookers don't count because they chose to live that way. You just can't help some people, so they don't count.'" (54).
14. About training. . . "A perverse thing I've noticed about poverty-related professions is that the more dangerous, useful, and necessary the work is, the less it pays, and the less training it requires" (55).
15. Sometimes we think that homeless people don't notice what's going on around them . . . but the author got heck from one teenaged girl because he never gave her money or cigarettes. His response. . . "I was stunned. It never occurred to me that panhandlers studied the competition - and compared the effectiveness of tactics. I was amazed that they could tell they were being ignored by one person, when most of the world ignores them" (57).
16. "There is no real coordination of poverty programs in the downtown eastside, partly because so many are run by well-intentioned amateurs and self-taught experts who feel quite territorial about their pet programs" (63).
17. "It is expensive to be poor" (74). You'll have to read the quote in context to get the real meaning of this quote.
18. The author's thoughts about prostitutes: "After getting to know some of the women, you soon learn that they're not really prostitutes - just desperate drug addicts renting their bodies for more drugs" (102).
19. The author on why crimes are committed: "Such stupid, pointless crimes that apparently they want to be caught and punished - if only to occasionally reinforce their poor sense of self and place. A jailhouse is, after all, a permanent address, and a prison number is some sort of identity" (112).
20. Brother Tim on his thoughts about prisoners: "Prisoners are always worse, not better, after their prison experiences. They have been programmed to overreact" (115).
21. The author commenting on how homeless people interact with each other: After one buddy thought the other buddy was stealing his $5 the two got into a fist fight. Once they were separated and their wounds were fixed up, they were best buddies again. " 'I don't get it,' I said to Brother Tim as we watched them leave. 'They wanted to rob and kill each other a few minutes ago.' 'They're friends of convenience,' Brother Tim suggested. 'And that's important. All human beings need someone to talk to.' " (118).
22. "The poorest of our society are often the most generous. . . and the vast majority of skid row charity volunteers and employees are only slightly more financially stable than the patrons they are trying to help." (127). Now that's an interesting comment, and from my limited observations, I'd have to say it's true. I'm still contemplating why though. . .
23. "Poverty means different things in different cultures. . . the poor in those [third world] places are seldom as totally rejected as they are in the skid rows of the affluent western world. Here poverty is demoralizing and dispiriting and humiliating. Skid row lives are difficult to understand for people who have never been afflicted by poverty, illness, addiction, or love." (128).
24. Final comment about why the author volunteers. It is honest, brutal, full of meaning, and cuts to the core. I appreciate the quote, and now need to ponder it's depth in my own life as I volunteer for things....."I hang out at The Door Is Open because I want to make my life more meaningful, not his [a drunk, wobbly native who regularly attends the drop in], and he knows it" (136).
This was not an easy book to read, but I'm glad I did. It was honest, painful, in my face and challenging. Pick it up sometime and give it a read. It will change your thinking about homeless life, and that will do all of us some good. : )