When the Christmas season rolls around every year, the advertisements, posters and jingles want you to buy into the idea that you need to get as much stuff as you can, as fast as you can. In 2013, the average Canadian and American consumer expected to spend anywhere from $700 to $1,800 during the holiday season. With all of this festive cacophony assailing the senses, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact there are many people in need who fade into the background of the hustle and bustle.
During this time, near the end of November, two Navigator campus groups decided to intentionally engage with those living on the street. In Edmonton, the University of Alberta Navigator students decided to forgo their annual Christmas party and instead travel to downtown Edmonton in minus-20 weather to interact with and learn from the homeless people there. Meanwhile, Navigators in Ottawa volunteered their time to serve a hot meal to those who needed it and later met together to hear a talk on how to combat the stigma attached to the issue of homelessness.
Peter Wing, the U of A group’s student president, says the leadership team brought this idea up because they felt the attitude of the group was ready for it. “There’s a lot who are very interested in doing stuff that may be uncomfortable by the conventional idea of what to do for a good time. They were willing to trade their comfort for the chance of an encounter with God through serving his people.”
“No one noticed”
During their foray into Edmonton’s downtown, with a wind chill that dropped the temperature to -30C, Peter says he and two other students, Brendan Haws and Josh Irwin, met a man wearing a denim jacket and track pants, but no hat or gloves. The three of them started talking with him and invited him to join them at Subway for dinner.
As they were walking over, Peter says he noticed that half of the man’s fingers were frostbitten. Looking back, he says “it made me pretty angry to think that people can exist in crowds of other people and no one will even notice that. He was standing on the street corner with 15 other people. If I was just trying to get somewhere like everyone else, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed, and that’s what freaked out the most. He had severe frostbite on his fingers, standing in a crowd of other people, and no one noticed.”
When they got to Subway, Brendan and Josh sat down with him while Peter called the Homeless in Distress line followed by EMS when he was told they were all maxed out on calls because of the bone-chilling weather. During this time, the man ate through one 12-inch sub and was halfway through a second. By the time the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital, he was in the bathroom throwing up from the shock his body received at eating so much so quickly.
Both Peter and Brendan say this experience opened their eyes to the complexity of homelessness because of how they were blindsided. “I’ve been struggling recently,” Peter says, “with how our convictions to help other people have to reconcile with the fact that it’s not just a simple A+B, go and donate, do this, volunteer – there’s so much complexity to try and go into these difficult, broken circumstances with people. There’s a point at which it becomes more about our own conscience than about the people [you’re] oriented towards.”
Continuing with that idea, Brendan says “we tend towards this idea that we don’t want to give them money because they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol, but you want to err on the safe side, so that’s why you may tend towards taking them out for meals and focus on relational stuff. It was ironic because everyone needs food, especially people on the streets, but in reality food was the worst thing for him at that point. Food is a pretty safe bet because everyone needs it, but in some cases that’s not going to be the best thing for them. It’s a difficult terrain to map because it’s difficult figuring out what exactly is going to help them.”
Smiling and saying hello is fine
On the other side of the country, in Ottawa, a group of Carleton students made their way to Southminster United Church in the Old Ottawa South Neighbourhood to volunteer with the “Out of the Cold Supper,” where they helped to cook and serve a meal for those who came in. The following Wednesday, Navigator alumni Stephanie Rattelade came to speak to the group on how individuals can make a positive difference in the lives of those on the street. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ottawa who specializes in community psychology research and how homelessness pertains to it.
She says that when you encounter homeless people, “smiling at them, saying hello, small talk is fine. You don’t necessarily have to give money to someone who’s asking you, but if you want to give a coffee or a granola bar, those are good too. But even just that sense of talking to someone can make a big difference. I get a lot of complaints from the people I work with who say they feel very ignored when they’re on the streets, so just that acknowledgement can make a big difference.”
Duncan Polley, a student who attended the talk and volunteered at the supper, said these experiences showed him the freedom we have to do more than just throw money at people. “I realized I do have this tendency to be, like, if I don’t have money, I don’t even talk to them, but sometimes people just want you to sit down and chat with them. Most of the time, if I had money in my pocket, I’d just go ‘here, take this money,’ and then walk away. I feel like there should be more effort to make it more personal.”
Looking back on that night, Peter says the experience revealed an important truth. “It opened our eyes to the picture that [homelessness] is humblingly complicated, and the only one who can see the whole picture and is able to help somebody completely is God. He’s the one who can keep it all in view at the same time and we have to depend on him to let us fit into his plan and work with him.”
In both Ottawa and Edmonton, the students have demonstrated an attitude of willingness that serves to not only bless those they encounter, but also to benefit their groups as a whole. Peter says he’s observed that “the guys are willing to step out more than before, and they are actively putting energy into spending time together, encouraging each other and even mentoring the younger students. I can taste the passion in the room sometimes. That’s what I dream about.”