I didn’t cry for Code Red

I didn’t cry when I read the Code Red series in the Hamilton Spectator. I live here, I see the people.

I didn’t cry when I saw the comparisons; Sub-Saharan Africa is in crisis with 15% of babies being born underweight with few prospects for improvement over their lifetime; in some of our Hamilton neighbourhoods it’s 47%.

I didn’t cry when you belittled me at the table, even though you invited me to this meeting of the Hamilton Collaboratives. Invited me to represent the people in question.

I didn’t cry when you mocked my efforts to help as self-serving, said that I was there to get connected so that I could “get out”, meanwhile you kept telling the room all about what you had done in the past, what you would do in the future. Grandstanding while small children go hungry.

I didn’t cry when you ignored me, left the table while I was talking.

I didn’t cry when I realized that all this rudeness wasn’t about me, it was about you.

But when I realized that this whole day, this whole effort, the energy of all these people was also about you and your self-interest, that there never is going to be a plan to save the lives of the people in my neighbourhood, that in all likelihood this is just a platform for your campaign, then I cried. Cause who else will all these smart, capable people turn to in directing their resources? Who else will take the lead to get us working together if not you? You’re like a tin man, good at your job but missing a heart.

I cried then and I can’t seem to stop cause I realize I was expecting too much from you. And you’re just a person. And there isn’t anybody else. And that was news to me. News I didn’t want to know.

I wanted to believe that smart people everywhere really were trying to help.

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Hungry Heart

Being hungry would be a lot less painful if it wasn’t a secret.

Homeless and Hungry came up on Homeless Man Speaks. Apparently there are still people who think that we don’t have poor or hungry people here in Canada.

For a while when I was 10-11 we lived in Guelph, in the student housing at the university. There were seven of us kids by then. First there was no money. And then there was no food. I went to 3 schools during that time, the last of which was College Ave and it was a short walk from home to school. You can only show up without a lunch so many times before nobody believes the forgetful bit so I started going home for “lunch”.

First it was the good food that disappeared. Then the easy food. The all the stuff at the back of the cupboard. At 11 it wasn’t really about hungry belly, it was somehow about justice. But having so many younger brothers and sisters, I could see plainly that sometimes it is about hungry belly.

I remember coming home one day, probably from the creek where I played with Merrie J, and finding my mother socially catatonic, the baby screaming, the youngest talker going “but why? why isn’t there any food?”

I remember coming home one day and seeing two of them fighting over the last piece of bread in a bag and I thought – “We had BREAD!?” Isn’t there some sort of unspoken rule in times of crisis that you divide it up evenly? or ration it? or share it? But what if the crisis becomes normal?

We eventually got evicted so that tells you how long our rent must have been overdue. And for how long the cupboards were bare. I remember trying to cash a cheque from an uncle. I was the banker in those days. Maybe we all were. I stood bawling at the counter, sent back three times to get CASH from the clerk who wanted to hold the cheque. “But it says GUARANTEED CERTIFIED!” She grilled me on what I was going to do with the money and when she understood that I was buying groceries gave me half of it.

I also remember going to Leaside High School in Toronto for grade eleven and twelve. Somehow the geography curriculum which I loved was hijacked in those days by a course about current events in which we learned that there are no poor people in Canada. I hated that class. How do you participate in something so stupid? And what’s the point?

Now at fourty-almost-two I can say that the only thing I truly suffer from is my own imagination, and that being hungry or broke is sometimes the consequence of the choices that I am making, like running my own business(es) instead of leveraging my letters for a stable (?) corporate job. But is that true when you’re a kid?

I wish I could find a way to say it loud and clear, once and for all; yes, there are hungry people even in Canada. Heaven help the people who think there aren’t. In my experience, you get an idea like that into your head and you learn the hard way that you’re wrong.

I’m not an expert on poverty or child hunger – it took me thirty years to get where I am now from the doorway of the townhouse full of wilted children draped over furniture like an Edvard Munch nightmare. Where I am now financially would make most people blush and send the mother-in-law into an apoplectic fit, but where I am now is in a place where my stability is not based on money, it’s based on a foundation of relationships that I can count on.

Like one neighbour, Julie, holding the fort at the cafe so I can run to the bank, and another, Deb, coming in to cafe-sit so I can do the shopping. Just this morning a brand new customer came into the cafe and within two minutes of talking he took it upon himself to password our WiFi. Thanks Alex! Welcome to the Heart of the Hammer! Where do these people come from?

Maybe you and I can’t feed everybody. Maybe the best what we can do is to not judge. But the least we can do is not silence the hungry voices by denying they exist.

Examples and Opportunities

It’s my impression that here in Hamilton we have a disproportionately high percentage of the population living in poverty. And yet there seems to be an entire industry devoted to alleviating or eliminating it.

It has been my experience that two of the most valuable things that we can give to someone, at any age and in any situation, but particularly to people who are struggling with poverty, is access to examples and opportunities.

Most of us are not lifestyle innovators. We go with the flow and are influenced by peer groups and the examples that surround us. And there’s no good reason we should each need to reinvent the wheel. And yet, if the wheels keep turning and we’re still struggling with the same problems, problems we may not even be able to identify, then maybe we need a new wheel.

The key word is ACCESS. It seems to me that many of the classic efforts to fight poverty actually create barriers to access for many people. Consider low-income housing projects where they lump everyone in together providing no alternative examples to anyone, or schools within a public system that are not created, maintained or valued equally and therefore actively create barriers to opportunities for many students.

Once upon a time I delivered the mail for Canada Post and for a while I delivered to a particular stretch that was full of overly large buildings each of which seemed to be stocked full of people with identical problems as if some agency said, “Lets stick all of these people here and all of those people there, that will make OUR jobs easier.” But it didn’t make the lives of the tenants any easier, as evidenced by the building in which everyone in it was on some form of disability pension. Each of the customers that I dealt with was either blind, or in a wheel chair or was physically challenged in some way that made it clear that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for them to help each other.

“Can you change my light bulb for me?”

“Lady, I can’t even see your light bulb!”

Another route that I delivered to had a good mix; it had a fancy condo building, a city homes building, a co-op townhouse area, a school, a community centre, a commercial strip and a park at the centre of it all. This model provides access to diverse examples for everyone and untold opportunities; for work, engagement or relationships that will be mutually beneficial.

Now the city of Hamilton is faced with some development opportunities, and I keep hearing about plans that are homogeneous. Plans that lump people into little ghettos; poor ghettos, old ghettos, business ghettos, arts ghettos. It doesn’t matter what or who you ghettoize, it’s still a ghetto. And it will become one unless enlightened people take advantage of successful examples and have access to opportunities to create value for others.

Lets mix it up folks. The gene pool benefits from variety and so does our community. Now is our opportunity to look for good examples and ask; “What do we really want to create?”

Wanted: A Heroes’ Hero

People have perceptions and expectations around money that continue to amuse and amaze me. If they think you’ve got some, then you are suddenly attractive on some level, if they think you haven’t got any, then they treat you like you’re contagious. And yet, it’s all perception.

A recent email debate on the subject of Free Food at CSI revealed to me that even Hero Central has plenty of people helping the world on empty stomachs. We put on a brave face, focus on results and count our lucky stars when some event or other has left-over muffins or Indian food.

This is almost a little too hard to think about. Somehow you get into a groove of thinking of things in terms of us and them or those in need and those who help. And the reason this is hard is that if you’re working on fighting poverty, there is some plan to get people from A to B to C. But the people doing the helping are already at C. They already have an education and certain developed-world expectations of themselves and are generally doing the job they love to do, but financially speaking, they’re at the c-for-ceiling.

If you live in a large city and have a spouse and two kids, the poverty line is $37,000. (2005 stats) And yet it is fairly common for someone working in the social-sector-white-collarish jobs to earn, say, $27,000. (2009) If your spouse happens to be a stay-at-home parent or an artist or some other low-income situation, this could very well represent your total family income. I know we live in a free-marketish world, certainly in one where we are privileged to choose our careers, but we all benefit so much from the work that our social sector people are doing.

I wish I knew how to launch a campaign to find us a Heroes’ Hero.

We all make choices. Some people buy fancy cars and live in tiny little condos. Some people rent big houses and have no car. I pay a cleaning lady but can’t afford home internet, cable tv or a car. Everyone makes choices and the differences in our choices is what makes us interesting to each other, and what creates the opportunity for relationships. Mike bought a tall ladder so now neighbours can borrow it when they clean their eaves troughs. One neighbour has a weed-wacker so Mike borrows it to trim the yard. You see where this is going. (I have an office with a wine rack, so other people store their wine there!)

Sometimes people say to me “You don’t know what it’s like!” And I want to say, “Yes I do,” but what I don’t want to do is have a race for the bottom, play the game of who suffered most. I’d rather say, “What do you need? Where are you going?” And help you to find a path or the strength to take it.

In the mean time, some people are doing what they like to do and going where they want to go and helping other people tremendously, and they still only get $27,000 a year. For that, I wish I could find a Heroes’ Hero who could somehow issue Christmas bonuses to everyone, an annual trip somewhere warm, some new technology for their home or a kitchen makeover. Or just feed the heroes. Imagine what a difference it would make in the morale of these Everyday Heroes? (Not to mention their grocery budget!)

So next time you meet someone with $40 million dollars, send them to me. We’ll invest it, and the interest can put about $20,000/year to each person at the League of Canadian Justice; the people who make school breakfasts possible, who keep rivers clean, who advocate for the voiceless. You can be sure that it isn’t going to happen on its own.

And I beleive that the Heroes are as deserving of some joyful perks as the next guy.