Where Everyone Belongs

josh

Josh with Accessible Housing staff and clients

By Joshua Clarke, Project Manager and Program Coordinator with Accessible Housing

We all know what it’s like to be left out; to feel like we don’t belong.  I was bullied as a kid and while growing up I often felt like I had somehow been left outside the circle.  I attribute this childhood experience to my deep resonance and sensitivity to the exclusion, marginalization and victimization of others.  I remember the devastation and strong emotional reaction to first learning about racial segregation and the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, apartheid in South Africa, and the cultural genocide of the Canadian residential schools.  Although the bullying I experienced is certainly not equivalent to these horrendous human atrocities, both my personal experience and historical knowledge made me aware that when certain people are not allowed to belong, it ultimately leads to societal degradation and devastation.

It was this empathy and knowledge that led me to start working with people experiencing homeless in Calgary.  I was challenged to look into my own backyard and consider who has been left outside the circle and find a way to change that.  I needed to adjust my perspective, so I quit my job as a junior engineer and started working at a local shelter downtown. The result was a life forever changed.  I made deep connections with people who had found themselves on the margins and came to see them as my brothers and sisters.  Believe it or not, I did not encounter a single individual who chose to be there, instead, they found themselves victims of various uncontrollable, unforeseeable factors that did the choosing for them; unaffordable and inaccessible housing, low vacancy rates, years of childhood abuse, failed marriages, physical disabilities, mental illness, job loss, discrimination, social stigma, and the list goes on.

I found myself asking a lot of questions: How is homelessness possible in such an affluent and resource abundant city?  Why are people being discriminated against and excluded for realities beyond their control?  Have we not learned from history and what happens when people are left outside the circle?  What am I doing to perpetuate the stigmas and barriers that keep people from belonging?  What is the solution?

My experience suggests we start by asking ourselves some basic questions, “Do I know someone who is homeless or on the verge of it? Do I know someone who is “outside the circle” for some reason?”  Because knowing someone changes everything.  Relationship changes everything.  It teaches us that we are better together.

When I walk into one of Accessible’s homes, like Newbridge or Fourth Dimension, I know the people who live there. I know their stories, their personalities, their hopes and dreams, skills and abilities, and they know me too.  The barriers of “us versus them” have completely diminished as I realize that I need them and they need me; that my well-being completely depends on their well-being.  I can only belong if they belong.  Our communities, neighbourhoods, and cities can only thrive if there is no one left outside the circle.  A thriving Calgary is one where everyone has a home and belongs in community.