What’s the Difference?

Danny Ferguson / John Cassells

There are a small number of big questions that help us understand our place in the world.  As an outreach worker, here’s one that wasn’t easily resolved for me:  What sets me apart from those I meet on the street?  To be more specific, how would I have responded if, as a young person, my hopes and dreams were taken from me; if I had found myself alone in the world?  My friend Danny Fergusson shares this revealing perspective:

D.Ferguson copy“I took a couple of trips downtown with my coworkers recently. We split up and walked alone for a while. As soon as I was alone on the crowded streets of Vancouver, I felt my security and confidence drip away. I started to wander…

Something told me (I am sure it was God) to sit. I looked but it seemed every spot was taken. I ended up in an alley. At first the smell was putrid and I did not want to stay. There were so many people looking through the dumpsters, pushing around their carts, walking, and talking. I found a vacant spot and sat down. The city is a noisy place. This day was no exception with the hustle and bustle of traffic. The countless voices, horns, and construction leave a deafening wake. Yet in those few minutes I became painfully aware of a quietness around me. I was lonely. Just then a bus full of sightseers drove through the side road intersecting the alley. The people on board saw me but were quick to avoid eye contact. My loneliness increased all the more.

“Maybe these hobo’s were not traveling toward home as much as they were traveling away from horrors of war.”

Here, I was lonely, rejected, insecure, bored… If I could feel this way in under an hour, how would I feel after a week or a year in that place? Who would I become? As important as I like to think I am, in that moment I saw myself for who I really am: a wondering hobo. The term hobo came into wide use after the close of the U.S. Civil War. It was used in reference to the soldiers who were “Homeward Bound”. Some of these men never made it home, and gave into a life of aimless wondering. Maybe these hobo’s were not traveling toward home as much as they were traveling away from horrors of war. The people in the alley are also trying to escape from war filled lives. Wars that took place in their homes and now they are wandering on a journey not toward home but away from it.

I tried to imagine my home in that way. I thought of my hurts and pain I had faced in my past and tried to multiply them. A light went on for me.”

Danny gets it.  Bringing hope to street youth takes more than social programs.  Merely feeding, clothing and providing shelter come up short.  We’ll never get it right until we can walk alongside those who are lost and forgotten.  Not above, not ahead, but with them.  Building a program provides temporal support, but building community provides a place of true belonging.  We’re able to do this, only when we understand OUR own place in the world, and that THEY are not so different from you and me.

Danny Ferguson is Langley Area Director for Greater Vancouver Youth Unlimited (YFC).  Get to know Danny better at http://www.proyouthworker.com/

Confessions of an Outreach Worker

John Cassells  ||  On Youth Work

JC at Mic“Vegas.  Said she was going to Vegas.” Andrew answered between gulps of homemade soup.  “Buddy, with a big car, was buying her lunch from the first day she got down here.  She felt special.  She thought maybe he was going to help her get things sorted out.  She was what?  Eight, maybe nine days on the street…Can I get pair of socks? Wherever he took her, I hope she’s OK.”

Except that she was sleeping on Queen Street during the chilly nights of mid’ October, she looked like any other teenager.  She was nervous, when I approached.  Her clothing was still clean and the name on her volleyball team jacket matched the one she gave me.  “Jennifer”.  I saw her twice over the course of a week.  Then she was gone.

Street: 1,  John: 0

The bad news is, the street beats us more often than not.  But we don’t actually tell people that.  And sometimes we can’t even admit it to ourselves.  If a young person is to become homeless, it happens at 15 years old, on average -Jennifer’s age.  It troubles me to tell you that these same kids don’t usually connect, in a meaningful way, with street outreach workers until they’re at least 17.  In the first two years of being on the streets they are without appropriate support; repeatedly subjected to violence; not knowing who they can reach out to; not knowing who they can trust.  I’m not OK with that.

Jennifer wasn’t actually the first one I saw disappear.  There were a few before her.  Around the time she went off the radar, Kaitlyn resurfaced.  Like Jennifer, I had taken special note of Kaitlyn.  I knew that she was particularly vulnerable, and I worried for her safety.  Keeping an eye out for her was about all I could manage.  I had a program to run.  The responsibilities on my shoulders meant that I couldn’t be out on the street looking for lost kids every day, buying them lunch.  In the case of these two precious young people, somebody else did just that.

When Kaitlyn returned, she was different.  Her childlike innocence was gone -like when a young soldier returns home from war.  Kaitlyn barely knew me, so I was glad to get this much:  “I’ve been in Peterborough for the last year and a half.  I went there with my boyfriend.  Well, not really my boyfriend, as it turned out.  Lots happened -lots I don’t want to talk about.”

Like Kaitlyn, there’s lots I don’t want to talk about either.  In my newsletters, do I mention the ones I lost?  Not likely.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still believe that inspiring people is an important role of mine.  And I’ve got a hundred good news stories that do just that (PTL).  But with young lives hanging in the balance, every opportunity requires our very best.  Jennifer and Kaitlyn didn’t get my best, simply because I didn’t make time for them.  While I tripled the number of street youth my program served, I did little to increase my program’s capacity to respond effectively the urgent needs of individual kids.  Just running the thing, became all-consuming.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  It seems to be the norm among outreach programs.  The busyness of the program and the appearance of success is all too often placed ahead of effectively helping the ones in the deepest need.

In the world of youth work, much has changed, and youth agencies across the country are struggling to stay effective.  Some are struggling to simply keeping their doors open.  The problem I brought up here, is one of many that we face.  What do you need to talk about?  I’d love to hear from you.

It’s my hope that Canadian Street Dialogs will be a safe place unpack some of those untold stories, and where we can wrestle with the hard questions.  It’s not actually meant as a place to confess our failures, but does provide an opportunity to honestly examine the challenges that lie before us.  Together, we will move forward, building on our successes, charting new routes that lead us past the obstacles and onto more of the good work we love to do.  That’s the purpose of Canadian Street Dialogues: candid discussions on reaching street involved youth.  Thanks for reading.

-John