Comment: When I walk to work at Our Place, I feel empathy, not fear

A stranger asked me recently if I ever felt afraid when I walked down Pandora Avenue to my workplace, which just happens to be Our Place, an inner-city refuge for people experiencing homelessness, poverty, addiction and mental-health issues.

Naturally, my answer was “no,” but that got me to thinking of why. Why don’t I feel afraid? Certainly, there can be scary situations that happen outside Our Place. The nature of the people we serve means that we are challenged on a daily basis.

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There is no sugar-coating the fact that when people are smoking or injecting illicit drugs, their behaviour can be erratic. There is also no easy fix for some of the people dealing with severe mental-health issues who are practically abandoned on our doorstep.

So why don’t I feel afraid?

The answer is complex, but in working with this challenging population, I don’t feel aggression flowing from them, instead I feel their fear. For so many vulnerable people, their lives are filled with fear, anxiety and hopelessness. I can honestly say that I haven’t met anyone who lives on the street who hasn’t suffered severe abuse in their lives.

That abuse can take many forms: mental, physical, emotional and sexual. It can also strike at any time from pre-natal to adulthood. Few escape it, and the damage it causes is immeasurable.

At Our Place, we build trust with the family members (our name and culture for those who access our services), and in building that trust we hear far too many stories that leave claw marks on our hearts.

If we could end addiction today, we would.

If we could prevent all forms of abuse, we would do that, too.

But we can’t. We can try. Definitely. But the reality is that addiction, abuse and the mental-health issues they cause are here to stay until miracles become more commonplace. And, yes, we pray for miracles, too.

So when I walk to work, it’s not fear that I feel, but empathy. The man smoking drugs on the boulevard is there because it’s one of the only places he feels safe and accepted. If he gets in trouble and the fentanyl-laced opioids stop his lungs from working, there is a chance someone will be there to save his life. If he’s cold, hungry or thirsty, he knows Our Place will welcome him inside.

And this is one of the upsides. By being here, by opening our doors and welcoming people inside, we can then help them address their addiction. When people hide in the shadows, they face addiction alone. But when they come into the light, we can help them find a healing path.

It’s not perfect, we know that. But we also know that most of the people we see have been chased away, shut out, ignored, abandoned and treated with contempt by so many others.

If we do the same, where can people go? There isn’t enough affordable housing for everyone, yet we know that stable housing, even temporary housing, is the first step — especially when it includes supports. Almost no one can escape their addiction if they don’t have a safe place to lay their head at night.

So rather than fear, I feel so thankful that a sanctuary such as Our Place exists in our community.

Nobody, regardless of their current state, should be walking this path alone.

Don Evans is the CEO of the Our Place Society.

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