By Carina Solda
Huddled in a stairway, wrapped in a stained and soiled quilt, is the same man many people pass when walking to school or work. There is no mistaking him as he is there every morning, wearing the same tattered clothing and rubbing his weathered hands together to generate a little warmth. He is sitting there all alone, and has probably been there throughout the night. Some catch a glimpse of him as they hastily run to catch their train, but do they really see him? Can they really feel his presence? Or is he just another face in the crowd?
This man is homeless. He is one of the many men and women who seek refuge in the shadowy corners of Calgary streets. At present, there are an estimated 1,296 homeless individuals on the city streets, a 30 per cent increase from two years ago. This was brought into focus during Homeless Awareness Week, which ran from Sept. 25-Oct. 1.
"The value of having Homeless Awareness Week is to recognize that homelessness is an issue, and that the homeless need to be recognized as individuals," said Pat Varley, Creative Coordinator at the Mustard Seed and Homeless Awareness Committee Member. This passing week marked the sixth year of the program.
"The last three years have been held in the fall, and [the program] is usually planned for somewhere between the last week of September and the first week of October," said Varley. "It is a good opportunity to help out before the cold."
27 different agencies sponsored the program, such as the Mustard Seed, the Salvation Army, the Calgary Drop-in Centre, Hillhurst Sunnyside Non-profit Housing and United Way. This year’s theme showed a poster of a child sitting in a van, with the message, "For some this is home. Calgarians will change this picture." Along with the poster, handouts were distributed to the public, listing ways that Calgarians could lend a helping hand.
"Respect the homeless as individuals, learn more about the homeless issue; volunteer at shelters, providing clothing, food, and toys and to simply remove the stigma or myth that homeless are bums… these are all examples [of things people can do]," said Varley. "This awareness week is not only about homelessness but also about poverty, job training and employment, and what people can do to help."
"Apart from raising consciousness regarding the plight of the homeless, we are trying to change the stereotypical image of the homeless," said Salvation Army Major Reg Newbury, who is also a Homeless Awareness Committee member.
Newbury agrees the homeless tend be perceived as bums but feels this really is a myth.
"People are not down-and-outers because they are homeless," said Newbury. "In fact, 60-70 per cent of the people that stay at the Salvation Army are employed but they don’t have homes. A big reason for this is that housing in Calgary is so expensive."
Numerous events took place during the week. There was a luncheon at Olympic Plaza last Monday, which attracted approximately 1,700 people. As well, 265 gathered for a dinner put on by the Salvation Army and the Huntington Hills Community Association last Tuesday.
"Homelessness affects not just the inner city, but the communities as well," said Newbury. "These events help to bring communities together, to see what resources the community has that can be made available to the homeless."
Other notable projects were launched to garner support and to raise awareness, such as the Backpack Project. Children, with the support of their schools, donated used backpacks. The United Way funded a movie that captured the plight of the homeless and provided a humanistic perspective into the lives of the homeless. The movie, titled The Homeless Among Us, was released on Thursday.
"The events that occurred in the communities throughout the city really brought the community, staff, agencies, homeless and the volunteers together," said Varley. "I believe this year was definitely a huge success. Calgary is a very compassionate city."
Although this week was intended to raise awareness of the homeless issue in the city, individuals are encouraged to continue lending their support year round.