Calgary’s Mustard Seed helps the homeless this holiday season

As Christmas approaches, many families are likely planning annual gatherings involving big dinners, holiday jingles, decorated trees, presents and more. Meanwhile, those who don’t have families or homes are turning elsewhere for their festive celebrations, and the city’s homeless shelters are awash with preparations.

This is the time of year when people feel like giving–the Mustard Seed alone has already received a room full of presents. This makes Tim Gorman, the shelter’s Street Level Manager, smile from within.

“One great thing [about Christmas] is the community involvement,” says Gorman, who supervises many of the shelter’s facilities. “Many rooms will be piled to the ceiling with presents. Each year, hundreds of Calgarians lovingly prepare and wrap gifts for people they don’t know.”

It is also the time of the year when people seem to set aside their differences and act generously. Last December, around 1,800 volunteers helped at the Mustard Seed, of which over 400 worked on Christmas Day.

“I’ve worked here for the last two years on Christmas,” says Gorman. “This is the best place to be. The relationship between staff and guests gets integrated and everyone talks about Christmas. It brings some normalcy to our lives. For one month we can hopefully make them forget about those terrible things that brought them here.”

While the public expresses much compassion in the month of December, for the other 11 months of the year, homeless people often face harsh stereotypes and judgements.

“I often think that if there’s 100 people here, there’s 100 different stories,” Gorman explains. “A big part of what we do is get rid of stereotypes.”

Alcoholism and drug addiction often play a role in homelessness, as do domestic abuse, gambling addiction and relationship break-ups. But what most people fail to realize is that serious mental illnesses are extremely common among the homeless population. According to the Mustard Seed, over 60 per cent of their guests suffer from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. If depression were taken into account, 100 per cent of their guests could be considered mentally ill.

Perhaps the biggest public misconception is that a homeless person remains permanently jobless and without a home. In reality, most only stay on the streets temporarily. On average, there are around 1,500 people without a place to stay every night.

However, when four shelters pooled their data together and eliminated all duplicates, they found over 14,000 different individuals have been homeless in Calgary over the course of the last year. Further details show the homeless count fluctuates as some find permanent housing and others migrate to different cities.

Tim Gorman, who now devotes much of his time to building friendships with the homeless, was once living on the street as well. As a social worker, his past experiences help him understand issues the shelter’s guests deal with.

“Most of us have families and friends to fall back on. Some don’t,” Gorman explains. “Those who don’t have that safety net end up here. I was a 30-year-old man addicted to cocaine and heroine and my wife was a prostitute. I got off the streets in 1997. It was only a few years ago.”

According to Gorman, the most important thing is hope.

“There is no such thing as hopelessness,” says Gorman. “The Mustard Seed provides hope for people–it is a big part of why I’m here.”

Besides providing emergency and short or long-term housing, the Mustard Seed recently opened a new area offering many additional services.

There are new computer rooms where guests can upgrade their education by correspondence. Guests can also surf the Internet for jobs, print resumes and practice computer skills. Other facilities provide workshop space for learning woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork and more. These services help guests regain their self-esteem while allowing them to leave the shelter with new skills.

In addition, the Mustard Seed has also expanded on their Health and Wellness Centre, which offers basic medical care and advice. There is also a chaplain’s office where spiritual counseling is available. The shelter is consistently striving to improve the quality of their services so that in the long run a difference can be made.

“Often, [staff members] start [working] here with a ‘save-the-world’ mentality,” explains Gorman. “But there’s only so many funerals you can go to of friends who died from AIDS, overdoses and more until you realize you can’t save the world. Instead, try to improve their quality of life. Treat the guests with respect, remember their birthdays, you know, little things count.”

The Mustard Seed’s busiest season of the year requires extra help, and there is more than enough time left to fill out a volunteer sheet. Even when the Christmas craze is over, the shelter is always looking for extra hands because homelessness doesn’t end with Christmas.

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