ENCOUNTER: Understanding Homelessness & Its Hidden Barriers

The forty-pound backpack, which hadn’t seemed all that debilitating when I first put it on, was growing increasingly heavier the harder and faster I pedalled. And the harder and faster I pedalled, the more cumbersome the enormous hiking pack was becoming, and the wearier I was starting to feel.

But I had to keep pedalling. Because the instant I stopped, we would be enveloped in darkness, and my Encounter buddy Kit Watson (who was struggling to locate a specific housing form in a stack of about twenty) would be too.

The symbolism of this room wasn’t lost on us: a metaphor to simultaneously represent both the desperate desire to keep pushing despite exhaustion, and the fear that your hopes of a warm home may be dashed in an instant due to circumstances far beyond your own control…

I’d been lucky enough to be invited by a friend of mine at Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver to experience their latest project, ENCOUNTER: an educational, interactive experience (modelled after the ever-popular escape rooms) to help us understand the hidden barriers and obstacles faced by homeless Vancouverites and others worldwide. The project is co-hosted by UGM and EXIT Canada, and developed with formerly-homeless folk (who I found out are paid for their time, which is awesome!) working hand-in-hand with the volunteers and staff to create an immersive learning experience that mirrors a much colder reality.

The fact that I was slightly shaken as I clambered up onto the bike was probably to blame for me being so quick to fatigue. But hey, that’s no excuse. The streets don’t give a shit if you’re tired. They don’t give a shit if you’re anxious or hungry or still smarting from something you experienced five minutes ago. The streets can be cruel and unrelenting for those who are forced to weather them… and, as we had already learned in the room we’d escaped immediately before, the physical and mental barriers you often aren’t even aware exist can hold you back from doing things that otherwise seem pretty damn effortless.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when we rolled up to the EXIT Canada venue in Richmond, BC. I’d never taken part in any kind of “escape room” game, and my many mental quirks were trying to whip me up into a frenzy over exposing myself so willingly to the unknown. But I am 120% glad that I did.

We signed in with UGM and met our formerly-homeless guide for our late-night session, who I’ll just dub “Cooper”. Cooper’s genuine kindness immediately put me at ease; he was so trusting and open with his story, telling us how he had been homeless for years on the streets of the Downtown Eastside as he grappled with a brutal alcohol addiction. I think almost everyone knows someone with a drug addiction, whether it’s alcoholism or hard drugs, or even something as commonplace as nicotine or caffeine. Addictions can drive us to the darkest corners of our minds and abandon us there, and it was heart-wrenching to hear of how close Cooper would come to escaping the streets before it was cruelly taken from him again for one reason or another that was quite legitimately out of his control.

Once the rooms were all set up again, Cooper gave us a radio and the backpack, and we were on our own with only the static of our guide’s voice to give us hints when asked. Four different rooms brought us through analogies and symbolism for many different problems homeless folk tend to face: a rapidly-moving housing market, physical health and sensory organ problems, low capacity caps on shelters and rehabilitation programs, emotional and mental factors, and much more. It taught us very somatically how the transient community has to fight to keep so many balls in the air at once, the struggles many of them live with day-to-day, and exactly how vast and diverse the homeless population of Vancouver really is.

“Sometimes someone would move into a place, and the other people living there would treat them with disgust,” Cooper told us with far too much normalcy. “Like, why are you living here, you don’t belong here, you’re bringing the whole neighbourhood down. And they would just… end up going back to a shelter, because dealing with the guilt and the shame would become… just… too much.”

There are many reasons a person can become homeless, despite how we all try to chalk it up to bad decisions made or alcohol/drug abuse. On just one night in 2015, over 31,500 adults and children fleeing domestic violence found refuge in a homeless shelter, and a further 12,197 were unable to be helped due to a lack of funding or resources. A 2014 study in Toronto found that almost half of all homeless men have suffered a traumatic brain injury (such as a concussion), and the vast majority of those injuries happened before the patient lost his home. In the United States, 40% of homeless youth sleeping rough are LGBTQ+, which was one of the main reasons this epidemic has hit me on a personal level. Meanwhile, in the Canadian province of Alberta right now, conservative parties are attempting to make it law that schools must inform parents if their children join a GSA. When families are exiling their children due to their sexual orientation or gender identities, on what level is that method of thinking going to in any way help with that sort of a problem rather than cause more issues…?

I personally believe there’s a reason we all have to plug our ears and close our eyes and repeat the mantra but it’ll never ever happen to me over and over again until we believe it. Or even, why some of us just snort a comment about how they probably did something to deserve it. Victim-blaming is a behaviour we tend to adopt when we want to believe we are secure from being harmed by a threat – that we are untouchable. This feeling of invincibility stems from us convincing ourselves that the victim simply must have done something to deserve their fate – ergo, if we don’t make that same poor choice, we will remain safe from it. We can’t be hurt by it.

The only real cure is awareness. Well… awareness, and compassion.

Just as we refuse to blame a rape on what the victim was wearing or a domestic assault on something the victim could’ve done to piss off their assailant, it’s important that we don’t blame sleeping rough on a person who in the vast majority of cases hasn’t directly done anything that would or should result in their exposure to the elements. So very, very important.

Because the Us vs Them nature is both damaging to the folk who need our support and understanding, and to ourselves as well.

It’s only by the grace and kindness of friends that I wasn’t homeless in Alberta my first year in Canada. Friends took me in, made sure I had a warm couch to sleep on and a roof over my head. Made sure my tiny kitten didn’t have to slum it on the streets with me. And with my mental quirks and my own scuffles with an addictive personality, I don’t doubt for a second that if left to my own devices I am self-sabotaging enough to wind up with nothing to my name.

Which is why I genuinely, honestly, and humbly request you please do your best to check out UGM‘s Encounter experience!

If you’re in the Lower Mainland, it’s running for a few more nights at Exit Canada in Richmond, BC. If you’re one of my fam checking in from afar, you can still watch the below video and share it (or this post!) with your own mates on social media:

Encounter: Interactively Understanding Homelessness and its Barriers from Union Gospel Mission on Vimeo.

And I would really, really appreciate it if you do! The volunteers and formerly-homeless guides who worked to bring this project to life are unbelievably passionate, artistically fantastic, and so kind and welcoming. The entire time we were there, they didn’t hesitate to thank us for coming in, for checking it out, for giving up our time to learn more about this rapidly growing homelessness epidemic that’s sweeping across Vancouver – and the entirety of North America, too.

In this day and age, it’s honestly never been more important to have our eyes so open. Which is why I want to thank Union Gospel Mission of Vancouver and EXIT Canada for cooking up this very tangible, immersive learning venture for us to enjoy and experience.

You can read more about what Union Gospel Mission does for homelessness, and even donate to their cause, by visiting their website.

Kier xo

Thanks so much to Nicole, Cooper, and all of UGM and EXIT Canada for having us!

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