A Frontline Hospitality Story
On a cold early spring day in March, my co-worker and I were doing one of our usual routes in the Crisis Diversion van, when I saw a homeless community member who was trudging down the sidewalk with his shopping cart of belongings. As he bumped his cart across the street, his sleeping bag slipped off unbeknownst to him. Knowing that he would need it for the cold night ahead – a sleeping bag being a sign that he most likely slept outside rather than harbouring in a shelter for the night – I asked my co-worker to pull around the block so that I could dash out, get the sleeping bag, and return it to its owner.
That was how I met Theo, and had the honour of hearing some of his story. I was right, he does sleep on the street. The shelter was not his cup of tea. Too many people. A good place to catch a virus as you lay side by side in a large open space with dozens of others. Too chaotic. High chance of being roughed up. At least in the alley where he made his bed he had his own space. Theo at once struck me as a gentle soul, as he thanked me with kind words for returning his sleeping bag. He was hungry, and had missed dinner at Hope Mission. Though it didn’t really matter, as he was only able to keep down soup and other liquids. He shared with me that he was in the late stages of colon cancer, his thin, frail figure giving away just how progressed the cancer was.
I asked my usual question, “Are you on any lists for housing?” He had put his name in with Homeward Trust, but that had been a couple years already. “Let’s look into that,” I suggested. “You can check in with housing at Boyle Street. I’ll check in as well tomorrow,” as it was Sunday. We looked for him later that night to bring him some soup, but he was not to be found in his usual sleeping spot.
On Monday I stopped in at Boyle Street’s Housing Department and spoke with the manager. She was very empathetic towards Theo’s situation and managed to change his status in the database to note the urgency in finding him housing. We agreed that it was only human to be able to die enveloped in care rather than spending your last days on earth in a back alley. It was what Theo told me he wanted as well. Sometimes we as workers have ideas of how things should be, without thinking of what the community member actually wants. The housing manager also put in a phone call to Homeward Trust. Later that day we stopped in at Bissell Centre, as that was another place Theo frequented, and found that he had a worker there. So we asked her to keep an eye out for Theo as well.
Within that same week I was contacted by both the manager of Housing at Boyle Street and a Homeward Trust worker with news that they were casting a wide net around Edmonton’s social service organizations to find Theo, and then at last that Theo had been spotted and was in the Housing office. I don’t know the end of Theo’s story, but I have great hope that because of all the folks asking that question, “Has anyone seen Theo?” he is housed and spending the last of his days warm and cared for, receiving meals as well as meds to control his pain. I am always grateful when I meet people who care for others as beloved children of the Creator, not as one of many, not as a case to be solved, but as a human being worthy of love and dignity.
Submitted by Heather Tigchelaar, a frontline worker with the 24/7 Crisis Diversion Team, under Boyle Street Community Services