SASKATOON — Thirty-six hours may not seem like a long time to be without a home, but for Saskatoon Bishop Donald Bolen and nine other participants in a recent Sanctum Survivor event, it was long enough to bring about an increased understanding and deeper empathy for those who experience homelessness as a daily reality.
In addition to Bolen, Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Felix Thomas, singer-songwriter Brad Johner, MLA Danielle Chartier, Central Urban Métis Federation (CUMFI) president Shirley Isbister, St. Paul’s Hospital president Jean Morrison, retired police officer Ernie Louttit, Sanctum Care Group president Dr. Morris Markentin, Star Phoenix reporter Jason Warick, and musician Jay Semko undertook to live on the streets of Saskatoon June 17-18.
During the 36-hour experience, participants set out in teams of two, dressed in second-hand clothing with nothing in their pockets but a cellphone (to keep in touch with event organizers and have their position tracked).
The event was launched as a dramatic way to raise funds and awareness for Sanctum Care Group, which provides hospice and transitional care to those who are homeless and struggling with HIV/AIDS. Sanctum is also raising funds for Sanctum 1.5, a planned 10-bed prenatal care home for high-risk, HIV-positive pregnant women.
As part of the event, the 10 celebrity participants gathered sponsorships and donations beforehand, raising a total of some $135,000.
But the challenges of Sanctum Survivor involved more than raising money. Participants were given a list of tasks to complete — challenges regularly faced by those who live on the street. The process demonstrated how even simple undertakings can become daunting for those with limited resources and no place to call home.
“The most powerful experience was the vulnerability of the situations we were in,” said Bolen.
The bishop, who lives in an apartment in the city’s core neighbourhood, said that the brief experience of living on the streets opened his eyes. “There are a whole lot of things in my neighbourhood that I knew were there, and I acknowledged their existence, but I got to see first-hand a lot more of the hurt and the pain in the neighbourhood, as well as the joy, and the simple relationships that exist.”
These are realities that are not noticed from a car, or rushing to get somewhere, he said. “The slowing down of pace and being present in the neighbourhood was a very revealing thing. Once you go slow, and you go vulnerably, and you are willing to take on each situation and enter into relationship, enter into dialogue — there is a lot of ‘take home’ in that.”
At a dinner held to conclude the event June 18, participants reflected on the challenge of homelessness and the struggles that poverty brings, particularly for those suffering from illness, addictions or chronic medical conditions.
Seeking medical attention, visiting the needle exchange and obtaining a prescription were among the challenges on participant task lists, as was attempting to obtain financial aid — with Sanctum Survivor participants required to call Social Services using a public phone or payphone, before contacting AIDS Saskatoon to get a ride to the income assistance office.
Without trespassing, challengers had to keep their phones charged, finding public places to “plug in” to keep their phone going for safety, check-ins and social media posts during the two-day event. Another task involved finding places to wash hands at least nine times in one day, especially attempting to do so when sourcing food or seeking shelter.
Trying to get identification was another test, as was visiting the Food Bank for a hamper. Participants came to realize that in some cases, hampers include food items that require a stove or a can opener: an obvious challenge for someone living on the street. Some also set out to find somewhere to do laundry in order to wash the one set of clothes they were wearing — a difficult feat if a person has nothing to change into.
Participants were instructed to seek out a public computer at a local library or other centre and initiate a search for housing listings, then to contact the landlord from a public or pay phone and try to arrange a viewing as someone without references and on social assistance. For some participants, this meant a long walk to areas that were not pedestrian friendly — only to have the meeting fall through.
During their 36-hour experience, participants were also challenged to do an act of kindness for someone who is currently living on the streets. “An act of kindness can go a long way, especially for someone who experiences poverty, homelessness or chronic illness,” noted the participants’ instruction sheet.
The daunting task of asking strangers for money was a difficult hurdle for some, who were encouraged to notice the reactions of passersby.
“One of our challenges was to buy a meal, and therefore we had to panhandle to get the money,” Bolen described. “Chief Felix and I were on 20th Street. He popped his hat down and I popped my hat down, and we were there for a little over an hour. Other than the two family members who came to greet Chief Felix, and one other person who said ‘hi,’ nobody looked at us,” the bishop said. “It was an experience of the invisibility of the homeless or the poor and vulnerable.”
Sanctum Survivor challengers were able to obtain breakfast and lunch at Friendship Inn, which provides a free meal service on 20th Street 365 days a year. In addition, each participant was assigned a place to go for the night — such as the Salvation Army shelter, the Brief Detox Unit, or outdoors at Kinsmen Park.
“You hear stories in your office, and you have some empathy, but you really don’t know,” said Markentin, one of five participants to sleep in a park during the challenge, when the temperature dropped to six degrees Celsius.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life to never have been hungry and cold and homeless, and last night was tough,” said Markentin. “I had this lovely blanket, but the ground was cold. It wasn’t safe. Every time you opened your eyes, there was someone around.”
Johner, who also slept in the park, related how he was able to obtain two blankets earlier in the day, during a visit to the Salvation Army. “The night in the park was really eye-opening: a very busy night,” he said, expressing appreciation for Louttit’s “patrolling” presence.
As a retired police officer, Louttit said he thought he was familiar with many of the problems, services and agencies encountered during the homelessness challenge — but the first-hand experience over 36 hours brought a new, deeper level of understanding. Before this, “I didn’t see what effort it really took” to access services and programs, he said.
Louttit added that change is possible, and things are improving. “The big gain from this is once you hear something, you can’t un-hear it. Once you have a thought in your mind it will brew. This will bring an incremental change to our community,” he said. “Every time you do something like this you are changing things.”
Thomas expressed appreciation for all those who are providing outreach and assistance to the vulnerable and at-risk in the community — those in poverty and suffering who are also “fighters and survivors.”
Morrison spent the night at the Brief Detox Unit operated by the Saskatoon Health Region. “One of the things that was gratifying was that the staff were so respectful of everyone who came, greeted them and walked them through the process,” she said. “And the clients were respectful of each other, being quiet when they came in — and I know that doesn’t happen every night.”
At the wind-up dinner, Isbister stressed the importance of having low-cost housing and sustainable meal programs in the community. “We also need some designated housing specific to people with difficulties and illnesses,” she said.
Provincial MLA Chartier added: “It is a 24/7 job to survive on the streets. Not having a place to go home to is not a nice experience at all.” Chartier lauded the work of the YWCA in helping women and children in crisis. “We need to do so much better in supporting women and children.”
As a journalist, Warick said that in the past he had “parachuted in” to situations of poverty and homelessness, but that his brief immersion experience brought some new insights.
Participants can’t really know what it’s like to be homeless, he acknowledged. “But in a small way (this was a chance) to learn about it and get a glimpse of it, and to honour those people who struggle in our community and those people who are working every day to help them.”
Warick said the most powerful experience was talking to people who shared their stories — such as the working man who described going to Friendship Inn because he and his wife have to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries.
The wind-up dinner included acknowledgments of those who initiated the idea of Sanctum — Markentin and Katelyn Roberts — and all who have supported the project, as well as staff, volunteers and Sanctum residents.
Markentin spoke with optimism about building the next stage of the project to help HIV-positive pregnant women. “We are told there is no money, but people will make it happen,” said Markentin, pointing to a pioneering Saskatchewan spirit. “You will make it happen.”
Bolen also stressed the vital importance of partnerships — both in all the outreach that already happens in the community, and in continuing to help those who are most in need.
“One thing that we experienced was the importance of working together, the importance of partnerships, and the network of interconnections that are necessary to address both society’s biggest problems and especially to help those who are in most need,” Bolen said.