Spring (?!)

1982333_10153966181325311_1595311846_nSigns of spring are all around.

New life emerges as snow slowly melts and creates puddles of dirty slush on roads and sidewalks. But birds are singing, warmth is seeping into the world.

I have traded my warmest jacket and boots for lighter ones and colourful ones. Because these are the days when colour is also coming back into the world.

New things are afoot. I have been working with our theological students council to make things new and try new ways of working together that will, hopefully, make us more effective as a council. I have a new job – a short, part-time contract with the mental health organization I’ve been working with for a couple of years on a relief basis.

And so, in this changing and warming environment, we continue the lenten journey towards Easter when, once again, we celebrate life made new.



The end of term one year two: I am now officially halfway through seminary! It is hard to believe that 17 months ago I was getting on a plane to leave BC and move to Ontario. It feels a lot longer…

The weather in this corner of Ontario has felt a lot like Vancouver Island weather over the last few weeks (*touch wood*). While some have been lamenting the lack of snow and the above zero temperatures, I have been enjoying mist, fog, and mild days reminiscent of home.

All of that being said, I won’t be sad if and when we get snow – I have some ice skates, snowshoes, and cross country skis to put to use! Not to mention the winter jacket that I bought new this year.

Christmas break for me this year will involve working some extra shifts and reading lots of good fiction. Fiction: it is like a breath of fresh air after three and a half months of dense theology texts. Work: it grounds me and is a wonderful community to be a part of that is completely removed from my school and church communities. There is something very real and immanent about working shoulder to shoulder with those living with severe mental illness; there is no BS with them, no politics, and no illusions.

And then January will happen and it will be back to school for term two year two (or term four of six, depending on your preferred method of counting!).

Until then, Happy Christmas.

The Violence of Preconceptions

I had an interesting and thought-provoking conversation at work yesterday. Because of complex mental health and addictions needs as well as sometimes physical barriers, many of the individuals I work with as a Mental Health Worker have outside workers from different agencies who come to spend time with them. One such outside worker was in our office last night, doing paperwork after finishing up with one of the residents. He casually mentioned that he hadn’t seen me before and I replied that it was likely because, as relief staff, I spend time at three different facilities, not just the one where I was presently working.

Three sites, he asked?

So I explained that we have the long-stay residential site, an eating disorders program, and a shorter stay transitional program that workes with folks on addictions as well as mental health issues.

Addictions! He exclaimed. Are they violent?

The question was innocent enough, but it took me aback. Are they violent? That has never been something I have thought to ask, or really needed to ask myself in the last three years of working in the mental health and addictions field.

Are they violent?

What it does tell, I think, is something about the perceptions and misconceptions within our society as a whole towards those who struggle with addictions, towards those who have mental illness, towards those who live on our streets or in our shelters and transitional housing.

Even in grouping these things together I do a disservice. There are many people who have a mental illness who live and work alongside you and I and are afraid to say something lest they be targeted. There are many functional people in our society who are struggling with or in recovery from addictions. There are many in our shelter systems who have never had an addiction or a mental illness – though they may if we do not do more to house people at affordable rates – they’ve maybe just had a run of bad luck.

So why is it that the first questions asked when we see or hear about a violent crime in the news are, “Are they mentally ill? Do they have an addiction making them do this?” It is a stigma we need to break if we are to become an inclusive and compassionate society.

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 11.33.34 PMEarlier this week, I retweeted this picture. To it, I added the comment that the beggar at our door also includes sex workers. Over the years I worked in shelters I had the privilege of getting to know a number of current and former sex workers. I am certain that I learned as much or more from our relationship as they learned from me. Which is why I signed my name to this letter; which is why I disagree with the legislation proposed in Bill C-36. Because a mark of our health as a society is our ability to include and care for our most vulnerable: Not how we further marginalize. Not how we legislate or otherwise control. Not how we isolate ourselves, look the other direction, or bury heads in the sand. But how we love and show compassion to all.


UPDATE: A press release, blogged from St John the Divine, Victoria. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t actually credit the original author of the previously linked letter regarding Bill C-36: Bruce Bryant-Scott.

Encounters at home

It was an ordinary day on my recent visit home to Victoria. Midmorning on a weekend, walking up a less-busy downtown street, enjoying the smells and sights of home after nearly eight months away.

I didn’t tell many people I was in Victoria. It was a short visit and I was on limited time. But suddenly I heard my name yelled out. Yelled.

Unsure if it was me (but how many Gillians are there?!) I turned to see where the call was coming from. And then I saw him, one of my former clients from the shelter, running across the street. He reached me on the other sidewalk, picked me up and swung me around in a giant hug and, as he set me down started to talk.

He’d just moved into his own apartment – first one since transitional housing at the shelter. He was doing really well and was really excited about life … and he just wanted to tell me that since he hadn’t seen me for awhile.

I was smiling for the rest of the day.



I’m in the process of boxing up my life to prepare to move. The process of going from the order of my lovely little home to the chaos of packing is a little unsettling and I’m looking forward to taking this chaos and unpacking it to order when I get to London.

All of my furniture has been sold or spoken for.  My dresser is gone and my clothes and linens are in two large totes on the floor in its place. My armchair is gone. The bookshelves went in a “bookshelves for boxes” trade with some friends who moved a few months ago but needed shelves for their books. My bed is gone and I’m camped out on my very comfy thermarest. The couch will go in two weeks and then I’ll have nothing left but boxes.

Spare moments are few and far between right now, with most of them taken outside of my house: partially because of the sunshine and partially because being at home seems to mean needing to pack.


I’m at the library right now. Well, I’m sitting right outside because I overheard staff talking about a fire drill at some point today and I thought I’d rather sit in the sunshine and use the wifi than have to pack up and move mid-way through something if the drill were to happen. There is a distinct odor of urine around me that I hope I haven’t sat on top of. I’ve seen a number of my clients walk by and passed even more on my way to the library. The way that they and I interact in public, while largely driven by them, is yet another set of boxes. Sometimes we exist in completely distinct worlds and frames and there is no acknowledgement of the other. Sometimes, like yesterday, we’ll run into each other downtown and walk a block together, talking and enjoying the day, before going our separate ways.

It may be Easter but it feels like Good Friday.

I’ve been AWOL. It wasn’t a planned blogging break, nor was it a complete social media break (though it was close to complete, the only place I have really been posting over the last couple of weeks has been on Instagram), but it was a break and it felt good to have it. This may be a little heavy for a “first day back”, but it feels like it wants to be written here and not just in my journal.

We may be several days into the season of Easter, but in many respects this last week feels a little more like it is still Good Friday or Holy Saturday. That knife was twisted even deeper last night as I sat through (because I didn’t really feel like participating in) a Celtic liturgy celebrating the resurrection. As I was expressing my frustration at that false-feeling sentiment, a friend gently reminded me that the bleakness of Good Friday is just as real as the hope and joy of Easter Sunday. It is true. But this has been a week of loss and so it feels more like Good Friday.

I’ve heard it said enough to be unclear on the actual origins of the words, “We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world”. That is clearer to me working at the shelter than anywhere else I have ever spent a good portion of my time: In the last three and a half months, we have experienced the death of five of our clients. One of those was yesterday. Really, we should be experiencing it more frequently and it is a testament to the hardiness of the human body and spirit that we do not experience more deaths amongst that incredibly vulnerable population.


It was inevitable.

It was an incredibly popular song when it first came out about 10 years ago and received a lot of airplay on pretty much every radio station on the planet. The lyrics are powerful and tell the story of the hope of someone who expects to experience the resurrection. Mum requested we use the song for a slideshow at her memorial service and I spent many hours at the computer with photos realizing that request.

On Monday I went to the memorial service of a client who has been with us for a long time. His family held a lovely service at a local funeral home and I went, almost by accident: I was the only one of us free to go at the time of his service. It is amazing how you can know someone for so many months in a very specific context and have no idea about the rest of their life. It is such a privilege to be allowed to peek inside the past lives of people and catch a glimpse of what life has been like. That can take many forms. On Monday, it took the form of a moving slideshow of his life, set to that song.

It was inevitable.


In my last year of my undergrad, I took a random collection of courses to fulfill all of the requirements I had not yet met. In my attempt to find something that both fit my schedule and seemed remotely interesting, I ended up in a philosophy of literature course. In the first days? weeks? of that course, I made friends with a Canadian/Swiss student who ended up also being involved in IVCF with me. We became good friends and she and her family even hosted Nat and I on our European Adventure in 2006.

Her mother had been sick for some time and my friend returned home to Switzerland once she finished her degree. I’ve missed our tea and knitting and haven’t stayed as in-contact as I would have liked to have been… though I could say that for many people and I certainly haven’t helped any in my multi-week withdrawal from the Internet.

On Good Friday, I awoke to an email saying that her mother had passed away that morning. Fitting day. But not, because losing a mother always sucks. In contrast to the lyrics of that song above, this time I can imagine what it is like for her and I would love to be able to have some more tea and offer a shoulder and a hug.


I feel the need to close this off by saying that I am okay and that there is no reason for alarm-filled emails to check on that. Really.

A Human Face

I had an interesting moment the other day.

I was sitting and talking with someone I’d never seen around work before and he was telling me his story so that I could help him to fill out a housing application for him. He talked about siblings, it seemed there were a lot. But one sister killed herself because of a degenerative disease. Another sibling has the same disease. And another sister “was got by Pickton”. That stopped me in my tracks, but he just continued on talking. It was the first time I’ve heard that said in a sentence by anyone that I have actually been speaking with. I am sure it is not the first person I’ve come across who has known someone affected by the serial killer operating on the Downtown East Side, but it was the first time I’ve actually heard someone say it out loud.

I remember when the trial was going on. I was visiting New Westminster and saw the crowds of reporters lining the steps of the courthouse.

The Missing Women’s Inquiry is going on right now in Vancouver. It is mired in controversy as interest groups drop out due to lack of funding and disillusionment with the inquiry.

But here, sitting in front of me, was a living and breathing person dramatically touched by that one person’s actions.

It brings a more human face to the whole thing.

There is Always a Story

It always amazes me that people are so intrigued by the work I do at the emergency shelter. I never really stop to think about what it is that I do – I just do it. When the job offer came, I didn’t stop and think about whether or not I would take the job, I just did. So I always feel a little uncomfortable when people express admiration for what I do: it has to be done, it is my job to do it, and I think I am good at it.

Sometimes people will ask me for advise on how to interact with the homeless or ask for stories about my job. Only once, today, have I been asked if I have met a specific person. To be clear, I cannot ever say (for legal/privacy reasons) if someone is or has been at the shelter unless they have signed a release of information for me to talk with that person/group. And so I did not confirm or deny the presence of an individual when asked today… but as my friend described her friend’s sister and what circumstance may have led to her being homeless, it brought home the fact that everyone I meet at the shelter has a back-story that I don’t always get to know. Everyone is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, son. There are people who love them, care about them, search for them or who have given up on them. There is always a story. It can be hard to look past the mental illness or drug addictions sometimes and see that. It can be hard, in the moment, to realize that an individual may once have behaved or existed in a completely different way to how they do right now.

So to my friend with whom I shared this short conversation today, thank you for the reminder that each person has that other side to their life, that they have a bigger story.

A Modern Christmas?

What do kicking someone out of their halfway house-type accommodation, calling emergency mental health services and then having someone forcibly removed from the premises by police, and finding a dead body have in common? Apparently they are all in a weeks work when you work at the largest emergency shelter in town.

But that isn’t what I came here to write about. I had wanted to write a story of happiness, of Christmas spirit and Christmas joy at work in the emergency shelters.

We are all familiar with the story of two young people travelling a long distance, one preggo, only to find there is no where for them to stay when they get to their destination. I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to think about whether or not they had money for a place even if there was one to be found, but like it or not, they were homeless.

How might that story translate to 2011?

It is Christmas Eve and this young family with three children under six finds themselves unable to sleep in their car as they have been for the last while: it is raining and the back window is broken. Not only that but they have no food. Alone and strangers in town, they make their way to the emergency shelter.

Sorry, we can’t take children. We are a 19+ shelter only.

But what about families? Where are families supposed to go?

We’ll call the Ministry and see what they suggest … They are closed until Tuesday, there is nothing we can do … We’ll check with the Housing workers at the Community Centre that administers our family units … Also on holidays … Well, we just happen to have one of our family units vacant at the moment. It isn’t large, in fact there is only 1 bedroom for the five of you, but it is warm and dry and you can leave your small car in the parking lot …

And so some staff members went grocery shopping and then shopping to get Christmas gifts for three youngsters who’s parents were afraid to tell them it was Christmas Eve for fear of disappointing them with another year of nothing.

While it isn’t much, it is five more people out of the cold with a dry roof over their heads and a stable floor below their feet. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Roadtrip With Reason

I have high intentions of getting back onto the Friday Photo train, however that will have to wait until I can find the uploading device for my camera. I’m pretty certain which box it is in.

I was emailed this link by the manager of shelters at work. While I don’t post things about my work, after my facebook link earlier this week to a ten minute interview with “homeless poets” (from the writing workshop at my workplace), this one fits right in. In it, a young person volunteering her way across the country stopped for a while at my shelter and spent time volunteering with us. She writes about her experience with us.