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Dispelling homelessness and poverty myths: Insights into the realities of our communities most vulnerable

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BECKY SCHILLE – SPECIAL TO THE SOURCE

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a co-founder and CEO of The Olive Tree Community Centre. 

I have a passion for addressing food insecurity and have, some would say, an obsession with finding innovative and sustainable solutions to issues that affect our community’s most vulnerable. 

I have three amazing children, two dogs, and a bunny and I love to travel. I have an incredibly large, blended family which has given me seven sisters and four brothers. I have lived in Lloyd for most of my life except for a few years I lived in Edmonton and worked at a high-end kitchen design firm. My dream home includes a Beauxarts quarter-sawn white oak kitchen from Siematic.  

Now you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you these trivial facts about myself, although I’m certain you’re wondering what kind of dogs I have. We have, as a society, forgotten those who struggle with homelessness, addiction, mental health, poverty, etc all have a name and a story. You might know who I am, but do you know my story? 

Do you know I’m proud to be adopted and value the perspectives it gives me on complex relationships and how important building strong support systems for ourselves and our community is? 

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one thing I find most frustrating about people’s perceptions of our community’s most vulnerable. 

Misinformation, a lack of understanding and hateful social media posts probably top my list. 

I think people forget that they’re talking about an actual person, someone’s child, someone’s grandparent, a stranger to you but a friend, client and fellow community member to us. 

Does it matter to you the burden they carry, the trauma they’ve endured or how they ended up where they are? Do you realize they could be any of us if our circumstances were only slightly different?

When my oldest daughter was little, she spent a lot of time at the Stollery in Edmonton. For a couple of years, I had a full-time job and two part-time jobs. Unfortunately, if my daughter was in the hospital for an extended period and I couldn’t work, we would fall behind. 

As hard as I tried, I wouldn’t have survived without the financial, emotional, social, and practical support of my amazing friends and family. 

When we see people struggling it’s easy for us to blame and judge the individual. Empathy, understanding and grace all take time and force us to look at the bigger issues and admit we could all be a part of the solution. 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King Jr.

As a group of leaders serving our community’s most vulnerable, we felt it was time to address the myths and misconceptions plaguing the conversations on homelessness and poverty in our community. 

These falsehoods not only obscure the realities faced by those experiencing these hardships but also hinder our ability to address them effectively. So, we’ve decided to take you on a journey to uncover the truths behind the folklore surrounding homelessness and poverty in Lloydminster. 

On this journey you’re going to meet some of the leaders I’m lucky enough to work with every day, we’ll give you some facts and data that will probably surprise you, and we’ll share stories from the people that are easier to blame than understand.

I’ll start off with a MYTH that we often hear, Homeless People are Lazy.

Social media often depicts homeless individuals as threats to society or as lazy individuals unwilling to work.

Many people experiencing homelessness are victims of trauma, struggle with substance abuse, have poor mental and physical health and/or a significant illness. We currently have a client who is unhoused and has cancer. Should we expect her to pull up her socks and get a job? Of course not. Can you imagine how hard it would be to not know where you’re going to sleep each night, get to available food support, apply for funding, find transportation to medical appointments, manage your mental health and so on all while being sick? What she goes through each and every day just to meet her basic needs is anything but lazy. What is her story? Where is her family? How can we support her? I encourage you to be reminded of this story, and these questions, the next time you’re irritated by someone who is living a life that you don’t understand.

Now, I’m not saying we should be OK with what we’re seeing in our community or our country. I do not believe we should turn a blind eye to the co-existing issues that can occur in their communities. Crime and violence are never acceptable, but the vast majority of unhoused individuals are law-abiding citizens who due to a myriad of complex factors have fallen on hard times. 

Linking homelessness with crime and violence oversimplifies the issue and distracts from the underlying structural issues at play. Homelessness is often a symptom of larger societal failures, such as a lack of affordable housing, inadequate mental health services, and insufficient support systems for vulnerable populations. 

What I would ask is you separate your opinions of homeless individuals, whose names you do not know and stories you have not heard, from the co-existing problems causing significant issues in our community. 

People are suffering and the community is being affected by that suffering. Both things are true. Only when we address the root causes of homelessness and reframe the narrative around it, can we build a more just and compassionate society for everyone. 

It’s time to recognize that homelessness is a societal issue that requires collective action and solidarity, rather than blaming and indifference.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and for your willingness to think about tough issues, and people, in a new way. What we need is to find a way to have meaningful conversations based on facts, full of compassion and focused on solutions. 

If you would like more information or have any questions about how you can be a part of the solution, please send us an email at admin@theolivetreelloyd.ca.