Monday, July 07, 2008

Little things mean a lot in halting a fall
July 4, 2008

Everybody stumbles in their life. Most of us will bounce through any number of ups and downs over the course of a lifetime, some of it the result of bad choices and a lot of it for no obvious explanation other than bad luck and lousy circumstance.
I suspect that’s why I’ve got a thing for issues like homelessness. I’ve seen my share of bad luck and lousy circumstance - nothing on a grand scale, but enough to help me see from an early age that life can hold some rough surprises. As the late John Lennon so eloquently penned, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
Fortunately, every object nudged over the brink of the abyss is not destined to plunge non-stop to the bottom. Any number of things along the way can break the fall. The researchers call them “protective factors,” but what they ultimately come down to is having people in your life to catch you before you fall any farther.
It’s a role that family is intended to play, and certainly did in my life. But what if they don’t - or won’t? That’s where community service agencies shine as a kind of substitute family, breaking people’s falls with any number of small interventions before they plunge any further.
Consider the potentially disastrous fall of a young man named Jason, a 30-year-old dad who got injured on the job. Partway through his claim, he had his compensation cut in half to $400 a month, and suddenly found himself unable to make the rent. Poised to get joint-custody rights of his two-year-old son, Jason faced losing it all if he lost his housing.
Enter the Burnside-Gorge Community Association, one of a number of family-serving agencies in the region that play a vital role in catching people on the way down.
In Jason’s case, they gave him a crisis grant for the balance of April’s rent and walked him through all the papers needed for subsidized housing. Then they got him a place he could actually afford in just a week. They gave him a $2 lunch whenever he felt like dropping by. And in no time flat, Jason got things together again.
“If I’d have lost my house, I’d have lost my son - and I’d just gotten him back,” says Jason, who describes his Burnside-Gorge outreach worker as “a little angel on my shoulder through the whole thing.”
For a former Hamilton woman, the descent began with a cancer scare and the growing needs of her two children. The woman - we’ll call her Charlotte - was worried about her health and exhausted from being a single, working parent of two special-needs children. She figured she’d wrap up her seven years in Victoria and return to Hamilton to get more family support, including from the children’s father.
Things didn’t work out. The children hated their school, and were routinely teased and bullied. The family was unprepared for the behavioural problems in Charlotte’s children.
But she had spent every last dime of her savings getting to Hamilton, and couldn’t afford a second cross-country move to get back to Victoria. For 18 months, she and her kids toughed it out in Ontario. Then she and her ex-husband struck a deal: She’d return to Victoria, stay with a friend, and then put in four months at whatever job she could find to get back on her feet. He’d keep the kids in Hamilton until then.
Three weeks after her return to Victoria, however, her ex had given up and the children were back with Charlotte. Sharing a tiny basement suite with a friend up to that point, Charlotte and her children suddenly had nowhere to live. The three of them ended up spending a month in a Victoria transition house, with no clear plans for where they’d go after that.
Enter Burnside-Gorge once more, this time with a damage deposit for a rental house for Charlotte and the kids. She’d gotten her old job back by then and had money to cover the rent, but wouldn’t have been able to get the place without that damage deposit.
“I really didn’t know how I was going to come up with it,” says Charlotte. “Getting the damage deposit was a real turning point for me. I had no idea the Burnside-Gorge program even existed before that. Now that the kids and I are in a more stable situation, I want to find a way to give back.”
Score two for little miracles.

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