Thursday, June 30, 2011

The London Experience

I have scavenged the city trying to find the kitschy things I associate with the UK. When I first arrived, red telephone booths and double-decker buses made me really feel like I was here, like everything I had only seen in pictures were really true.

I love all the old buildings. London is such a mishmash of the old and the new, and has such a rich history mixed with a sense of modernity.

While the English weather is not my favourite thing about being here, I do love how these storms remind me of Harry Potter! This picture was taken right before it poured at King's College Chapel in Cambridge.

I loved Cambridge. Beautiful, cosy, and the type of place I dream of living in.

The city was filled with gorgeous churches and courtyards. 

Last Sunday, it was quite positively the warmest day we've had so far (all of 25 degrees Celsius). I love how the streets filled with thousands of people, at the parks, in shops and restaurants. This picture was taken as I was walking past a part of Hyde Park. It was crawling with people enjoying (and complaining about) the weather.

Pretty much every area seems to have its own market. It's quite lovely, the sense of locality and community. This was taken at Borough Market, mostly a market of fresh food and local wines.

This picture embodies two things I love about England. First, the guard reminds me of all things royal. Second, it was taken at Harrods, retail wonderland and shopping haven!

Although I haven't had the opportunity to mingle with many Londoners, I have really enjoyed getting to know and share this experience with the other interns. This was taken at Electricity Showroom in Shoreditch (home of the hipsters).

This picture was taken at the Ministry of Sound, when Fedde le Grand DJed. I've enjoyed experiencing new things in London. It has been amazing to explore, and try new things.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Lesson on Methadone

On Monday, I shadowed an outreach worker who was meeting with a client just released from prison the previous week. There was a mix-up with his release, and he was sent out without his paperwork. This was a major problem as the client was a drug addict who used to do heroin. During his incaceration, he was sustained through a prescription for methadone (script). When we met with him, he had been without his script for 3 days, and he was anxious and unable to focus for very long. He was having a difficult time coping without his script. 

Prior to starting work at Thames Reach, I had never heard of methadone or Subutex. Once I started looking into methadone, I realized how prevalent it is - not just in the UK but throughout Canada as well.

Methadone is a synthetic opiate manufactured for medical use that has similar effects to heroin so it curbs withdrawal, reducing some of the more serious side effects and offers more more hygienic course of treating addiction. It is a sedative that depresses the nervous system, slowing down body functioning and reducing physical and psychological pain. It causes relaxation and detachment. Methadone does not deliver the same high and allows people to stabilize their lifestyle without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. That is not to say there aren't problems with heroin withdrawal symptoms, but it is much less severe. This form of opiate substitution therapy generally leads to a reduction in dosages until the user is off the drug completely.

I am not sure what I think of this type of treatment. I am in no way an expert in this field, and this is not so much an opinion as it is thinking out loud. I am not sure I understand using drugs to replace drugs as an effective practice, just because one is considered "less harmful" than another. From what I have learned, users sometimes stay on this form of treatment long-term, spanning decades. While I cannot begin to understand how difficult detox is, and how stopping heroin use can be debilitating, I do not see how a sustained script can be helpful in living a clean life.

As I began to learn more about this topic, articles were published about a report by The Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank suggesting that Britain spends £730m a year on maintaining methadone addicts. Methadone prescriptions are part of harm reduction efforts, started in the late 1980s as a way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids, and considered more of a concern than creating policy around drug misuse. However, since the release of this report, a bitter row surrounding the merits and consequences of heroin treatment has been brought to the forefront. I think there is a lot of different issues at stake, including how taxpayers feel at a time of recession, as well the impact on the drug industry if other forms of treatments take precedence, so I am sure this debate will continue.

It is interesting though that methadone is considered to be more of a normalizer than a narcotic, as users are able to function without impairment. However, from what I have seen from the client who was really anxious without his script, it does seem that there is a certain level of dependency on methadone for functioning. Is this that different than drug treatments for depression or anxiety? I'm not sure, if it helps someone function and maintain a healthier lifestyle, perhaps it is useful. On the other hand, would rehabilitation services that help users off drugs completely not be more beneficial? Surely, heroin created the problem and it was not necessarily a natural anxiousness that needs to be addressed but rather withdrawal. Of course, as with anything, a one-size-fits-all solution is not possible, but it is rather important to consider how beneficial drug policy is in helping addicts live a better life without costing others who have managed to steer clear.

Alcohol dependency is another aspect that I am learning a lot about, as it seems to be very closely linked to homelessness (though of course that is a generalization) and I will be posting about it soon. I am eager to understand the many aspects of policy that affect homelessness, even if not directly. Drug misuse, alcohol dependency and the welfare system all play such a pivotal role in this issue as street homelessness seems to be an amalgamation of factors and a very cyclical problem.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

5:30 AM

This morning, I woke up at 4:00 AM. I had a sore throat, runny nose, congestion, slight fever and was running on exactly 2 hours of sleep. I was tired but I knew I did not want to miss my first 5:30 AM shift, and let me tell you, I am so glad I made it.

The taxi driver came early, so I arrived outside of the office at 5:15 AM. I walked around the empty neighbourhood that is normally so busy. I work in East London in a borough called Tower Hamlets, which is an area that has a history of being one of the poorest in Britain. However, it is also rife with culture. It is now an area of predominantly Bengali people and stores, though in the past it used to be mostly Jewish. I work minutes away from the famous Brick Lane, known for its curry houses. Walking around the area so early felt like a scene out of a movie, maybe like 28 Weeks Later as it was bare - just me and the birds. It was beautiful and a completely different London than what I've come to know in the last 10 days and really, just a good start to my day.

At about 6:00 AM I was briefed about how the day would work. We were going to go to "hot spots" where groups of homeless people rough sleep together as well as check out some of the spots where we were told people would be sleeping. We usually get referrals (via email or phone) with the names or descriptions of rough sleepers and the areas they were noted bedding down. Bedding down literally means where they were setting up to fall asleep. Once we verify that they have been rough sleeping, our team can work towards finding ways to help these individuals.

When we arrived at the first spot, it was empty. There were some pieces of cardboard, often used as padding to make rough sleeping more comfortable. There was no one rough sleeping though and I thought maybe it would be a slow day.

But as we started travelling through the borough in our van, and stopping at other spots, we found people sleeping on ledges, under bushes in the gardens, under awnings in less populated areas and on pavement by the gardens. We would generally go up to where they were sleeping and wake them up with a gentle good morning, and let them know we're from outreach. Not all are excited about the early morning wake-up call, some ignored us, some were in deep sleep and didn't hear us. We generally start a conversation, asking questions about their name, how long they've been rough sleeping and where they're from. Based on their answers we suggest they meet with us to further discuss options for how we can get them off the street. Some are known rough sleepers and we are really just checking in to see how they're doing.

It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, finding people in these spots and talking with them. It was my first shift so I played more of an observer role and watched a coworker interact. I am so impressed with the team of people I work with, they are compassionate, helpful and knowledgeable in ways I would love to and hope to be. Watching these interactions was eye-opening, learning about people and how they ended up where they are. Most of rough sleepers we met were Eastern European, and the services offered to them first and foremost would be "reconnection" (a project I will delve into sometime in the coming weeks) if they hadn't worked here legally. From one to the next, all the interactions were different, and all of them pulled at my heart strings in new ways. I am still trying to wrap my head around the circumstances which puts people on the streets.

We met with clients who lost their jobs and couldn't make rent, clients who've worked here illegally, and ones who couldn't work because of injuries. We met clients who didn't want to talk to us, or give us their real names and clients who were smiling and ready to chat with us even though it was so early in the morning. Many had been drinking the night before. One gentleman wouldn't make eye contact, and another kissed our hands. It's a different world than anything I've known, but the experience makes you realize what we all have in common. With or without homes, we're people- in different situations, and junctures in our lives but it doesn't make us any less human.

The services offered really depend on their circumstances, and for some of the people we met, options are limited. Some are stuck without really any way of finding peace, and these situations are dealt with all on a one by one basis. I like that individual attention is given, and that care is taken to learn someone's name and circumstances. It makes everything so much more real, more than statistics. I still have so much to learn about this sector, and the efforts taken to deal with homelessness in London but I feel like I'm finally grasping the process of how outreach works and am getting ready for more responsibility on the job.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why Fundraising?

A recurring question people ask when I tell them that I am doing a postgraduate program in fundraising is why?

When I first chose the Humber Fundraising and Volunteer Management (HFVM) program, I had very different reasons for why I thought it was right for me than I do now. It was only when I started the program that I really learned why fundraising is exactly what I'd like to do.

I did my undergraduate degree in Global Development Studies (DEVS) and History at Queen's University. No one ever knows what DEVS is. It's an interdisciplinary program focusing on theoretical concepts of development; it's about understanding the history of global inequality through courses in politics, economics and history. This program had a profound effect on how I think and look at the world. It taught me how to think critically but at times, it was very disheartening. To learn about how people have treated each other in our world history is both horrifying and heartbreaking, from slavery to genocides. To realize that my experiences of wearing shoes, owning a computer and drinking clean water is not accessible to most of the people on this planet is something that I still cannot wrap my head around, let alone getting into the rights and freedoms I am (or not) granted based on where I was born and live.

The program left me with a fear that nothing I did could change the world for the better. Ever since I was young, I have always been passionate about two things: people and helping. I thought learning about the world would make it easier to learn how I could combine those interests but it made it harder.

As much as I have always wanted to help people, I have also always leaned towards interests of a less noble nature. I've always loved fashion, trends, and been fascinated by a ritzier lifestyle. I always imagined myself working in a fast-paced office, dressing up to work. When I was younger, my dream was to be just like Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner.

I stumbled upon the HFVM program while researching public relations programs. I read an article that suggested fundraising was sort of like public relations for non profits and it seemed like the perfect balance for me. It would allow me to work for a cause I really believed in, raise money to make a difference and yet manage some of those lifestyle options I wanted, like getting dressed up for work on some days (of course depending on where you work).

As I started the program, I had a hard time adjusting to the practical side of knowledge. My undergraduate program left me criticizing the methods I was learning, of whether they would really help to create an impactful change. But as I gained more knowledge in the field, I began to reconcile critical thinking with a certain hopefulness. Fundraising is a vehicle towards creating change. The more important part for me would be the cause I choose to work towards. And I gained a sense of belonging.

There are so many different options within the field, and a world has opened up to me that I had not known existed. I know many older fundraisers happened upon the field, but for me, it was a choice I made straight out of university and one I would not take back. Fundraising is the balance of creating change, building and managing relationships and working with people. It provides the opportunity to work in events and communications, which always interested me but leaves a sense of satisfaction knowing that the money I would help raise would go towards helping people and making a difference in something or someone. Of course, maybe this is from the point of view of someone who has just dipped her toes in the water. Talk to me in 5 years, maybe I'll be singing a different tune.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Introduction to Homelessness in London

Homelessness is a sector of its own in London. With a population of over 7 million in 32 boroughs, it is the largest and most densely populated ciy in Europe. London is full of life and culture, it is a world of its own and as such, draws people in from all over the world. People seeking new opportunities, but may be who have not yet realized how competitive and expensive city life can be. There's no surprise then, homelessness is an issue.

Each borough in London has a strategy for how to tackle homelessness within its borders. There are services offered from hostels and supported housing assistance and employment workshops to advice and support services. I am working in Tower Hamlets with the outreach team at Thames Reach, who focus specifically on those that are rough sleeping. Rough sleeping is exactly what many think of when they think of homelessness, it describes those sleeping rough on the streets. Others may be sleeping in squats (spots like abandoned buildings and warehouses, which are extremely dangerous and provide little protection and do not qualify as an address, let alone a home).

In the last few days, I have learned so much about homelessness in London. It's fascinating how multifaceted this issue is, and the partnerships that exist to help someone out of rough sleeping. I have no knowledge of how homelessness is tackled in Toronto, but the strategies and process in London is nothing short of impressive and intricate.

Rough sleepers can be referred by anyone from the public or those working within the field to be met by the outreach team. In addition, the London Street Rescue team is out every night to meet with those that are homeless. Rough sleepers are helped out by the workers assigned to their borough, and must have a connection to the borough to receive services. If they are sleeping somewhere where they do not have a connection, they can be referred back to their hometown. Workers develop relationships with rough sleepers, who sometimes can be reluctant to accept help. It may seem ridiculous, but imagine how isolated someone must be to sleep on the streets night after night - I'm sure they sometimes feel let down and fearful of trusting others.

Rough sleeping in London is sometimes deeply connected to alcohol and drug misuse and mental health issues. I cannot say I am surprised, I assume a lot of it is a coping mechanism as well as an addiction. Destitution, of course can lead to deviant behaviours. The help clients are offered depends on their situation, their willingness to accept it and the availability of resources. Outreach workers work with individuals to get them the services they need, and if not, to keep track and develop a relationship. Clients are treated as individuals to be respected, and outreach workers know the names and stories of those they work with.

There is a database where all the information of individuals helped by homeless organizations is recorded. I find this amazing, it demonstrates the extensive work with the homeless done in London. Updates are recorded about their whereabouts. Non-national homelessness has a separate strategy, often dealing with "reconnection." (I will write a separate post about this, as I will be doing some work with this team as well!)

Day centres provide opportunities to wash up, shave, get something to eat, use a computer, etc. for those that are rough sleeping. Homelessness in London seems to be an issue that is taken seriously, and organizations like the one I am working for are developing strategies towards creating a lasting change. I have so much more to learn this summer and I can only imagine how much my views will change as I gain exposure to clients and their stories, and more about the governing systems in place to deal with homelessness.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Where Are You From?

I hate this question. I understand why people ask, but I hate it just the same. I know, for some people it is a pretty straight forward response but for someone like me, having grown up in a mixture of cultures and values, it is not easy. Add to that the fact that some people believe that where you are from determines who you are and what you stand for, it becomes a contentious issue.

A recurring conversation I've had:
Where are you from?
But where were you born?
In the Middle East, Kuwait actually.
Okay... but where are your parents from?

So, where am I from? What does "from" even mean? I have no idea, I'm from everywhere and nowhere. Identity is such a funny thing. I find myself in situations where I relate to what is convenient to me. For example, sometimes I am so proud of being Bengali - I'll post messages on Facebook celebrating different cultural milestones. I can speak Bangla, a language that my father fought for in the Bangladesh Liberation War. But there have been times where I have walked into a shop, and I can hear them speaking Bangla and I secretly hope they can't tell I'm one of them. I'm not sure what it means, to be Bengali and Canadian, of when I accept which part. I thought it was okay to be a mutt, but when someone probes further it makes me feel culturally homeless.

I would consider myself a global citizen. I think global citizenship is the new way of the world, with cross-cultural sharing and evolving immigration patterns. Global citizenship allows for a complex understanding of differences in cultures, languages and people in general. It allows for integration of cultures, religions, ideas and language in society. It breaks down the walls of stereotypes, racism and discrimination. For me, it's given me the opportunity to learn so much about people and question why people think what they do, like what they do, believe what they do. My multinationality (which should really be a word) has allowed me to really consider what I believe because I believe it and not because I was conditioned to think it.

But at other times, it's hard. To not identify wholly with any particular culture makes you feel sort of without a home. A sense of belonging that isn't there, never knowing which flag is yours because your situation is unique. And although I know many family friends share an understanding of this, our experiences are still so different, based on which parts of which cultures we've picked up or discarded. I think though, more than anything, being in London makes me feel Canadian.

To me being Canadian means I can still be Bengali, born in the Middle East and living in Canada. It gives me the option to keep the other parts of me and still identify with one nation. And so when someone probes me further than me saying I'm Canadian, it annoys me. To have to defend this as a nationality because I may not look like a "typical Canadian." At the same time, I recognize that I am not completely Canadian, because although my passport is from there, my history is not. Perhaps someone whose family has been in Canada for generations does not appreciate being painted by the same brush as me. It's hard to know what makes someone from somewhere.

I'm not sure I'm any further in understanding "where I'm from," but as difficult as it is to define, it's interesting to consider.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Random Acts of Kindness

I arrived in London with 88 pounds of luggage. I am (almost) 5 feet tall. Needless to say, I had not thought through the process of getting myself + 88 lbs in three wheelie suitcases + 2 shoulder bags with only 2 hands... from Gatwick to my residence by King's Cross.

And so here I was, in a city I had never been to, ready to embark on a "life-changing" summer, but feeling a little alone and a lot stupid. I used a trolley and enlisted help from a porter to help get me to the train station from the airport, still feeling a little down and a lot overwhelmed. Trying to get off the train was the worst because the doors close pretty effing quick and everyone around me seemed more annoyed than anything else.

As I contemplated what to do next, an older gentleman who had already walked passed me turned around and came back to offer me help. He asked where I was going and when I told him King's Cross, he said he was headed that way too and asked if I needed help carrying my bags. My mom had told me not to accept help from a stranger, however at this point, I was pretty much desperate. With a little apprehension, I said yes. As I walked towards the platform, with him wheeling my suitcase beside me, I began to question whether this was a good idea.

And then the guilt set in. I was in a brand new city, feeling lost already and a stranger was kind enough to offer me help and there I was, questioning his motives. While not all strangers have good intentions, we live in a society that is built on trust. You pay for your meal after you've eaten it, you pay for your cab after you arrive at your destination and so on. It is not enough to accept help. It is more important to appreciate the kindness and goodness of people, especially strangers. 

Recognizing that changed my whole outlook. I knew I would be okay. There would be people who would help me along the way. In a city where you know no one, you don't have to be alone. I thanked him, and decided that this is what I want my trip in London to really be, a sort of pay it forward. I want new experiences, but I also want it to be about random acts of kindness.

I feel that working outreach at Thames Reach this summer will offer me a glimpse into the struggles of the homeless and vulnerable in London, and afford me the opportunity to look at society from a new perspective, both intellectually and culturally. I start work on Wednesday and I am as anxious as ever. But more importantly, I'm ready for this experience.

In omnia paratus.
Latin: Prepared for all things.