Monday, July 25, 2011

Paris, Je T'Aime.

I spent the past weekend in Paris, and I did not know if it would live up to the expectations that have taken years to build. But in the 72 hours I spent there, it was everything I thought it would be and more. I fell in love with Paris.

I will be honest here, when we first arrived in Paris via coach and pulled up past the Eiffel Tower, it was sort of anticlimactic. It was a giant gray metal structure, and admist the rain, did not seem like anything special. But at night, with the lights, it was something else.

My favourite moment was perhaps Friday night when my friends and I went to the Eiffel Tower at midnight. We saw it lit up first from the top of the stairs from Palais de Chaillot and it took my breath away.

As we walked closer, and saw it from all angles and watched the light show, I knew it was one of those moments in my life I would always remember.

I think my fascination with French culture started sometime during Grade 12 World History and learning about absolutist monarchies. I did a paper on Louis XIV and learned about the ch√Ęteau de Versailles, the grandeur of which, for someone who loves all things shiny and gaudy, further piqued my interest in French history.

In person, it was quite honestly one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. However, we were herded through the castle like sheep, pushed and prodded without any time to stop, observe and appreciate. The crowds were mean and pushy, parents with little kids attempting to run through the ropes and people stopping for pictures in the middle of the display were really bothersome.

We paid the extra fee to go into the gardens as savouring the castle experience was really not possible. This was even more spectacular than the castle if you ask me. I cannot even fathom how someone dreamt up the layout and the design. It was beyond incredible, and much less crowded. The water, the flowers, the view - it was something else.

Perhaps what I am most interested in is the French Revolution. From the Enlightenment to the French Revolution, starting with hope in the spirit of liberty, equality and brotherhood, and ending in terror leading up to the Napoleonic wars - the whole process of transformation, for me, is just about the most intriguing historical event ever. And that's just the beginning. From my many courses in French history, I have learned about art, fashion, food and wine. I have learned about festivals, architecture, music and interior design.

I did not get to go to Bastille, or to any of the museums really. But I did get to eat, and wow, was that an experience! Duck, bagettes, cheeses and wines, chocolates, crepes and pastries - I don't even know what I liked more!

One of my favourite experiences, however came on the last day while I was walking along the water with my friend Taylor, and over the many gorgeous bridges. One has locks all over the railings, and it was just amazing to see how many people had put locks on it with the names of their loved ones. On the river siene, we were in time to enjoy the Paris Plages. I loved it, it was set up with sandy beaches, deckchairs, palm trees and ubiquitous ice cream sellers. It allows city-dwellers and those who cannot afford a beach vacation an opportunity to enjoy a day escape to the sand.

There is so much I have left to see and do in Paris. I wish I could summer there, the way I am doing in London because I do not think even a week would be enough to truly understand and appreciate all that the city has to offer. I really just sampled Paris, and I am so glad I was able to, in particular, enjoy it with some of the other interns who truly made this experience even richer.

This is definitely not a goodbye, in fact, it is just the start. I hope to be back there as I soon as I can afford it. Till we meet again... au revoir Paris, je'taime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Night Shift

I arrived at work yesterday around 7:30 PM for my first late night shift. It was a shift with London Street Rescue (LSR), which is not the outreach team I normally work with. If you look at the map below, the pink dot is the borough I work in with the Tower Hamlet Street and Outreach Response Team (THSORT). Thames Reach has some specific SORT teams in boroughs like mine as well as LSR which covers 20 boroughs. Any borough in white below does not receive services from Thames Reach. (The green dot is just to show where I live for anyone who is curious - I am a 5 minute walk from King's Cross and St. Pancras station.)

My shift was specifically a No Second Night Out (NSNO) shift. This is a pilot project in London, a scheme to end rough sleeping by 2012. The main objective is to have no individual arriving on the streets sleep there for a second night. According to their own blurb, other projects exist to support those already rough sleeping. NSNO aims to prevent someone new to rough sleeping from spiralling downwards into a long term life on the streets where they are very vulnerable to crime, drugs and alcohol, and at high risk of serious illness, and potential early death.

Currently the focus is on Camden, City of London, Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Brent and Southwark. If the pilot goes well, it will be extended to the rest of the London boroughs. Of course, it's all a little convenient to have this date set just in time for the summer Olympics. However, at the same time, whatever gets a project funding and contributes to helping people not become entrenched in a cycle of rough sleeping is valuable in my books, political motivations or not.

A major problem in London is that many new rough sleepers are not from Britain, but rather from Central Eastern European (CEE) countries. Since 2004, 10 CEE have joined the European Union, this makes it a lot easier to cross borders and start lives over in the UK. However, the problem is many do not find legal work and sometimes have drinking problems all which lead to rough sleeping. It is a difficult problem to address, because if you just moved here but will not be working, it is not fair to expect welfare services to provide for you. At the same time, you have to wonder about people who would rather sleep on the streets in the rain in London than go back home, and your heart sort of bleeds for what you're sending them back to. Quite often though, many do not speak English fluently, and communication between outreach teams and the clients are challenging. Sometimes I do wonder if they would not be more comfortable in their home country, where at least language would not be a barrier

NSNO works with mostly CEE clients, as that is the population that is generally becoming homeless. If the clients have worked legally in the UK and paid taxes, they can qualify for benefits and NSNO will help set up appointments and things with resources like job centres to help them. There is a separate team called Reconnections that works mainly with CEE clients to help find their way back home. They can connect clients to services in their home cities, find family members and facilitate the process of going back. It is a really tough situation, especially when there is a language barrier and people are rough sleeping to know what is the most appropriate course of action. Quite often though, the reluctance to be "reconnected" (or I supposed "sent back" depending on how you want to look at it) is quite high. Sometimes there is embarrassment at the thought of going back, and other times they still feel there are more opportunities here, or they have nothing to go back for.

Last night we met a Polish woman in Hammersmith. She was lying on a doorway when we went to the sleeping site. We only go to sites that were referred to us on these NSNO shifts, and so we knew that this was a location she had been seen at. When we found her, she was drunk and sleeping. She did not speak any English, and trying to communicate with her was was very challenging. For NSNO, when we find a referral, we take them back to a place ominously called The Hub. Here they receive an assessment interview in their native language to see if they can be connected with resources here or want to be reconnected back home.

Trying to explain to her that we wanted to take her to a safe place because rough sleeping is dangerous is most definitely one of the most taxing experiences I have had here so far. I felt horrible for her because she had no idea who we were or what we were trying to say. She was drunk and confused, and we were trying to convince her to get into a van with us. I mean, thinking of it from her perspective, that in itself (getting into a van with strangers) must have felt more dangerous than sleeping in the doorway.

She was upset, and she loudly sobbed. I wanted to pat her on the arm, but I do not think physical contact is allowed. After using many hand gestures and repeating simple words like "safe place," "sleep" and "help you" we convinced her to come into the van. As she was sobering up, she was getting more annoyed at not knowing where she was going, and calming her down was not an easy task. We could not really offer the support she wanted, so we called a coworker who speaks Polish to communicate with her and explain where we were taking her. After the phone call, she cried for a bit longer, but then it was as if she forgot the conversation and she started asking where we were taking her all over again.

The difficult part was not just the communication barrier, but also that she was very intoxicated. At times, I felt bad and at other times I would get frustrated and to be honest, at moments I would feel quite annoyed. I felt horrible, but when she shouted "please give me cigarette," it bothered me that that was a phrase she knew but words like safe place were not in her vocabulary. However, my emotions were all over the place with the whole situation, fluctuating between concern and annoyance. I did however want to know that she would be okay. From the phone conversation with our coworker, we knew that she had been here for years and years, had paid legal work and previously a flat and should be eligible for benefits. This did ease my concerns, as I know reconnection is quite often the only option for CEE rough sleepers who do not speak English or have work prospects here.

The rest of the night was spent looking for referrals we could not find. I do not think I will ever get used to the incapacitating smell of urine and alcohol, that is quite often in some sites where some rough sleepers sleep. Doing the night shift really affected me more than the day shift, because at night, rough sleepers seem more vulnerable, when you're catching someone at the end of their day. I'm not sure how I feel about NSNO just yet but I am hoping to get to do one more shift before I leave. I think it is great that the plan is help rough sleepers before they become entrenched in this lifestyle, but I do wonder about the places clients are leaving from and what their life must have been like before that returning seems unfavourable. It's difficult to find someone and not see them through to the end, but there are different workers involved at every stage and this is probably what keeps things orderly and systematic.

I cannot believe I have only 2 and a half weeks left here, and then it's back home and to the Mississauga Food Bank. I've really grown to appreciate the programming side in a new way. It's very humanizing. I wonder how it will be being on the fundraising side once again when I return home.    

Friday, July 1, 2011

A is for Alcohol

I've had the most difficult time deciding how to start this entry. The topic is a loaded one, and one where my experiences are varied in a way where I know a little, but not enough. I spent my morning at a drinker's hostel in Tower Hamlets, where I'm working as an outreach worker with homeless people and it was definitely an eye-opener.

It's odd to think that for the average university student, drinking is about having a good night and waking up with some regrets and a bad headache. Binge drinking is a recurring activity, and often associated with fun. Movies like American Pie perpetuate a world of partying and boozing that is all light-hearted and easy. While, there are always consequences, they never really seem that bad and even out of control drinking seems within control.

What I saw today would be the total opposite of that. The drinker's hostel is one that accepts clients that really wouldn't be accepted elsewhere because their alcohol support needs are so high. When I walked in, the air reeked of pee and cheap beer. It was incapacitating and I found myself sniffing my sweater for comfort. The client we were meeting had woken up 20 minutes prior to our arrival. He had stitches that needed to be removed (injuries from falling down while intoxicated) and we were taking him to the hospital so that it got done. He's a very impatient man, and without someone there, likely he wouldn't have gone. Before leaving, we suggested he have a glass of water, but his instinct was to pour a glass of super strength lager (someone else's) and drink that first. His hand shook as he poured.

He's frail and had difficulty walking to the hospital about two blocks away. Watching him, I realized how debilitating alcohol can be, and it scared me thinking about how easily this sort of addiction could happen to somebody. Unlike drugs, which are illegal and have a different sort of stigma about delinquency, alcohol is not only readily available, but also acceptable. Although of course, people expect a certain sense of balance, and I guess the difference between a frat party and a drinker's hostel is the difference between alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency. Our client had the shakes, he could not stand straight, or take regular steps. We had to take the elevator up one floor, and have him lean against a wall instead of wait in line. He had barely had a drink when we'd seen him, but the effects of alcohol are long-lasting.

It's difficult to reconcile these two contrasting views of alcohol consumption, whereas one is seen as de-stresser and the other can pull apart someone's life. Our client has siblings, had a wife and child, a job, a home and really, a life full of people who loved him and cared about him. After his mom passed away, his addiction to alcohol took over, and now his days are spent in this hostel, drinking. It breaks my heart to know that this is someone's reality, and I cannot imagine what it would take to break the cycle. How does something that is so accessible, and accepted in society, especially in London (where you can buy alcohol at a 24 hour off-license anytime of day) become avoidable?

It's strange to think that alcohol, something you can sip with dinner, or use for "liquid courage" before a nerve-wrecking moment can be so lethal. In the past two weeks, I have met so many clients who are on benefits, and really do not do anything but drink all day. Working becomes impossible, as does maintaining relationships when your addiction takes over. And rehab is sometimes not effective, because the temptation is far too easy to give into after getting out. In many situations, I have wondered if the drinking led to the homelessness or if being homeless enabled the addiction. It doesn't really matter, just that there needs to be effective ways to address alcohol dependency so that some of these people can get their lives together. I don't know how someone who has spent more of their life drinking than they have working finds the motivation and support to break the cycle and go through the motions of building a life.

In London, there is an added issue (that may exist at home too, but I just don't know about it) of super strength lagers. Alcohol in London can be bought at any hour of the night from just anywhere that is open (gas stations, convenient stores, grocery stores, etc.) Alcoholics are buying 9% proof lager and 7.5% proof cider at rock-bottom prices and then spending all day binge drinking it in large volumes. It is cheap (some less than £1 for twice as much alcohol in one unit than recommended as acceptable daily intake), really harmful, and readily available. Research suggests that increasing the taxation on it would deter consumers of super strength lagers, but passing this policy has been a nightmare.

As it stands, approximately 50% of rough sleepers have an alcohol problem, and half of them have an addiction to super strength lagers. Frontline workers at Thames Reach (where I am interning) have plenty of evidence of rapid deterioration in health caused by super strength lagers, and an escalated dependency. When I was at the drinker's hostel today, I noticed a 2L bottle of White Ace that cost only £3.49. Ever since learning about super strength lagers, I am so easily able to spot it and it is amazing how many homeless people I have seen with half empty cans of "Special Brew" beside them.

A campaign Thames Reach has worked on has been to advocate for policy to increase taxes for brewers to make it economically nonviable to produce them for mass consumption; hard-hitting health warnings like those on cigarette packets indicating that consumption of a single can will lead to exceeding the Government's daily recommended safe alcohol limit and risking damaging their health; and creating a 6% strength ceiling on alcohol content for canned and bottled super strength lagers and ciders. Of course, this has not been easy or successful necessarily. It's amazing that something that seems so simple to benefit society can become so political when it involves corporations and money.

Over the last few weeks, I have seen so much of how different peoples' lives have been affected by different factors. Alcohol is one that has been interesting because I have of course, known alcohol in a completely different sense. To see how it impacts individuals who become dependent, who drink all day and cannot work or get out of poverty because of it... it's a new dimension to how some become homeless and why they sometimes stay that way. I'm very interested in continuing to learn about alcohol and drug support needs, and the sorts of policy around it. I feel that learning about the policies that exist and how they are failing society is what would bring about change.