Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Opening hearts to the homeless

High school students live as street people to learn compassion

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At first, all I knew was the long line of backpacking teenagers looked out of place marching through the Exchange District after dark on a wintry March night.

Where were they from? Where were they going and why?

It turned out they were part of the 37-member graduating class of Winnipeg's Calvin Christian School and they were headed back to their temporary new home, which earlier in the day, they had been told no longer had room for them.

Pack up and move along.

The students didn't know it, but their "eviction" was a mock exercise to offer them a taste of hunger and homelessness on Winnipeg streets.

Now that it was dark -- and the kids had seen the light -- they were returning to Siloam Mission, the homeless shelter that had been their home for the last six days. By night, they slept on the floor of an otherwise deserted fourth level of the brick building. By day, they lived among, and served, the 300 to 350 people Siloam feeds every day.

In the process, the students confronted prejudgments about poverty and street people that they might have brought to their week of living compassionately. Some probably arrived with the same attitudes that program creator Lindsay Smith had when she was their age. That was long before she came up with the idea that has attracted students from Costa Rica to Calgary, from Portage la Prairie to Minneapolis and even Iowa in the last three years.

"It's my personal story lived out," is how Lindsay explains the so-called Under the Radar program.

Lindsay is 30 now, and the director of Siloam's volunteer services. But as a 19-year-old growing up in the sheltered prosperity of North Kildonan, the former University of Manitoba volleyball player remembers being afraid of the street people she saw when she went home from her summer job and had to transfer to a bus in front of Portage Place.

"Why don't they just get a job?" she recalls thinking.

"Oh, yes," she smiles now, "I was very ignorant."

Young Lindsay had other questions about homelessness back then.

Why, she wondered, does it still persist in a city that's so generous?

As a teenager, Lindsay only knew of one place to get the answers: from the homeless themselves. But to do that, she would have to confront what really separated her from understanding more about them.

Her fear.

"One day," she says, "I just got fed up. I started talking to panhandlers to get over a fear of homeless people."

The first one was a man who looked to be in his 50s or 60s. It can be tough to tell with street people. His name was Hank, he had a guitar and it was his music that drew her to him.

"I recognized the song he was playing."

It was one of Johnny Cash's tunes, or that's what Lindsay thought at the time.

Hank corrected her.

Kris Kristofferson wrote the lyrics and melody of Sunday Morning Coming Down, a song sung from the perspective of a hungover drunk who awakes to the emptiness of a Sunday morning street that mirrors the loneliness of his life. Hank was playing that one, he told Lindsay, because it was the narrative of his life.

"The pain of separation," is how Lindsay interpreted that.

After that, Lindsay felt emboldened to talk to others like Hank. She began packing bagels with cream cheese and offering it to homeless people as a way to help the conversation and satiate her curiosity.

"If someone could give you anything to help you," she would ask them, "what would that be?"

"My own space," one told her. "If I could just have one little corner, I could keep clean."

Another wanted something that would help him deal with addictions. And then there was one who just wanted food.

"Where do you get your food?" Lindsay asked.

The answer led her to Siloam Mission for more answers. That summer, she volunteered in the soup kitchen.

"I did it once," Lindsay says, "And that changed my whole life."

That, I gather, is why Lindsay Smith created the program that brought Calvin Christian School's graduating class to Siloam Mission this week.

If not to change their lives, to at least open their hearts.

But the truth is, it wasn't volunteering at the soup kitchen, or even listening to Hank sing Sunday Morning Coming Down, that changed Lindsay Smith's whole life.

It was Lindsay Smith.

The candle of compassion was already there and only needed to be lit.

Ultimately, what it took was her courage and her refusal to be afraid of people who have so little.

And who ask for even less.

Lessons learned

Here's what one group of high school students learned last year from their week-long experience of sleeping and serving at Siloam Mission:

-- 'One thing that was a really big step for me is the realization that people who don't have homes are, in fact, people, who I can relate to, talk to, and learn from.'

-- 'I loved the activities and loved how we were able to go and experience things instead of just listening to an education session.'

'I learned I'm not so afraid of downtown anymore.'

-- 'I learned that these people need help and I could be the one to do it.' -- 'I learned how homelessness can affect or happen to anyone. It shows you how the homeless in Winnipeg come from all walks of life.'

-- 'I learned how relevant of an issue homelessness is in Winnipeg and how they're just people, too. You can go to another country for a mission trip, but at some point you've got to acknowledge what's going on in your own backyard.'

-- source: Siloam Mission

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 $sourceSection0

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