Can you see me?

Tracey Wallace A Wednesday night at the Salvation Army is not unlike many other nights. The kitchen staff is busy preparing dinner; folks are watching TV. I set up my camera and light in a small room beside the kitchen and walk out to the eating area.

by Tracey Wallace

A Wednesday night at the Salvation Army is not unlike many other nights.

The kitchen staff is busy preparing dinner; folks are watching TV. I set up my camera and light in a small room beside the kitchen and walk out to the eating area.

I am hoping to find someone who would like to take part in the Poverty and Homelessness Action calendar for this year. I am not sure at all that anyone is interested and I feel quite intimidated. Who am I to ask people to tell their story through a photo – a moment in time that may or may not tell the reality of their life?

I approach Richard, someone who has been very open and honest with his thoughts of life in Yukon, a life lived in myriad complexities. Richard is easy to speak with, and I trust him to tell me if I am stepping over boundaries.

He is sitting with a friend who has just moved up from Vancouver, new to town and needing support. She is braiding the hair of her friend, Irene.

Irene quietly says she would like to have her photo taken for the calendar. We chat nervously about small things while I start shooting. We talk about the theme for this year’s calendar: Can You See Me?

I feel awkward trying to articulate what I mean by that, but it is immediately clear that she knows only too well. Irene’s stark definition says it best: “Mostly we are invisible; at times we are too visible.”

Irene is soft-spoken, with deep-set dark eyes. She is captivating, and someone I would like to get to know better. I understand that I can never truly see what it means to feel invisible, but Irene continues: “There are times, I go out front (of the shelter) and I see people go by in their cars and either stare, and I know they are judging me, or they look away. I wonder what they are thinking.”

“Does it matter to you what they are thinking?” I ask, immediately feeling ashamed. “Yes,” responds Irene quietly, “it matters.” Her eyes tell me how painfully this is so.

It is not out of desire that people live on the streets, as so many in our society tend to believe. Poverty and homelessness are a consequence of complex circumstances. It is rare that someone lives in poverty and is homeless for just one reason, and it is often a series of circumstances that puts them there.

We too easily accept the root causes of poverty and homelessness: prolonged illness, domestic violence, addictions and residential school trauma. Our society continues to perpetuate it through systemic discrimination such as lack of a living wage and access to affordable housing.

We have created perfect circumstances for many to fall into poverty and homelessness and on so many levels continue to stigmatize and marginalize by the very act of not “seeing.”

Hours have gone by and many have sat in front of the camera, both staff and patrons, in the small room beside the kitchen. I have had a glimpse into their lives, and I feel grateful for the time they have spent with me.

I have met a theatre student, a skilled outdoorsman, a woman who once modeled in Malaysia – people with depth, courage and determination.

Dinner is over and the dishes have been washed and put away for another night. Personal belongings are moved into lockers.

I am asked to leave so that arrangements for sleeping can be made. The tables are moved away in the eating area to create more space for sleeping mats.

Ending poverty and homelessness is not difficult; it is much easier than we think, and we have the solutions. We know how to move from crisis responses, such as shelters and food banks, to safe, affordable housing with appropriate resources.

We have studies, reports and well-developed plans that can be quickly brought into action. We just need to take that first step.

The Yukon is proud of its rich history; let’s put the end to poverty and homelessness here as well. Don’t let the complexities of poverty and homelessness dissuade you from seeing, because the answers to ending it are really quite simple.

Choose to see, you won’t regret it. Poverty and Homelessness Action Week takes place from Wednesday, Oct. 16 to Wednesday, Oct. 23, and there are many ways to get involved.

Contact co-ordinator Kate Mechan at 335-4323 or visit www.yapc.ca for details.

Tracey Wallace is a

volunteer with the Yukon

Anti-Poverty Coalition.

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