Winter Solstice 2022: Imagine
Lately I feel a little like I’ve been walking through the streets of Charles Dickens’s London, with waifs on every corner and debtor prisons in the form of credit cards and food banks, or perhaps the byways and highways of John M Synge’s Ireland in the late 1800s and his accounts of tenant farmers turned out of their small huts to survive in the ditches when they couldn’t pay the rent. Or even better, walking through Maria Campbell’s account of growing up Metis on the prairies, as one of the Road Allowance People because these were the only places available to them to scrape together a living. Different times, different places, all of them people disenfranchised. Without the rights or privileges of a free person. Without place.
But no, I go about my business—bank, bakery, grocery store—in Edmonton, Alberta. A dynamic, modern and civilized city by most accounts, part of a prosperous province and country. At three o’clock in the afternoon, I pass the single men’s emergency shelter off 97th Street, people already lining up for a bed for the night. I pass the young women trying to sell themselves for a meal or a place to crash. I stroll past the dozens of makeshift tents that line every available strip of public land between private fences and public sidewalks off 95 and 96 streets. I live in a building in Boyle Street, a mature neighbourhood just east of downtown Edmonton, the other side of the tracks from the same encampments. Some days people seek shelter between our front doors. Sometimes they are just trying to warm up. Sometimes they are reorganizing their meagre possessions or putting on some clean clothes. Sometimes they are doing drugs. Break-ins are not uncommon on our property.
What to do? It’s a dilemma for all who live here. Call 211 for help? Ask them to leave? Call the police? Pass them a sandwich? Pretend we don’t see them? My response is never the same and never enough. Sometimes they don’t take help. More often than not there’s no help to be had.
The number of people without a home in Edmonton has doubled (at 3000) since the start of the pandemic. More than fifty percent are Indigenous. The city only has 620 emergency shelter beds and just over 400 supportive housing units (most occupied) for those with addiction and mental health issues. This for a city of one million. Where are they going to go? It’s a debate within the neighbourhoods too, one that has been playing out in City Council meetings.
Perhaps it is fitting that on the longest night of the year, we ask hard questions of ourselves; I have no answers except for stories.
A friend reminded me recently that poverty is structural. Social problems are compounded when populations and services are disproportionately concentrated.
Poverty too is a form of violence, a Chilean friend once patiently explained to me. As with any experience of violence, people respond as best they’re able. In Edmonton in 2022, that sometimes plays out in addiction, crime and anti-social behaviour.
Maybe we need a new way of seeing. A good friend and priest, René Fumoleau, who worked with the Dene in northern Canada most of his life, told the story of a time when he asked a local artist to draw a scene for Midnight Mass. He wanted a picture of the holy family arriving in Bethlehem, only it would be a Dene village and they would have a tent and a dog team. The artist kept putting him off. Yes, he would do it. Yes, he was thinking on it. But as weeks, then months went by and still no drawing, René finally cornered him. That’s when the artist told him, he just couldn’t imagine Mary, Jesus, and Joseph left to fend for themselves. Why, if they had arrived at any Dene community, any one of them would have made room. They would have been welcomed.
Jo- Ann SymondsDecember 21, 2022
Love your message- so true – pray to hopefully see change – but don’t hold your breath.
Linda WinskiDecember 21, 2022
How well I remember Rene’s story, Audrey, and the dream that it might be so in our world today. Each week when I drive by the encampments in the urban core or have to ask people to move from the backdoor of the Bissell so we can get in to make coffee… my heart breaks. Coupled with images of displaced persons along borders around the world, in refugee camps, on crowded boats on rough waters seeking safety and a place to call home, I am left questioning “Where, indeed, is the soul of humanity?” “What will bring about the radical transformation in the hearts of those with power to truly make decisions for the common good?” “What will open our eyes to SEE that we live in a world where there truly is enough for all if shared equitably and that we are ONE FAMILY, called to care for one another?” I don’t know. I will continue to imagine a different world and perhaps if enough of us do that we can bring it into being. Thank you for sharing. Solstice blessings to all.
Pearl GregorDecember 21, 2022
More homelessness, More Food Banks. More low-cost housing. Every day we hear this. And every day, the call remains unheard by most. Everything is to blame except the system which is so very clearly broken. And what do I do to fix it? I am left with no answers except the same ones. Keep saying what needs to be said. Fix the broken system with more love and compassion in our responses to these neverending issues. Keep writing, Audrey. Keep saying what must be said. Thank you for once more reminding us that more must be done. As someone already said, maybe if we all imagine a different world, we can bring one into being someday soon.
Audrey J WhitsonDecember 21, 2022
Thank you all for your reflections. I owe the inspiration for the title of this Solstice blog (Imagine) to a friend, Fern Benz, who passed away in 2022. This is a good night to remember the dead. At her funeral Fern had prepared a musical playlist with series of reflections. First on the list was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I had not listened to that song for a long time. It stayed with me, and left me knowing her in a new way.
Kate QuinnDecember 21, 2022
With great gratitude for your reflections and the comments of other readers.
Barbara RoyDecember 21, 2022
For me, your writings are put aside for a quiet time in my day when I can savour them thoughtfully and reflect . You have a gift for “seeing” and I am so glad you share it!
Audrey J WhitsonDecember 21, 2022
Thank you, Kate and Barbara!
Kate HendersonDecember 22, 2022
I am well-versed on the idea of saving and having “enough” to last the rest of my life. But life has twists and turns and we just never know. The Dene example of community warmed my heart. Community is what keeps us safe and what we urban dwellers have trouble building, never mind offering to strangers. Food for thought. Your reflections could not be more timely, Audrey. Wishing you all warmth this holiday season!
Janice PelletierDecember 22, 2022
With gratitude and thanks, Audrey, for your thoughtful reflections. You ALWAYS provide the best “food for thought”. Thank you for sharing your gifts.
AudreyDecember 22, 2022
Thank you Both for reading, thinking and writing.
jano thibodeauDecember 24, 2022
To share stories is a reflection of Community. Michael Hollinshead I met him a few years ago. He travels from Edmonton (his residence) to Germany in hope of healing a cancer that has made ‘home’ in his body.
Michael communicates by emails and last month he shared this gem.
“That is what has always grounded me and made me able to stand above the fray – to see things in perspective. And also my study of history. Everything passes and everything has been experienced and endured before. So why not me?”
Audrey J WhitsonDecember 26, 2022
Jano, thank you for sharing this story. I’ve been listening to the dynamic Yale prof, Timothy Snyder this fall. The Making of Modern Ukraine is broadcast free on YouTube. Something about your comments reminded me of one of his first lectures: history is made up of periods of change and periods of continuity. So too our individual lives.
jano thibodeauDecember 26, 2022
YES SO TRUE Audrey, all has been done before – WAR in Ukraine is WARS in the Old Testament and thousands of years BEFORE done or executed with other kind of tools ( unconscious HIERARCHY/PATRIARCHY tools that are still unconsciously at work in the psyche of 2022 —
Will the year 2023 be celebrated Christmas as the birth of a baby girl?
Audrey J WhitsonDecember 28, 2022
Thank you, Jano, for imagining the possibility.
Linda BumsteadJanuary 9, 2023
Audrey, this blog really touched my heart. You have so much feeling for the dispossessed while living so nearby. When I go downtown I am sometimes frightened by the people there even while I know their lives are so precarious.
I feel frustrated and angry that there is not more really practical help. Not helping homeless people makes everyone’s life worse – misplaced anger by people impacted and so much suffering by those on the street.
Poverty as a form of violence really struck me. Both here and all over the world we must do better.
AudreyJanuary 9, 2023
Thanks for your reflections and observations, Linda. You are right to be frustrated, I think. Poverty downtown is a structural problem and requires a structural (systems) solution. That means community and government working together. The City is taking practical steps with some community partners such as Homeward Trust . But we need more cooperation across all levels of government.