When I first spoke to Cynthia on the phone before meeting her, she introduced herself as the voice of the homeless. She told me one of her roles was as the Outreach Coordinator for My Place Day Shelter. Described as a safe, secure and friendly space, My Place is located on the North Shore in a community centre near MacDonald Park. Its been running for about 5 or 6 years - created by a shared vision of a number of organizations that saw a gap. They run lunches on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and also provide a range of support services including advice on housing, hospital and other local information. Some people are homeless that visit My Place, many ex-homeless and others could be described as wealthy. Its a very different crowd than JUMP where clients are mostly homeless. People come together at My Place for a shared meal and to network information.
Cynthia greeted us at the door, introduced us to a few folks who had arrived already and immediately set us to work. My Place functions as a well oiled machine as once the crowd comes in, people need to be served food and offered other personal goods in a hospitable and professional way. People had brought boxes of crackers, condoms, toiletries, and other snacks to share with the community. We helped some of the other volunteers to set up tables and chairs. Another woman and I tried to figure out how to make coffee and find out where the sugar was.
We had been set up in a quiet side room again that functioned as a women's space, outside of the hustle and bustle of the lunch room. A large table had about 8 chairs around it with small personal maps and markers set out for participants to use. Stickers were ready for folks to transfer their content to the large 6 foot black and white map on the wall. The women came to sit together after having lunch. Many stayed for the full 2 hours - after telling us their stories, they listened to each others, and witnessed the public process of locating the transfer of this knowledge onto the wall map.
Not many of the women at My Place knew each other and a few took it upon themselves to introduce each other and, as 'old timers,' share important street knowledge to the 'new comers'. A woman who described herself as 'new to town,' drew lines along her walking paths where she saw beauty... all the way down the hill from Aberdeen to the end of downtown where the health services and library are located. She said it only took 20 minutes to get down, but 43 minutes to walk back up. She thought there was beauty and safety at the shopping malls - looking out from high up and with many people, even thought they were strangers she like to be around other people. Another woman marked a number of community services including a local church, the Family Tree and AA meetings that were useful to her. She also discussed Canadian Mental Health Services and Kamloops Mental Health & Addiction Services & Emergency Response but also had concern that there was not always a women working. She went on to describe places of beauty - place she and her children used to go to - peppered across the city. After annotating the map in detail, she drew a big circle around the whole page in black and asked - how is that there can be beauty here and there when I feel fear all around this city all the time? Another participant held her hand and talked through her concerns quietly.
As we were packing up to leave, a few energetic women stopped in to help us out. These two gals had a lot of experience on the street and told me it was important to document the bad Johns and places where they drop off the girls. Sticking a number of black Xs on the the map, she told us, "if you are in a car and its headed to Mission Flats, get out, break the window if you have to. Thats where they find the girls drugged, beaten up or worse...." Another woman explains that that was where she used to take her dogs on long walks before her accident. We each had our own perceptions of the places marked as unsafe. I felt honored when one woman came back to thank you hug for giving her 'an opportunity to talk about the beauty that is everywhere', placing her sobriety chip into the palm of my hand with a little squeeze.