At Sanctuary, we often talk about the fact that folks who are relatively rich and those who are relatively poor are “more alike than different”. There is truth to that. There are fundamental aspects of what it means to be human that we share in common: dreams, disappointments, love, hurt, pride, etc… When middle-class type people hang out with folks who are homeless, this is one of the discoveries that they make. And it’s a good one.
But there are differences. And some of them are counter-intuitive. Allow me to reflect on a few that we come up against pretty regularly…
The value of ‘being served’. I really enjoy going out to dinner. I like it when I don’t have to do anything except order off the menu and wait for the food to arrive. In extreme cases, I could go so far as to say that I find the treatment ‘kingly’. It’s nice to be waited on hand-and-foot.
So why, at Sanctuary, do we eat our meals family-style? Or why do we have our street-involved friends work in the kitchen instead of sitting down while we wait on them? Wouldn’t it be a treat for them to be treated like royalty?
Ultimately, I think, it’s about power. In a restaurant, I have the power. I’m the king. I’ve got the money. I order what I want. My tip reflects my satisfaction. I enjoy being served – on my terms!
If we are not careful, it can have a very different feel in a drop-in setting. Here, the servers are king. The ‘customers’ aren’t even allowed in the kitchen. It’s not that they prefer to sit and be served – rather they are excluded from the kitchen. As a group, they aren’t trusted in the kitchen – whether because of their hygiene, because of safety or for whatever other reason. The customer doesn’t choose the meal, can’t complain about the service…nothing. Utterly powerless. At Sanctuary, we want to turn this model on its head and give the power back to our friends who rarely get to hold it.
The value of a gift. Free stuff! What could be better? Costco is giving out free samples! I could eat a whole meal here! I got a coupon in the mail for a free tube of toothpaste! My friend surprised me and offered to treat me to a birthday dinner. This is great!
But what if your life consists of receiving free stuff? What if the free stuff doesn’t, in fact, reflect your ability to manage your finances creatively or affirm your intrinsic worth as a contributing member of society? What if, instead, it reaffirms to you that you’re utterly dependent on the charity of strangers for even the most basic of needs?
That same “treat you to a meal” can have its perceived meaning quickly change from “Your friendship is a gift to me that I wish to honour” to “You’re a poor soul desperate for food and frankly I don’t trust that, if I gave you this $10, you would even spend it on food.” I don’t think many (or any?) of us would ever intend that, but it very easily could be the message that gets heard.
The value of a wage. A teenager gets her first job at McDonalds and begins earning $10/hour, working 10 hours a week…that’s $100/week or about $5,000/year. Sweet! And the very fact of having that job is a boost – it means I have been deemed to have merit: I applied, I interviewed and I was accepted. I feel great and the fact that I’m getting paid anything at all is a bonus!
But what if my primary qualification is the very opposite of the scenario I have just described? What if my main qualification is the fact that I’m a 48 year-old guy who has battled addiction and mental illness for years, have lived in a shelter for the last year and a half, and am being given ‘one last chance’ because no one figures I’ll ever get a real job on my own? I wonder, in this situation, if earning minimum wage isn’t just one more painful reminder that, after all these miles, I’m no farther ahead than a high school kid.
These observations aren’t true 100% of the time nor should we pretend that they are. But they are true with some regularity. While my friends who live on the street are so very much just like me in many regards, there are some differences worth noting. The value of personal relationship can’t be overstated. Only as I get close to my friend will I know how my well-meaning actions are being received. And while some action is probably better than none at all, how much better if we could take steps towards having our kindnesses received in the spirit in which they were intended!
Written by Alan Beattie of Sanctuary Toronto