Friendly Downtown Kitchener

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, June 2006

Downtown Kitchener is such a friendly place that I need extra time to get to work so I can have conversations along the way. In fact it’s not uncommon for the outreach workers to be at the door to St. John’s Kitchen, attempting to enter the building, but stalled temporarily having first to proceed through many greetings. The streets of downtown Kitchener are filled with talk and if you listen long enough, you hear the stories and eventually you have not only a relationship, but a community… a functional network that you can depend upon.

Building a functional network around people is what outreach work is all about. There are approximately 12 outreach workers in downtown Kitchener who often position themselves at St. John’s Kitchen when the crowd gathers at noon. They arrive with their various engaging interpersonal styles, some direct and fiery, some with a quiet approach, but all similarly passionate about their work, the work of inclusion. The outreach workers represent different agencies but they work together as an effective team. And while we may give out vouchers or information, make referrals, fill out forms, advocate or accompany, the formal process always begins informally with stories. Telling one’s own story gives a person a sense of pride, appreciation for being heard and a new channel for support.

“Outreach,” as the term suggests, means reaching out to people when they are not being served well, not being heard. Outreach often touches people in a manner we all want and need, a person or network present in our most desperate hour. Someone to ask the difficult questions when we can’t.

When I began working at St. John’s Kitchen seven years ago, I was shocked to hear someone say that they wanted to go to prison for the winter because “at least it would be warm” or that their childhood years had been spent, “without ever having a hot meal or three meals a day.” personally, it took me a long time to understand the difficulties in something I took granted. This was totally outside of my world, out of my scope.

Eventually, I realized that what I understood as a behavioral norm could differ considerably from what others might define as a norm. What I take for granted, for example, might offend or be completely unfamiliar to someone else. A scheduled office appointment--something I do take for granted--can be quite a hurdle for people who carry many burdens and have many complex, ongoing difficulties. Assuming an equality of opportunity, anyone can and would be entitled to make such an appointment. There does not, however, exist an equality of conditions for everyone. Hence, scheduling and keeping an appointment can be intimidating because of power imbalance or of limited access to a phone, an alarm clock, or the literacy needed to negotiate a phone book. In outreach, the workers venture out to serve the population they intend to reach by confronting and negotiating ways through such obstacles with people, accompanying them and advocating for them when needed.

The current government is a rather poor model with its lack of support to the St. John’s Kitchen community through punitive and miserly financial assistance. Our society’s lack of understanding of the complex needs this population faces provides a precedent for the rest of society. With such difficulties however, they continue to thrive in at least one very important way--they all have stories to tell and, through the telling of these narratives, relationships are formed and a community is built. Unbeknownst to the broader community, a vibrant local culture is being built day by day, and preserved daily in downtown Kitchener.

It’s the sort of building of local culture that essayist Wendell Berry writes about. Berry says, “If you don’t know one another’s stories, how can you know whether or not to trust each other? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover fear one another.” This statement speaks clearly to the perception of downtown Kitchener by those who do not visit the downtown. Some in our community are afraid to venture downtown. And there is a mutual fear among street people and some agencies or businesses. The point could simply be made--they haven’t listened to each other; such listening is predicated on patience and acceptance.

During the past election, we all anxiously watched and waited for the changes that might have an impact on our lives particularly with a newly formed government. But it is important to remember that we don’t always need politicians to redesign a social system; there is much happening at a grassroots level speaking to the needs of the people as opposed to a government budget dictating policies that trickle down to the street level.

This may not always be easy to grasp; we are often more comfortable in this “age of experts” to have pronouncements come from above instead of listening to our own politics, our own families, our own communities. We do not need politicians or so-called experts of any kind to dictate our social standards. If we live and model our own standards there is a greater opportunity for kindness. Governments, on the other hand, are rarely kind. Large institutions have great difficulty touching the individual, particularly those who are isolated. If we want to live in kind communities, it must begin with the people.

I feel very fortunate to work with an outreach team, members of which understand that the problem rests not with the person in front of them, but falls squarely at the feet of all of us, the wider society. The outreach workers proceed with a positive regard for the person. To act otherwise would be as South African black nationalist Steven Biko once said, “ Not only are whites kicking us, they are telling us how to react to being kicked.” Positive regard is demonstrated not by turning people away or placing them on waiting lists as has so often happened in their lives; not being told their 50 minute hour is up or that they are too old or too young or too drunk. It’s never a question of “Can we do it?” but rather “How will we do it?”

With a team of many, the tasks are less daunting and involve active support for everyone involved. Outreach workers support people and guide them into and through the community with the recognition that the involvement is long term. The person being served is treated with unconditional support and preserving their dignity is paramount. It is a doorway to one’s sense of security in the community.

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