A couple of weeks ago now I resigned by job. Like any life decision like that there are a lot of reasons but in the end I was feeling really tired and in some ways burned out. Wendy’s depression is worse now than it has ever been and that takes a toll on the entire family (she’s making an ugly, ugly transition to yet another stronger anti-depressant without being weaned off the old one right now). While the job wasn’t burning my out, life was taking a toll on all of us and we have a very hard time getting treatment in Saskatchewan, heck, we can’t even get her old clinic to transfer her medical files to the new doctor.
After I made it public that I was looking for a new challenge, several serious job offers came in and we looked at some opportunities that would change our financial position substantially and one in particular that would give me and the family an opportunity to travel and live abroad. Another offer was a great job in a particularly evil company. Not quite big tobacco or working for the GOP but evil enough that I am sure that all go for supper together. I have lived in the prairies my entire life and the opportunity to raise Mark and Oliver in a different culture and worldview was something that I wanted to do since Mark was born. I am also getting to the age where I think a little more about retirement each year and this would give us a chance to retire with a little more money in the bank. While the Salvation Army treats me quite fairly, as a non-profit, it can’t compare to the compensation of evil publically traded companies. Whatever my job decision was going to be, I had planned to wrap up work here last Wednesday and start at my new job in late September. I was asked to reconsider my decision and stay here as well but at the time, I was at peace with moving on to new challenges.
It wasn’t a easy decision to make as we balanced Wendy’s access to treatment, what was good for the boys, what our goals were as a family, and also some pretty strong ties to Saskatoon, particularly the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon. During this time of evaluation, there was a murder (more) that bothered me deeply. I know both the victim and the accused from work and while I was processing that death, we had a death at work. After hours of questioning by the police, crime scene investigators and major crimes (don’t worry, it was a death from natural causes), I drove our former chaplain up to St. Paul’s Hospital as he was off to see a dying friend. While I tend to drive up 19th Street to avoid the traffic on 20th, I drove back down 20th Street that night. I have never seen 20th Street like that. I counted 14 girls clearly working the stroll. Three of them looked to be underage. Guys were on the street corners as I watched 2 drug deals go down. I know that isn’t typical for 20th Street and was like that because the Saskatoon Exhibition was in town which brings in a lot of out of town customers. As I left the Centre that night around 10:00 p.m., I turned back up 19th and as I was turning the corner, I watched a taxi complete a brazen dial-a-dope transaction at the phone booth across the street from the Centre. Of course the prostitutes were on 33rd Street that night (Wendy later told me that there has been as many as four in the Safeway parking lot on shift). I got home, grabbed a Diet Coke, grabbed my Moleskine and started to jot down some notes for how things had changed since I started working at the Salvation Army in Riversdale and on the west side.
What we do at the Salvation Army Community Services is both really simple in concept and really complex in how it is executed. The concepts are pretty easy. We provide meals, food, budget management help, and emergency assistance to those that need it. The nuances of distributing those goods, paying for it, being paid for it, determining need and the appropriate response is what is so complex. It takes a lot of staff, volunteers, officers, and money to make it happen.
The operational side I have a firm grasp on, it is that simple stuff that was troubling me. The Centre does a really good job at doing what we do but what haunted me as I went to bed that night was, are we doing the right things?
I came in and talked with some other managers about what I was thinking. I think the Salvation Army Community Services does a lot of really good things but Riversdale has changed. While getting the Mumford House ready for it’s opening, I drove a lot between the two locations and on every corner around the women’s shelter, there are girls working on the corners… at 8:30 a.m. Even during the opening of the Mumford House I watched girls on the corner. While I have been complaining night and day about prostitution in Mayfair, girls are working the streets in Confederation Park and even as far west as Pacific Heights. 90% of the girls on the streets are being trafficked by a variety of sources. They are moving out of the stroll (women can be as territorial as the men and if they don’t come up with a new territory, they get beaten if they don’t bring him the money).
It’s just not the prostitution. It’s the drugs, the increase in violence, and the sense of hopelessness from not being able to get ahead. 13.2% of residents in the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon don’t have a grade nine education. (including 21.0% of those in Riversdale and 18.4 of those in Pleasant Hill). While 11% of Saskatoon is made up of one parents families, 24 % of Riversdale households are single parents families. Not to get all Dan Quayle on you or anything but Wendy and I have a hard time raising kids on two salaries and very little child care costs (we work opposite hours). How much harder is it to go alone? A sign of disenfranchisement many households feel, only 13% of Pleasant Hill residents turned out to vote in the last civic election (vs. 50% of voters in Briarwood). Of course one doesn’t need to channel the spirit of Thomas Homer-Dixon to realize how problems can be even more complex than the combined statistical analysis… and believe me, the stats show a complex problem.
We are left with two alternatives. During this time, I finished up an internal proposal to go to the Salvation Army for a new facility. It’s no secret that Saskatoon needs more shelter beds. In addition to more beds, it redesigns how we accommodate our residents so they are more comfortable and guys can have a better rest. More youth rooms, more mental health rooms, a wing for grumpy old men, transitional rooms, a small half gym, computer facilities, a coffee shop/drop in space, and lots of green space for our guys. It’s not perfect, I couldn’t figure out how to slide a go-cart track past the bureaucracy but will we see.
As I finished it up, I realized that what we were proposing a dam and levy system for many of our residents. While they were at the Centre, they would be safe and secure and maybe even get ahead of the game but when many left, they get swamped by what is outside of the Centre. There is value in creating safe spaces but eventually you have to leave and go out in the real world. Too high of rent, too low of income, stuck in a flophouse, surrounded by drugs, forced to take a bad roommate, mental health and addiction problems and trapped in poverty. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that life should be hard at times but the obstacles confronting our clients are considerable. So I was left with an architectural solution (increase the size of dorms to X number of dorm beds and even more private rooms for grumpy old men and then keep building and building and building) or we figure out a way to help our clients live back in the community amongst the alcohol, drugs, violence, and exploitation. By doing so, we would also be changing the character of those neighbourhoods. Of course of the two, the second option is a lot harder to do.
As I was thinking about this, I was at the Front Desk the other night when a women came in. The Emergency After Hours worker was swamped with other clients and the women was upset and crying. I took her into a room off the office, left the door open (and it’s on camera) and started to see what she needed. She needed accommodation and I asked a couple of questions which she was quite forthcoming in answering. The details aren’t that important but drugs, acquired brain injury, prostitution to make ends meet, a couple of bad tricks. As the staff found a place for her at a local women’s shelter, I had two thoughts. One this women in someone’s daughter and secondly as her face and neck had the signs of being beaten up by a john, will she escape this cycle first or will she end up being another statistic?
So what can I do? What can we do? I’ll get into this in a lot of detail later but there is a lot that we can do about this. I think that is what kept me here, there is stuff that I can do as an individual, I can do within the organization, and we can do as an organization of other community based partners. As Margaret Mead once said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.