Colourful regalia. Delicious food. Traditional performances. Laughter between friends. These were just a few of the sights and sounds to behold at Bissell Centre’s celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day on Friday, June 21, a day which also marks the summer solstice. The solstice is notable for providing the longest stretch of daylight of the year, which was fitting, as the 10 am to 1 pm celebrations saw a reprieve from the relentless stretch of rainy days. As members of our community gathered in the street together to honour the rich and diverse culture and contributions of the Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, the clouds parted and the sun made a welcome appearance on a day that Indigenous people have devoted to celebrating and rejoicing in our connection to the sun and the Earth for thousands of years.
But National Indigenous Peoples Day is about more than just celebration. It’s an opportunity for all Canadians to reflect on the history of mistreatment and adversity that Indigenous people have faced in Canada for hundreds of years, ever since the endless miles of Canadian soil that had belonged solely to them from the beginning of time became inhabited by groups of people who did not share their beliefs or ways of life. The Canada we know today is a beautiful cultural tapestry, brightly woven with colourful threads from cultures, ethnicities and nationalities from all over the world, and we are known internationally as a country that will welcome those who need refuge or who seek a better life for their family with open arms. Even so, it’s important to acknowledge and reflect upon the fact that Canada became the nation it is today at great cost to Indigenous people and their storied heritage. And this history is far from ancient – the last Canadian residential school did not close its doors until 1996. For many Indigenous Canadians, the scars borne of decades of intergenerational trauma and the societal inequity that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people continue to face today often makes the healing process a long and difficult one.
While National Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity for both celebration and reflection, it also offers the promise of community. As the sun rose to its highest point in the sky over Bissell Centre on Friday, it shone down upon traditional performances of drumming, singing, and dancing, Indigenous art forms that continue to be passed down from generation to generation as visceral representations of the beauty, passion and deep spirituality of Indigenous culture. It alighted down upon friends, families and loved ones of all different cultures sitting down to a delicious traditional meal of stew and bannock, sharing stories and laughter as they ate together. It cast its dazzling light upon a day meant not only to celebrate the countless contributions that First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples have made to Canada, but also for us as a wider community to show our solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and the adversity they continue to encounter every day.
Bissell Centre, founded in 1910, has always been an ally to the Indigenous community. In the days when Indigenous religious ceremonies and cultural practices were illegal in Canada, Bissell Centre provided a safe haven for Indigenous leaders to practice and keep their rich culture alive. We continue to strive today to be an organization where Indigenous traditions and practices are not merely accepted, but celebrated – not only on National Indigenous Peoples Day, but every day of the year.
When Mike first came to Bissell Centre, he’d been living on the street for two years. You might have even seen him on the streets of Edmonton. Perhaps you were the woman who looked Mike in the eyes and said, “You need to get yourself help. There are resources to help you.”
Mike grew up in Edmonton in a family of eight. It wasn’t easy growing up in such a big family. They lived in a cramped three-bedroom house, made smaller because his mother was a hoarder, and his parents fought often.
Mike was similar to his father. He was trusting. He always saw the best in people, giving them the benefit of the doubt. If you asked, he’d give you the shirt from his back.
Once he turned 18, Mike worked and lived on his own, at times allowing his siblings, even his mother, to live with him when they struggled to get by.
Eventually, he made the journey from Edmonton to Calgary. There, he worked for years in the construction industry. Unfortunately, his business partner wasn’t trustworthy—he was underpaying and stealing work from Mike.
During this chaotic time, Mike lost his father, and it was like all the air was sucked from his lungs. The loss was devastating. With his life in shambles, he decided to return home.
Sadly, he didn’t receive the help he’d hoped to find back home. That’s when Mike became homeless for the first time. Each day was a constant struggle. No one believed in him and he certainly didn’t believe in himself.
“Give people a reason to believe in themselves again and see what they do with their lives.”
One day, a kind woman approached him on the street, and encouraged him to seek help. That was a life-changing moment for Mike. He began thinking that things could be different.
Mike found his way to Bissell Centre, where he finally got the help he needed. Scona High School had recently raised $115,000 for Bissell Centre, enabling them to form an Outreach Housing Team. Mike became their first ever participant!
With support from the new team, Mike found an affordable apartment, and got access to mental health services. He also found a rewarding sales job. He was so skilled that he soon won top sales awards and he continues to work there today.
Mike is also now working toward a business degree and is set to graduate at the end of this semester! He dreams of working with wood—he loves building things with his hands.
“Without Bissell Centre, I’d most likely be dead. Most people are on the streets because they don’t believe in themselves and no one believes in them,” Mike says. “Give people a reason to believe in themselves again and see what they do with their lives.”
Donors like you have made it possible for Mike to access Bissell Centre’s Outreach Housing Team, along with other resources. Thanks to your support, Mike has moved from poverty to prosperity.
Thank you for helping Mike and others like him to find affordable housing, and step into a brighter future!
Mike story is a feature in our May Newsletter. Read the full newsletter online now.
If Bissell Centre didn’t exist, I’d be dead—I know I’d be dead. Before they helped me, I had nothing, and now, I have everything. My name is Dave and I’m originally from BC, but moved to Yellowknife, a colder and darker city than Edmonton. Believe it.
Although I was living in Yellowknife for work, the city didn’t work for me. I was drowning there. My alcohol abuse landed me in and out of jail, and I reached a point where I said to myself, “Dave, you’ve gotta go, this city’s killing you.” So I left. I hoped moving to Edmonton would give me a new start after the hard times I’d faced up north.
When I got to Edmonton, things didn’t turn out how I planned. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I couldn’t find a place of my own. Immediately, I ended up on the streets living rough.
I didn’t own much, but I kept my few possessions in garbage bags and carried them with me. You don’t know what it means to struggle for survival until you’ve carried everything you own in garbage bags. I got to know other characters on the Edmonton streets. It can be rough and you can’t believe or trust everyone, but I consider many of them family and friends I can trust—good people who fell on hard times.
I went to Bissell Centre pretty quickly after coming to Edmonton, and eventually it became the closest thing that I had to a home. They’ve got staff who really care about you—they became my good friends too.
Bissell Centre staff connected me with an addictions and mental health worker. They also assigned a housing worker to help find me a place. I was homeless in Edmonton for about 10 years before I was ready to look for housing. Through the Homeless to Homes program at Bissell Centre, I have a home of my own, after 10 years on the street—10 years without a place that’s warm, safe, and mine.
I had lots of friends on the street, but I wouldn’t share with anyone where I was living because I didn’t want anything to happen that might encourage old habits. I’ve worked hard to recover from alcohol addiction and I’m proud to say that I’m 18 months sober!
I’ve worked hard to recover from alcohol addiction and I’m proud to say that I’m 18 months sober!
In May of 2018, I was at home by myself and something happened to my sight. Everything looked distorted and blurry. My right side felt numb and weak. I couldn’t walk and I slumped to the floor. It was two days before a neighbour found me and called 911. I didn’t think I would make it. But thanks to my neighbour, the paramedics came and took me to the hospital where they told me that I’d had a stroke.
Somehow, Bissell Centre staff learned that I was missing and found me in the hospital. While I was in the Glenrose Hospital, they worked with my landlord to find me a new apartment—my old place was on the third floor and would’ve been impossible for me to access. The new apartment that they found for me is in a building with an elevator, so I can get into my home.
Bissell Centre’s staff have gone above and beyond for me. They do a whole bunch for me. They’re currently helping me to get into a lodge that can help me with my rehabilitation.
Before I got sober, I didn’t care. But now, I can spend my money on things that I actually enjoy, like books and DVDs. Getting housed was right on! I’ve even reconnected with my son.
I am grateful to Bissell Centre and to the people who give to them and make their work possible. They’re doing good work in our city—I wish more people knew about Bissell Centre and what they do. They got to know me and they’re still helping me where I’m at today. Without the help of the Bissell Centre, I would have died on the street. I had nothing, and now I have everything.
Donations from the community help people like Dave find a fresh start in life, feel loved and cared for, and build important connections with others. Please consider providing essential, life-changing services to people in need this Easter season.
When Russell came to us, he had been sleeping under trees, struggling to find work. After spending a decade stuck in a cycle of addiction and poverty, he knew it was time to make a change.
Life had not been easy for Russell. As a child growing up in a family of eight, he recalls getting teased because of his hand-me-downs and for the holes in his clothes. Food was limited, as his dad worked to support six children. As a teen, Russell was incredibly talented at baseball—it was something he could have pursued as a career. But his family just didn’t have the money to support his dream.
As an adult, Russell lived and worked in Fort McMurray with his wife. However, times became difficult when his relationship came to an end. He sold his house and moved to Edmonton where he struggled to find work and a place to live. Unable to cope with the past and deal with his current situation, Russell turned to alcohol to numb his pain. For the next 10 years, homelessness became a way of life for Russell as he struggled with addiction and loneliness. Russell recalls the most difficult part of living on the streets was being so isolated: “There was nobody. Just me.”
There was nobody. Just me.
One day, Russell saw someone in coveralls heading to work and asked them where he could go to find a job. That’s when he first heard about Bissell Centre. He quickly reached out for help. Although overcoming his addiction wasn’t easy, with Bissell Centre’s help, Russell managed to find and maintain steady work as a landscaper. Today, he still works for the same company after nine years of employment.
Our generous donors have directly impacted people like Russell, and for that he is so grateful. “It gives me the opportunity to start growing up like a tree,” he shares. “Look at me, I’m 100% happy!”
Not only did a steady income give Russell the confidence to sustain a livelihood, the housing program helped him to find a home and a family. “I know when I’m coming home, I’m coming home,” shares Russell. He is so grateful to have security and to be leading a dignified life—a life of growth and transformation that he hopes can spread to others who are struggling.
“I can get up and put a cup of coffee on and I go up there in the cupboard to get something to eat,” he says. “I don’t have to stand in line-ups.”
As the season of gratitude approaches, Russell looks forward to sharing his gratitude at Bissell Centre’s Thanksgiving dinner. He reminisces about how wonderful it was to be a part of something when he was feeling alone.
“Everything looked so perfect—from the cloths on the tables to the flowers in the pots,” he says. “It was so well organized and well done.” It is these meals that are often the first steps towards growth and transformation for those who are struggling.
Like Russell, we are so incredibly grateful for your gifts that have supported so many people throughout the years. Thank you for supporting our programs that have done so much for our Edmonton community!
“I always wanted to give my children a better life than I had. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them,” Alannah told us.
When she talks about her kids, the soft-spoken single mother of three sounds like any other parent, but Alannah has been through more hardship than most Edmonton parents can imagine.
It’s difficult enough being a single mom; but it’s harder still when you are also faced with alcohol addiction, poverty and homelessness.
Alannah grew up in the foster care system and struggled with alcoholism as an adult. Before she came to Bissell Centre, Alannah hit what she called rock bottom.
“I lost my place and I lost my kids for five days.”
Having her kids taken away made Alannah realize that she needed to make a change in her life. “I fought really hard to get them back,” she went on. “Got into AADAC to sober up and look into my actions and what it was doing to me and my children. I almost lost everything.”
Alannah’s efforts were repaid when her children were returned to her custody and is now recovering from her addiction, and looking to the future.
During her recovery process, Alannah has been grateful for the support of Bissell Centre’s childcare program.
When she was referred to Bissell Centre by Native Counselling, she felt hesitant. But after accessing the childcare program for just a couple of weeks, Alannah said she was already noticing a change in her children. “My son uses his manners a lot more,” she said. “My daughter, she’s more independent.”
Besides the positive effects on her children, childcare has also allowed Alannah to make her doctor’s appointments and prepare to move into her new place.
She says she hopes others will feel inspired to give after reading her story, adding, “Everybody needs help sometimes.”
Support from generous donors helps people like Alannah and her children through difficult times and provides opportunities for renewal and rebuilding.
Please give today to support families in need this Easter!
The summer months are here at last! Many Edmontonians are relieved to see the return of sunny days to our characteristically chilly North Alberta city. At last, we can pack away our parkas and snow boots for the season and soak up some rays! Of course, there are times when the summer heat causes discomfort, but most of us can simply retreat into our cool, air-conditioned homes when the heat gets to be too much. But for our homeless friends, who have few indoor retreats, the heat can be more than simply a source of discomfort–it can be deadly.
When you think about the expression, “exposure to the elements,” you might imagine bitterly cold temperatures, or about braving snow, hail, and rain. But exposure to less dramatic weather conditions, like warm summer days, can be equally deadly. This exposure often leads to dangerous heat related injuries, like sunburn and heat exhaustion. In serious cases, it can cause heat stroke, which occurs when the body temperature exceeds 40 C. Symptoms of heat stroke include nausea, seizures, disorientation, and loss of consciousness. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency, and you should call 9-1-1 immediately if you or someone is around you is experiencing these symptoms.
When spring and summer replace the cold weather of the holiday season, donations to charitable organizations like the Bissell Centre tend to decline. However, the need for donations is just as urgent at this time of year. Here are five life-saving items you can donate to Bissell Centre to help keep our homeless friends cool this summer:
- Sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen can dramatically reduce the risk of skin cancer, and can also minimize the risk of painful heat-related afflictions like sunburn. For people who spend their days outdoors, sunscreen is an absolute must-have.
- Hats. Wearing a hat in the sun shields the face, head, and neck from harmful UV rays. It affords protection to the sensitive skin on the scalp and behind the ears, places where it is difficult to apply sunscreen. Hats with a wide brim are ideal because they also cover the ears, which baseball caps and brimless hats leave vulnerable to the sun’s rays.
- Bottled water. Dehydration is a serious threat to people who are homeless in the summer, and is also a significant risk factor for heat stroke. Providing bottled water to people on the streets will ensure that they can stay hydrated and safe.
- Summer-appropriate clothing. Clothes that are light-coloured and loose-fitting are ideal for summer weather. A loose fit allows for easier airflow, and lighter colours reflect light and heat rather than absorbing it, keeping the wearer cool.
- Sunglasses. Eyes can suffer serious damage from prolonged exposure to the sun. When unprotected, they may develop cataracts and other serious conditions that damage vision. A pair of sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection goes a long way towards protecting these vulnerable parts of the body.
Summer can be an exceedingly enjoyable time of year in a place with winters as long and as cold as Edmonton’s. With your help, our friends who are homeless can also revel in the arrival of summer sunshine while staying safe and cool.
Help people in need this summer.
Being homeless is difficult enough when the weather is fair, but when temperatures drop, it becomes a matter of survival. The threat of serious illness, loss of fingers or toes, or even losing one’s life become serious concerns when temperatures nosedive. These threats are particularly potent here in Edmonton, where winters are notoriously harsh and wind chills can be extreme.
Edmonton’s homeless are more likely than most to experience dangerous cold-related injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia. They have few spaces to retreat from the cold, nor can they afford proper winter clothing that will protect them from the elements.
Here at Bissell Centre, we believe every person has the right to have basic human needs satisfied. Our Drop-in Centre provides a safe, warm space for people to escape the elements and enjoy a hot meal. Inside the Drop-in, people can also access free, warm winter clothing through our Community Closet. The Closet is especially busy in the winter when we distribute jackets, sweaters, scarves, toques, mittens, boots to every person in need who visits.
Helping people take care of their basic needs is only the first, but a necessary step, in helping people access programs that will move them out of poverty.
None of this would be possible, however, without our community of supporters who donate time, funds, and resources to our operations. Thank you for supporting Bissell Centre, and for helping the most vulnerable people in our community stay warm and safe this winter.
“We need to be careful about using anecdotal evidence to dismiss the validity of the homeless count,” says Gary St. Amand, CEO of Bissell Centre.
The most recent survey and data analysis estimate that the number of people who are homeless in our city has decreased from 2,307 people in 2014 to 1,752 people currently.
“The homeless count is meant only to be one snapshot of homelessness and while we need to be reflective about its methodology, it is also important that we consider all the evidence before jumping to sweeping conclusions about its accuracy,” explains St. Amand.
For example, Bissell Centre has supported over 1,500 individuals and families since the last homeless count in 2014 through its housing and eviction prevention work. The organization has assisted 545 people to find housing and 1,009 people to avoid imminent evictions.
“Further to that, while we have experienced a rise in the usage of our services since the last homeless count, our data has shown that this was the result of new services that we implemented during that period,” explains St. Amand. “These new services connected us with people who are new to Bissell Centre and they capture the majority of the increased service use throughout our organization.”
Another consideration is the forced relocation of homeless people due to the recent significant development of Edmonton’s downtown core. When coupled with the seasonal increase of people sleeping outdoors in the summer months, a rise in the number of homeless people in various locations around the city, including the river valley, is to be expected.
This raises the question of whether the rise in numbers in certain locations is due to the movement of homeless people rather than a net increase of the homeless population in Edmonton, as some have argued.
“To call into doubt the methodology of the homeless count without a thorough and thoughtful review of the evidence diminishes the good work that is happening by many organizations and individuals in the community,” says St. Amand.
“We need to maintain our focus on housing, because whatever your view of the housing count is, we still have over 1,700 people living on the streets and that should be unacceptable to all of us. We need to continue to work together as a community to bring long-term solutions to this issue,” says St. Amand.
Aboriginal people make up just over 5% of Edmonton’s population but in 2012, 46% of homeless people were Aboriginal. Produced by Coty Savard, this video provides insight into the challenges faced by Aboriginal people who have no home to go to. http://vimeo.com/103857765
This video was recommended to us by one of our Twitter followers (thanks Deirdre!).It is a short video from Orlando and it asks you to rethink homelessness. Its message is relevant here and everywhere. Please take a moment to view it – and share! Rethink Homelessness Video