As a little kid, I had an unusually large fear of becoming homeless. Maybe it had to do with overhearing conversations between the adults in my life about paying the bills, and making ends meet; perhaps it stemmed from the nervous anxiety I felt every time I walked or drove past a person on the street who was panhandling for change or pushing a shopping cart full of empty bottles.
Regardless, I resolved at a very early age to never let myself wind up in that position. By the age of six, I was meticulously saving my paper route money, declining to go with my friends and spend my hard-earned cash on Beanie Babies or candy.
This pattern (and my somewhat irrational fear) continued throughout my childhood and teenage years; in high school, I worked for straight As so that I could earn scholarships to help pay for my university tuition, and took part-time jobs so I could pay my other expenses and save for a car.
When I started working at The Mustard Seed, an organization that partners with individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty, a little less than two years ago, my ignorant fear of those on the streets quickly disappeared and, I'm grateful to say, was replaced by love and compassion for those without fixed addresses. However, my cautious lifestyle of saving and budgeting continued. I would consider myself a fairly responsible person, and I think many of my co-workers and friends would agree.
So you can imagine the shock I felt when one week very recently, I found myself homeless.
I returned home one evening after a fun day out with friends to find that I needed to leave the place where I was living due to circumstances beyond my control. I had less than one hour to throw my clothes, textbooks, important documents, special photographs -- in other words, the contents of my life -- into suitcases and duffel bags, unsure if I'd be able to return, and worried about leaving anything irreplaceable behind.
When I walked out my front door and put my belongings in my car, it was close to midnight. I was fortunate to get in touch with one friend who told me that he was not allowed to have people staying in his apartment as part of his rental agreement, but that he could offer me his couch for one night. I gratefully accepted.
I don't think I'll ever forget the emotions I experienced as I was driving to work at The Mustard Seed the next morning. I had gotten a combined total of about 45 minutes of sleep throughout that first night and finally got up with the sunrise. I threw on my staff shirt and got in my car to head to the shelter for a 12-hour shift.
I hadn't eaten since the previous afternoon (my friend, God bless him, is one of those bachelors who survives on fast food, and whose fridge usually contains pop, stale take-out containers, and that random jar of mayonnaise that has long since expired), and I had no money in my pocket to buy breakfast somewhere on the way.
I sobbed tears of frustration and exhaustion on the drive across the city, asking God to give me strength to make it through the day. I knew I had to pull myself together, because a lot of times, our jobs at The Mustard Seed are all about holding it together for other people, whose lives are falling apart in front of them and who are often just looking for some stability in the midst of chaos.
I wiped my eyes and walked in the door with a smile on my face, all the while wondering where I was going to sleep that evening. I eventually resigned myself to the fact that I would be couch-surfing and, if necessary, spending a few nights in my car when it was 15 degrees below zero outside.
The hardest part of that week was trying to maintain some semblance of normality in every other aspect of my life. I had exams to write for school, homework to complete, volunteer commitments to fulfill, and most of all, I had my job at The Mustard Seed.
Throughout the whole experience I told only two of my co-workers, who are also close friends; the rest never had any idea (though if they're reading this, I guess they do now!), not because they are not caring and understanding people, but because I simply couldn't get past the shame of my situation to confide in them that I was in desperate need of support.
I am thankful to have many teammates who would have reached out to me without a second thought, but my own self-esteem simply didn't know how to handle the blow. I have such great joy when I lend a helping hand to other people -- and conversely, I have great difficulty being on the receiving end. I was afraid that it would change how my co-workers saw me or related to me (kind of a ridiculous and ironic fear for me to have, when you consider that the very nature of our work involves being compassionate and non-judgmental).
I tell this story for one reason: to highlight the incredible resilience of those living on the streets. I was fortunate. My experience was fleeting, and yet, that brief stint of not having a place to call home impacted me greatly. Had it lasted much longer, I don't think I would have been able to maintain my daily routine, making it to work each day and keeping up with my schooling.
I also had friends' couches to sleep on, and a car for transportation. Many of the people I know have been experiencing homelessness for months or years, without any of the resources I had to fall back on. And yet, a vast number of them still manage to wake up every morning and head out the doors of our emergency shelter to get on a bus to work.
Whether their job is bottle-picking, manual labour, retail, customer service, or any number of other possibilities, they'll spend as many as 10 or 12 hours a day working before getting on another bus and coming back to the shelter, kicking off their shoes, and collapsing on their mat to get a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again the next morning.
There's this myth that homeless people must simply be irresponsible slackers, and that's why they don't have housing of their own. Some people have the notion in their heads that we live in a meritocracy, where you will succeed if you have talent, ability and a drive to work hard -- if you don't succeed, then you must incompetent or lazy.
Addictions and mental health issues play a critical role in the lives of many who find themselves on the streets, but for countless others -- those categorized as "the working poor" -- living in a shelter was once as unlikely and unimaginable as it is for you who may be reading this. The reality, however, is that a single life event -- the loss of a job, an unexpected hike in monthly rent, a serious injury requiring costly medical care -- can be enough to turn someone's world upside down, and leave that individual in a position which they never expected to be.
My experience has brought me a new perspective at work. I have more patience than I used to, and I take extra time to speak with first-time guests as I guide them through the intake process. Newcomers are often scared, intimidated, and stunned that their circumstances have led them to a homeless shelter. If we can offer them a little bit of comfort, reassurance, and support to ease the blow, then it allows them the opportunity to open up to staff and to process their situation internally.
My ultimate goal is that one day, The Mustard Seed and shelters like it would be merely a stopover in each guest's journey, and that individuals would need to access our services for no more than one or two nights before finding a place to call home. There is a great deal of discussion that needs to take place as an organization, a city, and a country to make that day come. In the meantime, it's back to work.
Follow Taj Hall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therealtajhall