"I Feel Invisible."

"I Feel Invisible."
Published: Oct 18, 2020
In inner cities all over the world, charity organizations are serving people challenged by lack of accommodation and food and the effects of trauma, addiction and social isolation. In this interview with Whitney Smith, community worker Matthew Parker paints a compelling picture of what many of these people are experiencing — and how particular forms of guidance help them to find the strength to get on solid ground.

Yonge Street Mission, journal of wild culture, ©2020

Course work, pandemic style. [o]


WHITNEY SMITH: Can you tell us about the work you do?

MATTHEW PARKER: I'm the Lead Pastor and Director of Church at the Yonge Street Mission where we have about 140 staff, 3000 volunteers, and between 11-13,000 people who we are serving. In that capacity I provide spiritual leadership and oversight, and mentor and support the staff. I also do what's called ‘care management’ with individuals, which entails helping individuals move from where they are to where they want to be, supporting them as they make positive moves in their lives, with a diversity of different supports — many of which are soft supports.

SMITH: Can you give us examples of soft supports?

PARKER: Soft supports focus on personal development and formation, like addiction support, anger management, and mental health relating to trauma. The majority of our people have trauma in their background, and/or recently, so we offer emotional support that helps them find a way forward. In part that means coming to terms with what has happened in the past; however, that never means re-exploring the past, only identifying issues from the past. Many people who have been through what you've been through are not alive today, so one of the conversations we have is, “It's amazing what you’ve been through. Tell us how you’ve managed to cope.” So we try and celebrate the positives and the strengths they’ve exercised that have kept them alive in the midst of serious privation. Soft supports revolve around developing a person’s self-awareness and self-esteem, where they really value themselves as worth the energy to invest in.

At level 5 they have family stability and relationships, and their system navigation is well-established — where they're actually beginning to give back.

SMITH: And in contrast to soft supports, I'm assuming you offer a lot of concrete help.

PARKER: Yes, we do a lot of very pragmatic stuff. Over the pandemic, I can't tell you how many people I've taught how to use Zoom and edit audio and video. I'm helping someone get their driver's licence right now, a refugee from China who was fleeing religious persecution, before the recent crackdown. He doesn't have the money to buy the book. There are many, many situations of personal administration where people require assistance.

SMITH: And who are these individuals?

PARKER: Anybody who comes to us. We serve three population groups. The first is at-risk youth, between the ages of 16 and 24 — but in reality, there are some at-risk youth that are much younger than that, some who were as young as 11, who were prostituting on the streets and who are doing ‘survival crimes’. The second population group is adults, 20 to 60 years old. Our vision is to support adults towards a better life. In YSM's Bridges program we offer holistic care, courses, and community for adults to help improve their emotional, physical, spiritual and economic well-being. The third population group is families that are at-risk.


Gustavo Minas, Cold Front in Havana, journal of wild culture ©2020

"Sometimes just giving them the attention that you would otherwise give a loved one...". 'Cold Front in Havana,' photograph by Gustavo Minas. [o]


SMITH: Your organization created a successful measurement program where a worker can analyze a particular individual in need.

PARKER: It's called TIMES — Transformation Integrated Measurement and Evaluation System — and it is an outcomes measurement document. We created it to ensure that the stewardship of our energies, time and donor resources was leading to the best possible outcomes. TIMES measures seven key components that have been broadly identified in the social work field as being critical to a person's forward progress in life. The seven measurable components are: 1, Connection; 2, Education; 3, Economic well-being; 4, The environment that they're in; 5, Their sense of equality; 6, Their sense of personal wellness; 7, Their worldview: how they view themselves and how they view the world around them.

But the reality is that there are different points of progress within those. For example, under the connection measurement would also be sub areas like family stability, relationships, and system navigation. When we meet this individual we can measure these areas and then help them make progress through each. So the measurement goes from zero to five, and zero would be: they’ve given no consideration to this area, and nothing happening there. Then, steps along the way, this area is now a 5 because family stability, relationships, and system navigation is well-established to the point where they're actually beginning to give back. Giving back is where personal dignity begins to flourish in a person's sense of self.

TIMES is one tool we use, and we have another, called RISE. R for respond, I for invite, S for support, and E for engage. If somebody comes in and what they need is mental health counselling, then that's what we give them. While doing that they can tap into the larger variety of things we provide, like courses, of which there are many, and other things that can go along with the counselling. We don't have a plan for people's lives, we want to hear their plan. Do they want care management? If they do, we are there to help them along. In one instance, two people who took a course did so well and went so deeply into the material that they ended up being assistants the next time we ran it. So in a sense, that’s an example of respond to someone, invite them in, offer support and engage.


Yonge Street Mission, journal of wild culture, ©2020

A central activity is studying music and collaborating on music projects (M. Parker on keys). [o]

SMITH: What are the qualities of someone who might be good at this work?

PARKER: Someone who is compassionate and empathetic and able to listen deeply. That often ends up being people that have been through their own pain, significant pain themselves and in their families situations. Or, people who have experienced secondary trauma where the person doesn’t experience the direct trauma themselves but they  hear people talking about it and that has a massive impact on them. So people that have processed trauma or hardship — either directly themselves or meaningfully in a secondary sense — they are uniquely, somehow, able to engage in a non-judgmental way with people that are struggling, and that's really key — the ability to not have any judgment, whatsoever.


PARKER: Here is a story that explains a bit about this. I’ve been meeting with a woman for about two years in what I’d describe as pastoral counselling. She’s a Muslim and self-identifies as queer. She likes to tell her Muslim friends that she's going to see her pastor and they all think it's very strange. She also likes to tell her queer friends that she's going to see her pastor, and they all think it's very strange. Anyway, she said, “When I come, I come half an hour early so I can sit in the reception area where there's the reception staff and many dozens of people, coming and going. I see people with mental health issues, Muslim people, Hindu people coming in with a garb, indicating their allegiance. I see people who are agnostic, I see people of every culture imaginable. I see your reception staff, treating everybody precisely the same, and they are really kind with everybody. But when people in other countries hear about Canada, they hear about this kind of inclusivity and capacity to embrace all nations and all, everybody without prejudice. But in my experience, that's not been the case, I’ve been on the receiving end of much racism and much of gender related phobias. But at the mission, which is a Christian place, I don't experience that, and I was actually troubled by that. Why do I see that?” And I said, "You know what, we have one job here and our job is to love, our job is to love you, our job is to care for you. We don't care to judge. We care to hear what’s in your heart and what you want to do, and we eventually want to get an idea of where you are, where you want to be, and it’s our job to help you through that process." Anyway, she's still with us three years later, and now through the pandemic.

Some people can't handle this, the very impersonal nature of the online connection. But still, we try to keep in touch with them.

SMITH: What about the effect on your work and the effect on your 11,000 people you're in touch with in relation to the COVID crisis?

PARKER: What we don't want to happen is that people's lives stall out. Since we're change agents, we're there to hear from people about what they want, help them to remember what they said that they want to do to keep moving forward, and help them develop the capacity to navigate the barriers to that progress. So during COVID, we don't just want this to be a time of keeping things afloat. These days, everybody who was coming on a weekly basis, face to face before, is doing counselling on video calls or phone calls.

As soon as the pandemic hit we had to limit our programs to three areas. First is food distribution, which includes meals-to-go and food banks; all these shot up 400%. Second is mental health counselling services and just trying as much as possible to keep in touch with people. This is done on the phone or Zoom, and this has shot up as well due to the isolation, while also respecting people's boundaries. Some people can't handle this, the very impersonal nature of the online connection. But still, we try to keep in touch with them. Third is the church, including pastoral support, music instruction and all the variety of things we do in the church. Of course we're waiting to be able to bring people back for for in-person counselling sessions and a course called 'Trauma and Transformation.'

SMITH: Where does your organization gets its funding from?

PARKER: 54% of the funding of the Mission comes from individuals contributing $10-$20, or $50 a month; plus, some churches and foundations contribute. We receive about 20% of our budget from government for daycare, job development and preemployment programs, and working with small businesses to create entry level jobs that our people might be hired for, and a variety of other programs for adults and youth.


Yonge Steet Mission, 1930s, journal of wild culture ©2020

Lining up for a meal during the Great Depression of the 1930s. [o]


SMITH: If you were to meet someone who really needed help, what would you say to them if you had a very short period of time?

PARKER: If I met somebody in the elevator, and if it was clear that they were starving, I would say, “Hey, you know what, I just want to let you know that at the mission, we have a food bank. You come through Monday through Thursday, and you can get all the food you need for a couple of weeks. It's really a super easy process, with as little red tape as possible. Come anytime. And if you're hungry right now, come for a meal. We’re having a meal now.”

In those situations, you don't jump to a solution, because the person, generally, feels very invisible because they're treated as being invisible. And people with mental health issues, people that are living really rough on the streets, they feel absolutely invisible and absolutely insignificant. So sometimes just giving them the attention that you would otherwise give a loved one — even just for those moments — can have an incredibly positive impact. Very often those elevator conversations, or little street encounters or chance conversations, end up with that individual actually coming along. That encounter can become the first point of contact with the mission. Maybe what they feel, maybe the only thing they feel, is a little bit of safety. ≈ç


WC para break


WHITNEY SMITH is the Publisher/Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture. He lives in Toronto.





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