How did I end up here?

Dion Oxford

How Did I end up here?

By Dion Oxford
Director, The Salvation Army Gateway

People often ask me, “Dion, how is it that you are working amongst folks who live on the street in the inner city of Canada’s largest city, when you grew up in a very calm rural town of 3500 people in Newfoundland? How did you end up here?”

And I have to admit, I quite often find myself asking the same question. “How on earth did I end up here?”

After having lived the 2nd half of my now 40 years of existence in Toronto, I have grown quite accustomed to urban living and do not miss small town life in any way. In fact, whenever I go anywhere outside of Toronto these days and find myself in the country, the air starts getting pretty thin for me and I crave getting back to the big smoke so I can breath again. (As an aside, there was this one time when we took a bunch of guys from our shelter on a camping trip. There was one guy there who hadn’t left the inner city of Toronto in over 20 years. We barely saw him during the 1st 3 days we were there except for when we ate and even then he looked barely awake. He couldn’t keep his eyes open the entire time as the air was so clean his body had no idea what to do with it and he only wanted to sleep. Then the 2nd last day we were there he begged me to start up the van we were driving so he could wrap his mouth around the tailpipe so he could breath again and enjoy the trip.)

But I digress. One time when I asked myself ‘How did I end up here’ was when I was doing a leadership training course in Vancouver. The folks leading this training thought it would be a good idea to take us to some mountains for a ‘trust building’ exercise. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t do well in the country. I’m far more nervous out in the woods in broad daylight than I am walking through the inner city in the middle of the night. I’m always wondering if something is going to pop out of the trees and eat me or something. Anyway, as a trust exercise, they thought it would be ‘fun’ to each repel down the face of a 50 foot cliff. Now for me, a more appropriate way to start building trust with someone I’ve never met before would be to perhaps fall backwards into their arms and trust that they’d catch me, not place my very survival in their hands by repelling down a cliff and assuming they’d hold on to a rope or else I’d plummet to a horrible disfiguring death.

So as I went over the edge of this cliff, I asked myself not for the first time, “How did I end up here?”

The shelter I provide direction to, The Salvation Army Gateway, has 108 beds for men who are homeless. Oftentimes we have men who have severe mental health issues. One of those men, Henry, has a very serious form of schizophrenia. One of the symptoms of this disease is that a person doesn’t often know what is safe to eat and what is not. Our shelter is located near The St. Lawrence Market, an establishment that sells pretty much every different kind of food imaginable. On Fridays you can go to the market and buy things at a very discounted rate so that they can fill the shelves with fresh stuff for Saturday. This one day they had a serious deal on a raw pig’s head. Henry had a few bucks on him and so bought the pig’s head, recognizing a deal when he sees one. He then brought it back to our shelter late that night and asked our staff to put it in the freezer for later. Our staff, not knowing exactly how to respond and trying to care for Henry in the best way they knew how, did in fact put the pig’s head in the freezer in the kitchen.

For those of you who have ever worked where there is a large kitchen that serves a lot of meals, you’ll know that the kitchen staff can often be very picky and just plain grumpy and often even irrational about the state of their kitchen. They often view this little space as their own private kingdom and no one has any right to touch anything without possible dire consequences. Well, needless to say, when the kitchen supervisor found the raw pig’s head in the freezer, they nearly exploded and Hell pretty much did break loose in our place. When I got to work later that day I walked into a tornado of activity and needed to go straight into damage control mode.

I found myself writing a memo to the staff that went something like this.

“To all staff,

Please do not store raw pig’s heads in the freezer in the kitchen.

Thank-you.”

I found myself asking this question again, “How did I end up here? They didn’t teach me how to deal with this situation in university or Bible College.”

Well, after 20 years of asking this question over and over again, I still really don’t know the answer to it. But I do know that I’m glad I’m exactly where I’m at. It is amongst the Henry’s of the world that I have found God in more profound ways than I ever would have anywhere else. And while I don’t think I’ll ever know the exact answer to my question, I do know that God had a hand in it. And that’s good enough for me.

Dion Oxford is the Director of the Salvation Army Gateway , a shelter for men experiencing homelessness. Dion, along with his wife, Erinn and daughter Cate, live in Toronto and are committed to journeying alongside people in the margins of society. He and Erin have spent a combined thirty years working amongst folks who are living on the streets of Toronto. Dion is also the Chair of StreetLevel: The National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness.
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I wonder why my mother wasn’t a crack addict or why I wasn’t born in poverty. Why wasn’t I born HIV positive or abused as a child? I could have faced these horrors in my life, and I know some of you have, but the reasons why I was spared were out of my control.

There are many things that shape our lives that we have no control over. We don’t choose our parents and siblings, skin colour, economic status as children and, almost always, when we die.

The people we work with at The Gateway, a Salvation Army shelter for men and drop-in centre in downtown Toronto, have had situations in their lives that they wouldn’t have chosen. Stories of horrible abuse and destruction permeate our community. Given the histories of some of the men who have stayed here, it’s a wonder they’re still alive.

Sometimes we scratch our heads when we witness the choices some make. We ask ourselves why people don’t get a job or why they squander their rent or disability money on drugs. Decisions that seem common sense to us don’t even occur to some people.

Our ability to make choices depends on the way we have been taught to make them. Somewhere along the way, most of us learned that holding down a job, paying bills and taking responsibility for our own lives are important in the process of life. Many have never learned this and do not have the ability to make healthy choices. They appear lazy, abusive, argumentative and unappreciative.

The south-central/southeast area of Toronto has the largest concentration of poverty in all of Canada. Up until the Second World War, it was the place where poor people found affordable housing and low-skilled jobs. Every decade since then has brought more people and fewer jobs, which has led to a community full of dependent people being taught to expect a high level of care. Throughout history it has been shown that the first generation of the dependent poor wants work. However, ensuing generations want care. Because of downsizing and technological advances, the need for low-skilled labour has diminished, resulting in little work for first-generation poor. Therefore, subsequent generations are being taught that it is someone else’s responsibility to care for their needs. This is the scene here in Toronto, as it is in most western cities.

Do some people choose to smoke crack or stay in shelters? Do others choose a life of prostitution or to live on welfare? I suppose the answer is yes. But all people make choices based on their ability to choose. And until we start digging deeper into how people came to be where they are, we can’t begin to understand why a person makes bad choices.

As Christians, our view of poverty needs to be informed by Scripture. Given that there are over 2,000 references to poverty in Scripture, it shouldn’t be difficult to see God’s heart revealed on this issue. The problem is our view of poverty can be influenced by political biases, social class or the media. However, Scripture portrays poverty as a circumstance beyond a person’s control and balances it with a reminder of personal responsibility.

With this scriptural foundation of poverty, we must design programs that follow this understanding and strive to understand who our community is. We have to work at not labelling people as hopeless causes. We have to be creative in our approach to help people unlearn unhealthy decision-making habits.

We can do this by being consistent models of health. Some Gateway staff members have unbelievable stories. We have those who were brought up in poverty and have lived lives similar to many of our residents. Some were raised in loving families and then wandered towards drug abuse and other such vices, but they’ve returned to their upbringing like the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). And others can model lives of a “normal” upbringing and bring stability into the picture. With the eclectic mix of life stories we share as a staff, we can identify with everyone we serve in some way or another.

This consistency, coupled with our faith and some honesty that we do not have it all together, helps us experience the joy of watching people who, having lived their lives by making one bad decision after another, begin to learn how to make healthy and life-giving decisions that will lead them to a life of health and wholeness. And in the midst of that we are reminded that our own choices are often not good ones. Perhaps in the context of these relationships, we might recognize our own brokenness and remember that this is not about “us and them” but simply about “us.”

Dion Oxford is the director of The Gateway in Toronto.