“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”
– Hebrews 13:1-2
It happens subtly. If you don’t know what you are looking for you would likely miss it. You can see it in the park that has a bench with a bar in the middle of the seat. It could be small wooden spikes in the corner of a building. Near the mall downtown there is an underpass with a big iron fence at the bottom. In Toronto, the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pour baseball size rocks under many of the bridges. Sometimes you may be walking to work and you notice that a set of thick bushes was removed for seemingly no reason. The bushes were healthy and had looked pleasant. For those who do not know what these all mean I will give you a hint. There may not be a literal sign there, but the message is clear “Not Welcome”.
Who is not welcome? The poor, the ones who are looking for a place to sleep but can’t because now they cannot lay down on that bench or behind those bushes. They can’t sleep under that bridge because it hurts to lay on those rocks. The technical term is “hostile” or “defensive architecture”. It is designed to discourage the homeless from feeling welcome in a certain space. I am not writing this to start the debate about whether this is right or wrong. Rather the point I want to make, is about the emotional toll it can take on youth experiencing homelessness when they are constantly made to feel unwelcome. For many of them, being unwelcome is the reason they became homeless in the first place. First, unwelcome in their homes. Then, often unwelcome in their school because they cause problems, and when they have nowhere else to go, unwelcome in any public place because it makes people feel uncomfortable to see them.
If you have ever taken our volunteer training, one of the things that we stress is the idea of making each youth feel that we are happy to see them and that they are safe with us. We remember their names and celebrate their birthdays. We try to be very generous in the food and the supplies that we give them. We make it a point to tell them that we are happy to see them when they arrive and that we hope to see them again when they leave. For a youth who is experiencing homelessness, one of the most important things they need to know is that their lives have value. They need to know that they are not a burden to us and that their lives are worth saving. Otherwise, they can easily sink in to a pit of self-doubt and depression. When they walk in to our building, they don’t see barriers and do not disturb signs. They see beds with clean sheets and blankets. They see a full plate of food and snacks on the table. They see the smiling face of a staff or volunteer who offers to help. They see that they are important and that they are welcome.
– Jason Pino – Executive Director