The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Power to the People! Yeah!

by Tricia Dower

I attended my first ever town meeting on January 18th. We nearly filled an 800-seat hall in the elegantly outfitted Victoria Conservatory of Music building. An incongruous venue for le sujet de l’heure: homelessness. The Reverend Al Tysick was there, as well as the gospel-style piano playing Louise Rose who conducts the “Open Door Choir at Our Place” — a melding of homeless and volunteers. They opened the evening with three numbers, including Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think. A boisterous start.

The forum turned out to be a presentation of a proposal for prefabricated housing “pods” (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers) that could be built on various school properties currently up for sale. The vacant school buildings would serve as community hubs, offering 24/7 nursing care, social and athletic facilities, health and literacy education and job placement programs. The proposal, by a nine-person team of Victoria-area professionals and activists, won first place in a local magazine contest. In the November issue of Focus, readers were invited to submit proposals for housing 2,000 low income earners. They were given a tight deadline. When I realized that what we were seeing was the result of only three weeks’ work, I wondered why all the hoopla. Why draw a crowd to review the results of what amounted to a brainstorming exercise? Why give the evening the grand title of Forum on Homelessness? I felt misled and disappointed. That was before the ruckus began.

The winning team gave a twenty-minute slide presentation. A moderator then invited those in the audience with questions to line up at two microphones on the main floor. “Confine your comments to two minutes, please,” he said. Two queues of ten or so, each, formed quickly. A man in the balcony shouted out, “How much is this gonna cost?” He was asked to come down and take his place in line with the others. “Why? You can hear me. How much is it gonna cost?” He was ignored as the moderator called on a woman at the microphone on the left.

“I don’t believe that site is suitable,” she said. “It’s in a place full of children.” (For purposes of illustration, a particular school property had been suggested for the prototype.) She received some supportive applause. Her emotions got the best of her, however, and she began to rant about “we the working people.” I got that squirmy feeling I often do when I fear someone is about to spontaneously combust. As she got louder and more incoherent, voices shouted, “Two minutes! Two minutes!” She said, “I’m not done making my point. If I have to go the newspaper with this, I will,” and voices shouted, “So go!” The moderator said, “We have to move on to the next question.” She would not be deterred. Neither would the audience. Even I shouted, “Go! Go!” until she did.

A woman at the other microphone was next. “I got a problem with this,” she said. “My people are dying out there. Why don’t we fill up those empty schools with bodies? I applaud your idealism, but we need action now.”

And so it went. The panel of prize winners did their best to respond, but they were representing only weeks of collaboration on a problem that’s been around for years and continues to worsen. It was open season on them. I was sympathetic but also caught up in the passion of the people at the microphones. They ignored the moderator’s plea to confine their questions to the proposal details. And why not? They had come for a Forum on Homelessness and they were going to have it. They spoke about inadequate treatment for addiction and mental disabilities, the lack of a needle exchange program, the escalating cost of housing, the need to support those on the verge of homelessness as well as those who were already there.

“How about if our federal government didn’t send our money to Afghanistan?” one man said. Another: “It makes me mad when people say, ‘Oh they want to live like that.’” A man on the opposite side said, “You put up a nice building, they’ll trash it.” A fifteen-year-old boy urged the panel to get youth involved in the issue. One man made us laugh when he commented on the prospect of community hubs offering financial counseling. “You’re talking about people who earn $520 a month,” he said. A woman with a heavy French accent suggested we shame the government into action like the charity Médecins du Monde has done by setting up 300 tents for the homeless on the streets of Paris. “The citizens have to push the government to do what it doesn’t want to do,” she said. “It’s foolish to rely on good will.”

Some of the speakers were articulate; others were not. I loved hearing them all. I loved that ‘we the people’ were frustrated enough to take over the meeting. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so open to hearing such diverse views. Ever felt such a hunger to connect with the community soul. To the organizers’ credit, everyone who had lined up got to speak. The audience thinned out as the evening wore on and the last speakers were heard by relatively few. It was left to Louise Rose to wind things up. She got us to crowd together on the main floor while the choir filed back onto the stage.

“This night reminds me of the Fifties and Sixties and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she said. “Back then, there was a song we sang when we didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know what to do right now, so why don’t we sing that song? And then you can go.” We stood and joined hands and swayed as we sang We Shall Overcome. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all — I think Louise was the only black person in the room — but the truth was I was moved. Let’s get fist-in-the-air mad enough to get something done, yeah! Power to the People! Yeah!

Photo by Sandy Henderson: Louise Rose beneath the Heritage Rose Window in the Victoria Conservatory of Music. The window is dedicated to her in recognition of her contribution to music. She received her Bachelor of Music Education from Temple University, Philadelphia, where she minored in English and Sociology and supported herself by working as a policewoman. She went on to study at Harvard School of Divinity and was ordained as a Baptist minister.

10 Comments:

Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tue Jan 30, 12:54:00 PM EST  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Whew, touchy subject. It's great to see community involvement like this though.

Society is too eager to place blame, everything is someone's fault. It helps some of us assuage the guilt and sadness we feel when we meet a homeless person on the street, and it helps others justify their anger in the same situation. For me homelessness just isn't logical: not too many normal, healthy people would choose to live on the streets. I know I wouldn't.

Tue Jan 30, 12:55:00 PM EST  
Blogger tamara said...

Town meetings, wow. This topic is on my mind too (never did hear back from that local newspaper, btw). No one wants to talk about it, but everyone's got an opinion, it seems. Your experience sounds amazing; let's hope something comes from it.

Tue Jan 30, 03:29:00 PM EST  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

You really brought me into that room with your post, Tricia. I can see those lines of ordinary people waiting for their turn at the mike, to sound off. Town hall meetings always make me come away feeling as though I've done something, even if it was only listening to others hash out the same old problems, but showing up is more than many citizens bother to do. Glad it was a good experience for you.

Tue Jan 30, 05:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks you three. I don't know why this meeting had such an impact on me. It may be something awakening in me, or just that it was a new experience.

Tue Jan 30, 08:31:00 PM EST  
Blogger Patricia said...

Hey Tricia, I would have loved to be there, I love these types of meetings, my father was involved in local politics for years and I used went from time to time to see him in action, it is very inspiring to hear people take up their cause outloud, to feel passion about something, I get sooooo tired of allllll the political correctness in the world today, and yes, the power of the people, hopefully it works in Washington D.C too!! oh, and, "We Shall Overcome," amazing how she brought everyone together at the end.

Thu Feb 01, 01:05:00 AM EST  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Excellent post! You get me thinking every time.

Fri Feb 02, 10:33:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mon Dieu, I too may have to go to a town meeting one of these days - beautifully detailed and written.

Diane Smith
The Maple Room

Fri Feb 02, 03:06:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Russell Bittner said...

Tricia,

Nice job. Good journalistic approach, but with just enough personal "engagement" to render the piece meaninful as creative non-fiction.

I also quite enjoyed the excerpts I read on your Blog site -- though couldn't figure out how to comment there. Some quite unique and memorable lines.

Russell

Sun Feb 11, 08:56:00 PM EST  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, Russell. What a nice surprise. Thanks for your encouraging remarks.

Mon Feb 12, 03:55:00 PM EST  

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