A few weeks ago with homelessness on my mind I took a few minutes to drop in on the Neighbour Centre, another great Edmonton thing. I’d been meaning for some time to visit this rare resource for “street people” on the south side of the River. The visit was a fine and moving experience.
As one o’clock opening time approached about a dozen people gathered at the door, most laughing and smiling, all apparently familiar with each other. I hung back, feeling myself to be an outsider here.
Finally the front door of the little storefront across 104 Street from Strathcona High School opened, but it wasn’t quite time to go in. I watched as a mysterious lottery took place. A number, but not all of the gathered, called out to have their names put into a hat. Four names were drawn and then the doors opened and all filed inside, I at the end of the line.
Unlike many inner city “missions” the world over, the Neighbour Centre doesn’t require that a meal be purchased with a bowed head or an open ear for a prayer or a sermon. The proceedings began with what seemed a completely voluntary opportunity for individuals to publicly reflect positively on themselves. Staff, volunteers, and Neighbours all took a moment to either pass or to tell the group what they thought of themselves when they were at their best, a pretty positive exercise.
After this brief self-affirmation, the purpose of the mysterious lottery became clear: four of the Neighbours appeared in yellow safety vests, “The Neighbour Centre” printed on the backs, equipped for their afternoon cleaning litter from the sidewalks of Old Strathcona. For their work, they would be paid an hourly wage in cash. The fact that a lottery must be held for these jobs puts the lie to the idea that the “homeless” are not willing to work.
The Neighbours now disperssed through the building, some to the back to the showers, some straight to the fresh food in the “kitchen”. The Neighbour Centre does not have a full kitchen, making to with microwaves and rice cookers and a healthy offering of fresh fruit and vegetables.
As I chatted and learned about some of the philosophy of the Centre, I saw neighbours offer to wash up the dishes. There is little distinction here; everyone pitches in. The Neighbour Centre’s focus is on helping Neighbours become actual neighbours, to help them empower themselves to better their own circumstances. It’s a hackneyed pharse, but the Neighbour Centre doesn’t offer hand outs. It offers hands up.
One particularly exciting program the Neighbour Centre organizes is the Thursday night Dinner Club at the Strathcona Baptist Church. On these evenings about twenty Neighbours — staff, volunteers, and those who might be called “clients” by other agencies — get together to prepare and share their dinner, side by side. This is not a charity providing “services”, rather, here are neighbours serving each other and building a true community, nurturing individual growth.
Recently the Neighbour Centre has amalgamated with another great Edmonton thing, the Mustard Seed. This will hopefully bring administrative efficiencies while not undermining either organization’s philosophy or strenghths. Together with Youth Empowerment and Support Services (YESS), the Neighbour Centre is a rare bright light for our most disadvantaged neighbours on the south side of Edmonton. Each of us needs to try to be such a light for our neighbours. All of our neighbours.
Until the fine future day the Neighbour Centre is no longer needed, I hope all shoppers on Whyte Avenue, when they pass a worker in one of those yellow safety vests, will share a smile and a “Thank you, neighbour!” and maybe a conversation and some laughter. As I did a few days ago with this fellow: