In 1993 Eric Brown was living through a rough patch. He was struggling with his mental health and having trouble finding a place to live. Several landlords had kicked him out, and homeless shelters had banned him. 

His niece and advocate Sue Sauve was worried he might end up on the street. Then Eric found Anna Kajas’s hostel on Frederick Street in Kitchener. He spent the next 28 years there.

Anna Kaljas: The Untold Story is supported by the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund

“I loved Anna because she really cared about me. She like me … she actually liked ME.” Eric said in a recent interview for my upcoming documentary Anna Kaljas: The Untold Story.

I wonder what Anna would say about the more than 1,000 homeless people now living in Waterloo Region – a significant number of them living in encampments perched on slivers of vacant land or in public parks. 

From the early 1950s until her death in 2010, Anna sheltered and cared for hundreds of people at her hostel on Frederick Street – some stayed for a short time, some for a long time. During her life Anna saw the need for her work grow and evolve.

In her 2006 memoir A Lifetime of Memories, Anna says, “Fifty years ago there were a few drug users around, but today we have a full-blown drug culture. Drug use is a problem in all walks of life. We have street and prescription-drug junkies. Drugs are prevalent in our public and high schools, universities and the work place.”

Since then, drugs use, mental illness and displacement have grown to crisis proportions not only here in Waterloo Region, but across the country … around the world.

In my documentary, I not only want to tell the story of Anna’s life, but also to show how her decades of work contribute to an evolving perspective on these issues.

More from Anna’s memoir:

“When I started taking care of the needy, over fifty years ago, there were not a lot of programs addressing our multitude of needs.”

 “As we have taken care of many problems, new ones have appeared.”

Among the people Anna influenced were Stephanie and Joe Mancini who founded the Working Centre in 1982, along with other community animators, as a response to the unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener that resulted from the decline of the manufacturing sector. 

At the time, the Mancinis were recent graduates of the St. Jerome’s College at the University of Waterloo.  Now forty years later, the Working Centre stands firmly rooted in the community – a leader in sheltering, feeding and walking with the people who’ve lost a sense of home, community and work. 

During a 2021 interview for my film, Stephanie and Joe shared some thoughts about Anna: 

Stephanie: “We were innocent. You don’t know what you’re walking into. We were very committed to the ideas we were trying to follow and the work itself.”

“And the example of someone like Anna was really neat for us because she stood very clearly in her goal of welcoming people in her own home … She lived there and stayed with people … The work that she did was so definitive and so strong and clear in purpose.”

Joe: “She was a personalist through and through. She just gave of herself. She stood right in the middle of a rooming house and looked after people. And to us that was like, wow!”

In an article in the September 2022 edition of the “Good Work News,” the Working Centre’s quarterly magazine, the Mancini’s reported on the Centre’s work on the complex challenges facing Waterloo Region. 

As I read the piece I heard echos of what Anna knew and did intuitively in the 1950s.

Here is the article in full published with permission of The Working Centre:

From: Good Work News, September 2022

Growing Homelessness in Times of the Pandemic and Addiction

By Stephanie & Joe Mancini 

The Working Centre has been walking with the reality of homelessness for a long time, as the contours have been developing since the 1980s. Over the years there have been times when the issues causing homelessness are lessening, but they never fail to begin to rise again. It was only in 2014 when it seemed that homelessness was declining. There was hope that 100 units of social housing would make a decisive difference. By 2019, The Working Centre was counting more than 250 people outside the shelter system who were without housing just around downtown Kitchener. That number now exceeds 1,100 people in the shelter system or experiencing homelessness in the Region. 

It must be understood that homelessness is not just about the need for housing, there are deeper societal trends that contribute. When these trends are observed together, one can understand where this continuous upward trajectory is leading. We can see that over 40 years there has been a consistent degradation of meaningful connections around work, community, and family. Work is where integral meaning can be found yet many are left out, others try to get in but their skills are wasted, those that are in are forced to engage in relentless competitions. The commitment to engender meaningful work is barely addressed in our society. 

The same analysis is true about community. While efforts are made to build community, it is easy to see what a low priority that has become as people struggle to make ends meet. Families need strong communities and rooted work opportunities but increasingly as these ties weaken, we see thinner family relationships. 

When we look around we see a society with greater mental health challenges and greater dependence on drugs of all kinds. The new synthetic drugs prey on this shattered landscape of broken relationships. Meth and Fentanyl have capitalized on this environment. 

Bruce Alexander, author of The Globalization of Addictions, A Study in to the Poverty of Spirit, introduces his website with this warning, 

“Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life.” 

We see the growing encampments and the growing numbers of people who are homeless in the light of this harsh analysis. The Working Centre has responded throughout the pandemic even as we have seen encampments develop around St. John’s Kitchen. 

  • This September, we have served almost 700 meals a day through the daily work of the St. John’s Kitchen and outside through meal distribution at the garage. Everyday our washrooms, showers, laundry, and extended drop in hours are constantly in use.
  • The University Avenue Interim Housing project has supported 80 in housing since it opened in October 2020
  • We continue to support up to 60 rooms in different Kitchener motels, resulting in support for 80 people with acute medical issues.
  • Since December 2021, we have supported a nightly emergency shelter of about 60 beds, first at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at Queen and Weber, then at the former EdithMac daycare, and we have now moved to a longer
    term, larger shelter at the former Schwaben Club. Every night there are twenty more people waiting outside than we can bring in because of space capacity limits. The new shelter will allow for a greater number of beds, as the need is greater than ever. 

In all of this work, tremendous credit and gratitude must be offered to the workers and volunteers at these four projects who have all responded to the dictates of hospitality in ever generous ways. 

We see in our work an increasing despair about what is before us and we must constantly ask the question – what does it mean to work with eyes wide open in these times? What we see is an increasing despair about what is before us: 

▪ Mass supplies of synthetic drugs (fentanyl and meth) have devastated the lives of growing numbers of people who rapidly become homeless and face deep mental health issues and substance seeking activities. 

▪ A lack of housing options for people living on the margins, and a growing number of people who are living precariously week to week, vulnerable to becoming homeless. This is both an issue of affordability and the need for alternatives to shelters. 

▪ Times of scarcity where people are competing for basic needs. 

▪ We stand as witness to people injecting drugs into their bodies in the desperate need to satisfy an addiction, watching their breathing, their heart rate, becoming first responders when overdose happens, working to help people to stay alive in spite of the drugs that demand everything. 

  • Drugs that create compulsive hoarding, dislocation, psychosis, theft, and self- negating activities that help to produce the desperate need for money to satisfy the drug need. 
  • People who used to live in solidarity have now become competitors for scarce resources – people steal from each other, demand increasingly unbearable things from one another – all to satisfy the desperate longing or a drug that pushes people far beyond human tolerance. 

What do we do as we stand with eyes wide open, and strive to embody and support the complexity of the work? 

▪ We get to know people as unique and beautiful individuals – ones who are so dear, ones who deeply love their pets, ones who look out for others, ones who have a wicked sense of the ironies of life. Deep layers of conversation and engagement through good and bad days as we work to help people keep safe, avoid overdose, access showers, laundry, and bathrooms. 

▪ Create spaces where people feel welcome, where we don’t react when oppositional behaviour surfaces, where we have access to shelter, food, showers, washrooms, harm reduction, and community connections. 

▪ Work diligently to connect people to supports – mental health, legal, health, hospital, and community services. 

▪ Walk with each person, a moment at a time, an incident at a time, seeking the next step, the best resolution, the kindest way to resolve complexity that layers upon complexity. 

▪ Create shelter options that are low/no barrier – how do we welcome people to spaces where they are not excluded, and are not pushed away? 

▪ Tend the many wounds that come from aggression, fighting deep infections that come from living in insanitary conditions. 

▪ Support safer supply options for responding to addiction, support access to methadone and suboxone, working with all available options to help people to manage the depth of addiction that rules their lives. 

▪ Create housing options, or access to housing options, where people are accepted in spite of complexity, where they can count on a space that can serve as home to them for now. 

▪ Constantly call people back into community, to collective care, to living the life we all hope for ourselves. 

▪ Bringing health care and mental health supports into the dynamic spaces of street, encampments, motels, and fragile housing situations, constantly connecting people to services and supports. 

▪ Providing food – a crucial support – in the form of daily meals, take-away meals, hampers delivered weekly to motels, precarious housing, and interim housing. 

The complexities in the ethics of eyes wide open are immense, and we constantly question: 

  • When does our support feel like enabling? Are we remembering the vitality and strength of the community and continuing to lean in to this strength?
  • People are resilient, how do we build on this resiliency?
  • When we hold the importance of ethic in our work, how do we forgive ourselves when we are feeling less than the situation?
  • How complex is it to become first responders to life threatening issues?
  • How do we remind ourselves constantly of the need to act as a team, as a group, as a wider community feeling the ebb and flow of capacity, and supporting one another? 
  • We repeat these questions over and over. How do we balance and act into the deep complexities that overlap. 
  • Continue to celebrate and foster moments of mutual care, music making, community building that sustain us as a people. 

To paraphrase the comments shared by one of our shelter workers in a recent meeting: 

“The level of care we offer caught me off-guard; this level of love and respect follows you into the times you are not working. Some days are exhausting – it can be heavy work receiving other people’s heaviness; it is hard to turn people away. But I love coming into work every day.” 

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