De-Colonizing Social Services: Aurora Commons, a Neighborhood Living Room

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Imagine with me a naturalist/or field biologist who’s job is to pay attention to every living and dying thing within their particular ecosystem. This naturalist is aware of the interconnectedness of all things within their place; she watches, she listens, she tends, she prunes—she sees withering or wilting, she sees growth, she maps and measures the slightest or most magnificent changes over time. She can tell you the names of each and every specimen.

Aurora Avenue is our ecosystem and we approach our role in the neighborhood first and foremost as a Naturalist does: we pay attention.

So, despite, the enormity of our city wide “homelessness crisis”, and the fear, anger, inconvenience and entitlement it invokes in all of us sometimes, we are committed to paying attention to the life and death within our ecosystem from 85th to 145th.  

And it is here that we continue to practice daily presence and kinship with the particular people in our neighborhood who are told and treated as though they don’t matter. We are committed to being mindful of each person we encounter as an individual so that we may offer contextualized—not professionalized—community care

For what we've learned is, in this world world of charity mostly orchestrated by systematic responses, that people experiencing homelessness are constantly given a negative answer to really the most important personal questions upon which their mental health depends: Who am I? What am I?       

These questions can’t be answered by professionalized care for they have to do with a sense of belonging, of counting, and of mattering. This is our “question” at the commons. And our particular calling, you should know, is to midwife a safe space and trusted relationships so that this question may be lived out with our neighbors experiencing homelessness.  

The space itself, our neighborhood living room, is where you can witness and participate in this living out.

There is, in a sense, a ritualistic unraveling that happens as you enter the Commons: life becomes really real because you pause and because you’re not alone. You make food, share food, you clean your clothes, you receive a hug that lasts a little too long but not quite long enough, you rest (maybe for the first time in days), you request a song be played, you dance, you play the piano, you read a book. . . all kinds of life is happening all around you.

My husband said to me once, in the midst of 50+ people in the Commons, that “things should not be going this well.”

His words were profound: I glanced around the room and took note of all its inhabitants. So much untreated mental illness, people sleeping, one woman crying in the corner (having fled a sexual assault earlier that morning), two guys playing chess, the guy who talks to himself on the corner of 100th and aurora talking to himself in the middle of the room, someone flipping pancakes, many folks nodding off, a woman on meth picking her scars, two tennagers playing with dolls.

When you are in the Commons, you are reminded of your precious humanity, despite how you present. And as you are, you contemplate change because you feel safe enough, seen enough, and heard enough to. We do not care for ourselves when we are not being cared for. And when we are not being treated as though we matter…we live as though we don’t.

For the majority of their day, people experiencing homelessness are not welcomed anywhere. They are ignored, abused. 

This narrative has to be unlearned in peoples lives. And they need a place and people with them to help them unlearn it. The Commons is that place.

The Commons is that place in our particular ecosystem for our particular people that we think matter. Our beautiful staff is committed to sacredly stewarding these relationships, weaving them through all we do, so that when they feel safe enough, seen enough, heard enough to ask the questions ("Who am I?") we can accompany them in the questions, in the pain, in the grief, in the relief and most certainly through the process of navigating services that facilitate their bodily health and wellbeing.

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Let's Discuss…

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I love this. It's a really pressing question in my context too: protocol and professionalization versus presence of person, the need for affection, the questions of spirituality and identity, the un-measurability of relationship. I am trying to walk that fine balance, as you are too. Journey on sister! 

Participant

Lisa, I'm delighted to discover this piece and this program. Didn't know of it, or you!  I worked for crwrc/WR for a couple of decades and have been a member of Grace CRC in GR for longer than you've been around. I'm always troubled by the homelessness I see on the streets in particular around my church. The challenge is overwhelming and each life, each story, so special and so complicated. Spaces to be safe, affirmed, loved, listened to...  to find community...  are so needed. I love what you're doing and your thoughtful reflections on it. Do you have a blog?  Are you writing a book?  Could there be a gathering of Jesus' people to learn together, reflect, share, and develop ideas to bring back home to initiate fresh ministries with homeless people?  What about making a space on the CRC Network for this topic?  Message me on fb if you want to. Thanks!  Keep serving and keep writing. 
k

Admin

Timely comment. I wanted to jump in and let you know that Urban has recently been added as a new topic on The Network. Thanks for raising this Karl! 

Community Builder

Karl- thank you for engaging my musings. Its good to know of your existence too! I am currently in a group of urban practitioners from across the US, led by Joel VanDyke- he mentioned you may be interested in joining us? If you are interested in learning more- please reach out!

gratefully-

lisa etter carlson

[email protected]

Community Builder

Hi Karl - 

Seems like you're not the only one interested in gathering. There are people across US who are connecting with their communities in amazing ways. I'm trying to connect to others in my new role as Church with Community coordinator (World Renew/CRCNA). I'd love churches of all kinds to hear stories and learn ways of creating community with neighbors, helping to transform the communities in which they have been placed.  Let's connect and build a network. 

Jodi