Two summers ago, I was on a co-op term at St. Paul’s Advocacy, a non-profit organization located in the West End of Vancouver, where I worked as a legal and social advocate and homeless outreach assistant. I was at first hesitant to accept the position because I thought that the skills I would obtain would not at all be relevant to my career path of going into law or policy work with the government. Because the position would involve approaching homeless people I, along with my friends and family, was also concerned for my safety. There’s a negative stigma of homeless people being reckless, lazy, and dangerous. The news media does not improve this image, to say the least. Nonetheless, I decided to take the position since I thought experience in the non-profit sector would be beneficial and I would gain office skills.
The job was a 4 month co-op position where I assisted homeless people in finding housing, applying for social assistance, landlord-tenant disputes, or anything else they needed. The Advocacy Office is a free service to those in need. Some clients often were not able to resolve their issues in an appropriate way due to physical or mental disabilities, or the mere fact that they were uninformed of what the best resolution path would be.
Another aspect of my position consisted of being a kind of social worker, seeking out homeless people on the streets of Vancouver, offering them food, and talking to them about their needs. I got first-hand experience speaking with various homeless people on the streets of the city, who I made close bonds with. A lot of these people seemed to have been on a good trajectory in life, but they hit a bump in the road and their life took a turn for the worse. They had degrees, spouses, and had previously maintained jobs. Unfortunately. many homeless are affected by mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction, creating a downward spiral into chronic homelessness.
I learned through this experience how the social service system is extremely inaccessible for the average citizen, let alone people who are mentally or physically disabled and without a home. Welfare forms are difficult to fill out and a lot of documentation is needed to prove one’s identity, which homeless people often don’t have. It is evident that the system is not easy to use by the people who need it. This is, in essence, marginalizing the very population it is in place to help.
It turns out that I greatly enjoyed my experience being an advocate. My job was interesting and had a lot of variety to it. Through both of my positions at St Paul’s Advocacy, I’ve realized that the negative stigma attached to homeless people is very inaccurate. Homeless people are the same as people who are more financially privileged, and require the same things in life. Some of my regular clients kept such a positive outlook on life, despite their living conditions not giving them a reason to.
From a humanitarian point of view, the people that I’ve worked with and the clients that I’ve helped gave me so much inspiration to appreciate the opportunities I have. I developed many transferable skills that greatly helped me in my job search afterwards. I developed my sense of professionalism, organization, and communication skills immensely. I also learned a lot about law and social work, which I wasn’t expecting at the start. I put my effort into this job and as a result I got a lot out of it.
In the end, I learned that trying out things that do not appeal to you 100% at the beginning is often a risk worth taking. I also learned to put a lot into what you’re doing, because you will be rewarded in the end, be it with experience, transferable skills for future jobs, or the gratification of knowing that you helped somebody.