FEATURE INTERVIEW: MISSY MCLEAN 3/22/2021
Missy McLean coordinated Northumberland County’s emergency day and night warming rooms this winter, serving up to 15 people each day who had no other option to escape the cold. A collaboration between Green Wood, St. Andrew’s Church and Northumberland County Community and Social Services, the warming rooms have been a crisis response, meant as a stop-gap measure and not a solution to homelessness in our community. In a conversation with Missy, she reflects on the experience, the system change that needs to happen and the lessons lasagna can teach us.
Green Wood: Missy, you’ve said you want to be out of a job next year because you don’t want the warming rooms to exist. Can you explain? Missy McLean: The rooms addressed an immediate need. People needed to be able to come in out of the cold, from the frigid Canadian winter, or they would have been at grave risk. I don’t want the warming rooms to exist next winter because I’d rather see our relatively small number of unsheltered community members find housing. We’ve kept a good number of people out of the cold and reduced the harm they could have faced. But the warming rooms do not end homelessness and poverty; they only offer a temporary respite, and that's why they're not the solution we need to these issues in our community. GW: Before we talk about solutions, would you paint a picture of who used the warming rooms, what their stories are? MM: Our guest are people who have experienced trauma, who have experienced and continue to experience stigma, oppression, marginalization. They're people made vulnerable by failed systems and bad policy. These are our neighbours, community members, and some found themselves in homelessness for the first time in their lives this winter. GW: Can you talk more about that? MM: The breakdown of a marriage or, suddenly, the loss of a job, an illness. I don't think people appreciate how many of us could be on the precipice of finding ourselves in a similar situation if it were not for six degrees of circumstances. The guests we’ve served share the same needs, wants, aspirations as any of us, and they’re deserving of the same things as any of us. But they find themselves on the margins because, in my opinion, they have been failed, repeatedly, by systems, policy and society.
“I don't think people appreciate how many of us could be on the precipice of finding ourselves in a similar situation.”
GW: What do you mean by failed systems and oppression? MM: We're talking about failures of the social welfare system of Canada, programs that actually serve to keep people in poverty rather than help them escape it. In terms of oppression, it’s just the receiving of power by one person at the expense of another. We don't have a fundamental agreement across society that everyone is deserving of equal rights, whether they be economic, political or social. GW: What are the solutions? MM: Housing needs to be a priority and acknowledged and treated as the universal human right the United Nations and everyone else has identified it as being. And it's about a guaranteed livable income. We don't need programs that keep people in poverty under the guise of helping them get out of poverty. We know a guaranteed livable income means health. It means engagement. It means dignity for people. GW: How do we get there? MM: Power comes from organizing and knowledge sharing and listening to the community members we're supporting at the warming rooms. They know best what they need to have health, be engaged and live a life that is dignified and meaningful. They know what's helpful, and they know what's harmful. They know what works, and they know what isn’t working. This is what Green Wood does so beautifully, understanding that it’s the people on the margin who know what's keeping them there. Our job, as their fellow community members, is to listen and clear the way to let their voices be heard, not to speak for them, but to make space so they can speak for themselves, and to stand alongside them to amplify their voices. GW: Amplify their voices? MM: It's not a simple answer, but I would say it means engagement. People want to support the warming room; they want to make a contribution. They want to give. And so it's just a matter of shifting that energy to giving what will be most helpful in this moment. And what’s most helpful is people taking the time -- it sounds so basic, but it’s not -- to write an email to their MPP, MP and town council and tell them this warming room served its purpose, but we don’t want to see it again. What we want to see are tangible solutions that will address homelessness, poverty, health care. I realize it’s not as comfortable for people as, say, making a lasagna, because I know how to make a lasagna; I can see the instant impact that serving that lasagna has to my fellow community members. But if I'm writing an email to my MPP or MP, I don't see the immediate results, and that can be discouraging. So it takes a shift. But what people have to keep in mind is the email to the MPP, the MP or town council, that's the long game. And that is really what's going to change things.
"It takes a shift. What people have to keep in mind is the email to the MPP, the MP or town council, that's the long game. And that is really what's going to change things."
GW: You come at this as a professional, but you also have a personal stake in the game. Could you share a bit about that? MM: This is a second career for me. I had a lengthy career in communications. And at the same time I was going through my first university experience and all through my first career, I was also walking alongside my brother who lives with concurrent bipolar disorder and substance use disorder. Working with him, as an advocate, and having the perspective of caregiver and family member, and bumping up against the mental health and the social welfare systems, I got to a point where I felt I didn't want to just be frustrated and angry, I wanted to do something more. So as I got more involved in advocacy and activism, I decided I needed to be inside the system and come at it from both outside and inside. I went back to school to study to become a Social Worker. GW: You are a mother, full-time student, supervisor of the warming rooms and advocate for your brother. It seems like a lot. MM: We talk a lot in the caring professions and health professions about burnout and how we're responsible for caring for ourselves. But from what I've come to understand about burnout is that it’s not the caring for my brother that burned me out, it's not the navigating things with my brother, it's the continual slamming up against the system, it's the continuous pain of being met with insufficient services. Burnout is not about the work; burnout is about the systems. GW: What do you want to leave with people? MM: I believe people in Northumberland County want to see an end to homelessness and poverty, but it's hard to zoom out from helping with immediate needs to see, not only how that goal will be achieved, but what each individual's role can be in achieving it. We have to be optimistic. We have to be resolute in keeping our eye on the prize, the long game. This broken system took decades to get to this point, and it's not going to be resolved overnight, but we know there are solutions. The times I feel the most pain in the work is when I have this feeling that what I can bring is inadequate to the need in front of me, when I'm sitting with a guest who has endured such incredible trauma, is living in survival mode. The people we serve are not asking us to fix things for them. They don't need saving. They're just asking to be given access and opportunity to the means, the same as anyone else, to create the life that is going to be meaningful for them. So this is what I want to leave with people: write the letter. You don't even have to write a new letter every week. Photocopy the same letter and send it, and then send a follow-up email asking for the response. Be persistent and be clear about what you expect from our representatives. GW: Thank you so much for your work, insights and generosity in sharing them with us.
"We have to be optimistic. We have to be resolute in keeping our eye on the prize. This broken system took decades to get to this point, and it's not going to be resolved overnight, but we know that there are solutions."