The Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being
Bob Chrismas has over 35 years of public service experience, primarily in public safety and peace keeping roles. He holds a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies, a Master of Public Administration degree, has presented internationally, and authored numerous publications on justice related issues. A devoted public servant, police officer, author, social justice advocate, educator, advisor, Bob is a critical thinking public servant, a life long learner, grassroots connector, dedicated to community service through teamwork, collaboration and collective impact. Bob has expertise to share in self actualization and improved corporate and community outcomes- contact him now and let’s achieve the future we want.
Values and hobbies: family, Tai Chi, Yoga
When the businesses are closed, and it is -25C, Winnipeg’s streets become a formidable and unforgiving place; it is urban tundra, but in some ways more harsh than the wild, because the cold reality is that it is made to keep people out. Yet, there are people everywhere, walking to stay warm, finding a corner to huddle in, and sometimes relying on the compassion of strangers for the next meal or a pair of mitts and a scarf. Who are these people, huddled in bus shacks and running around in the streets at night? They are all different, but they all have something in common; they are human beings, with hopes and dreams, needs and they all come from somewhere, a place, a family, but not always knowing where they will go tomorrow, or even today.
Today, George is in his usual spot, alone in the bus shack outside City Hall. Sometimes there are others, and on the odd occasion George is missing, but most days he is there, either sitting up or laying down, bundled up and trying to sleep. George is quiet; we aren’t sure if it is more a language barrier or more of a mental health issue, but he is very quiet, barely uttering more than a “thank-you” for a hot coffee. He is dressed warmly with felt pack boots and a parka, and sometimes he has food wrappings beside him. He doesn’t seem drunk, but might sometimes be, it is hard to tell in the bone chilling cold. Yesterday, as we pulled up there were a couple of people there in the shack and as we walked in with our gear, George got up, walked outside and urinated on a tree in the courtyard in City Hall, 10 feet from the bus shack. Such is life in the street; there is not much to be shy about, and not many ways to preserve your dignity when there are no bathrooms, you do what you have to do. Today I asked “George, where are you from? He said without hesitation, “Wayway.” I asked Waywaysakapo?” George said “Ya.” Wayawasakapa is a reserve in Northern Manitoba. That was our whole conversation as he slurped down the soup we left, but did say a quiet “thank-you” as we packed up and left.
Billy (pictured here and above), is in the bus shack by Portage Place, not sure he is homeless, just trying to make his way home up North for the holidays. As soon as my daughter Chelsea offered him a hot coffee and a soup, Billy (not his real name) was happy and thankful for something warm; at 4:00AM it was -25C with wind-chill that could take your fingers off if they were exposed too long. He was excited to receive anything and even get his picture taken, as well as hoping to get a ride back to his community that day.
Isabel (not her real name) is sitting alone in a bus shack by Eaton Place, wide awake, sober, with the apparent patience of the Buddha, not expecting anything to happen and not trying to make anything happen- just sitting there. She is elderly, Indigenous, well-spoken and well-dressed, a walker and some makeshift luggage sitting in front of her. “Hi Isabel, would you like some hot soup and a coffee today?” She quickly says, “Oh yes, that would be nice.” Isabel has a warm smile and a kind demeanor; she could be anyone’s grandmother, and no doubt is. Every time I see her I think she should be sitting in a rocking chair by a fire, maybe with a baby in her lap. Isabel took the coffee and soup with some kind words and I asked her “what are your plans today, on Christmas eve?. Isabel was quick to answer with a bright smile, “I’ve been invited to dinner at Siloam Mission today.” She said it as though she was going to the governor’s ball. Not wanting to pry or open old wounds, I was curious and had to ask, “why are you out here?” Isabel smiled and said “well things happen” and did not elaborate.
Many sit there as we approach them (my daughter and I) and when we actually get face-to-face with them, we can feel their story. Whether they are intentionally where they want to be, or marginalized by family or work struggles, the ultimate lesson is that everyone is different. People are homeless for various reasons, and needing help, and we have found some fulfillment in offering a small gesture of compassion. It is heart-breaking to really embrace the many challenges that different people face, many who are homeless and struggling. The different stories, the people, it’s tragic and painful, but people need to know that it could happen to any of us. We’ve met people who have fallen astray of loss of work, in transit- trying to get home to their supports, and people who seem to be couch surfing and bus shack squatting, sometimes with a goal and sometimes aimless; they are all different. Regardless of why someone is out in the street or hiding from the wind in a bus shack, in -30C weather in the middle of the night, we have learned that a small compassionate act, an act of unconditional love, sharing a laugh or a short story, is incredibly rewarding as we connect with humanity.
How much effort does it take for another person to affect your day, with a smile or a small gesture of thanks, recognition of your work, or even just being courteous? The answer is, not much. Imagine now how a small act or gesture might affect your day when you have nothing, if you were out in the cold with no home, no food, no money and not even proper clothes, or bandages for your wounds or medicine for your infections.
We have shelters and food banks, soup lines, many agencies and wonderful people providing all kinds of humanitarian aid for our less fortunate citizens, but there are those who fall through the cracks, those who do not get into a shelter at night, and many who, for a variety of reasons, do not participate well in organized charity efforts. Aren’t those the most vulnerable among us? When we slow-down from our busy lives and look around, we can see that there are a lot more unfortunate, homeless, and challenged people than most of us realize. They are hidden in plain sight, having learned to be unobtrusive for fear of being pushed out, we even sometimes step over them, barely distracted from checking our cellphone for texts and e-mails while running for a break at work. Admittedly, we all have our problems and life to deal with, and it is overwhelming to think about all that is going on in the world; but there must be some balance; we also have responsibilities as citizens. We should find some balance between responsibility for our own private lives and for social problems in our community.
On my 4AM walk to work in downtown Winnipeg, I see people sleeping in bus shacks, and running around in the streets. A person could freeze to death or lose fingers and toes to frostbite in minutes in our frigid winter weather. Inquiring with the shelters that exist, I found that, for a variety of reasons, there are a lot of people stuck (my daughter Chelsea above) out in the elements at night, from teenagers to elderly, some in wheelchairs, some with obvious substance abuse and/or mental health issues, and some who have run into financial problems. They are from all over, and their stories are as diverse as their backgrounds; not all are homeless; some are displaced only for a few days and some choose to be there. Whatever the reason, it does not seem right that some people are cowering in cold bus shacks and doorways on a cold winter night while the rest of us sleep soundly in our homes.
My family decided to try a small gesture and see if it helps. We started bringing hot coffee and soup for those who seem to be lost in the system, in the middle of the night, after everything is closed, when the bus shacks are some of the only places to escape the cold. They are disturbingly easy to find, and amazingly appreciative. We’ve had some laughs and heard some (my daughter Chelsea above) interesting stories, just offering a non-judgmental gesture with a compassionate intention. There are some who we wonder about when they suddenly aren’t in their regular spot. Surprisingly, there are different faces each day, an endless parade of different people, each with their own story. Some are unresponsive, obviously struggling with their issues, but many are bright, sober and are just getting by, day-by-day, to overcome the challenges life has dealt them.
Most are thankful for a hot cup of coffee, hot chocolate or soup to warm their belly in the wet snow and the cold night air. It has been a heartwarming experience, and has taught us that we can respect a person’s human dignity with very small acts. All of us have daily opportunities to do something nice for someone. It doesn’t have to be someone homeless; you never know what challenges other people are struggling with. These are chances that should not be wasted, because life’s lottery could have placed any of us in a different position than we have in life, and a compassionate act can give us the feeling of restoring some balance, some social justice in the world, one small gesture at a time.
Yes, Virginia, on more than one occasion Chelsea Chrismas, a university student and yoga instructor, has been asked if her middle name is Mary. At which point she replies that, in actuality, she had a great-grandmother named Mary Chrismas.
Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free PressBarb (left) and daughter Chelsea Chrismas.
“The look on their face is priceless, mostly in disbelief.” Chrismas remembers being kidded about her surname as far back as grade school, but not so much by her fellow students.
“Many more of the teachers made jokes about my last name than my schoolmates,” she says. “An ongoing joke was ‘Oh, looks like Christmas came early this year.’”
Chrismas says she and her parents haven’t done much research on the origin of their festive family name, but she is in possession of an old article from the Minnedosa Tribune about her great-grandfather Walter Elliot Chrismas, a preacher who became known as Father Christmas, after he immigrated to Manitoba from England in 1892.
“We have another article about my grandfather Doug Chrismas who made a joke of riding a turkey to the office every day, to work off the fat,” she says, adding there’s a definite advantage to having the last name Chrismas.
“At our house, every dinner is Chrismas dinner.”
My wonderful daughter Brandi, co-authored this article with me. I am proud of her.
From the Chief Editors’s forward to the journal issue:
“This issue of the Journal features our youngest contributor to date, as 22-year old Brandi co-authors with her father Robert their inter-generational perspectives to the question, “What are we doing to protect newcomer youth in Canada, and help them succeed?” (Chrismas & Chrismas, 2017). Here is another two-generation policing family potentially in the making, and one that might exemplify the evidence-based policing culture of the future. The younger is completing her undergraduate degree in criminology and hopes to begin a policing career soon after. The older is a 28-year veteran of the Winnipeg Police Service, who just last month earned his PhD in Peace and Conflict studies.
The younger also offers us some hopeful projections on the next 50 years with, “I think we are growing out of racism and sexism, so that is a good thing. We are not quite there yet, but now police agencies have a larger percentage of female leaders and racism is becoming unacceptable in the public discourse. This, I believe has changed a lot over the past 20 years.” At the same time, she cautions that perceptions of police culture among the public may not yet realize on this ideal, and that “mainstream and social media representations of the police hold the potential to enhance or deteriorate those perceptions” (B. Chrismas, personal correspondence, October 17, 2017).
If this young author is correct, we face some important questions. Whatever comes to define our society as a whole in the next half-century, our place within it and our influences upon it are already being formed by the choices we make and the actions we demonstrate today and in the years ahead. Will we chart a determined course? And, are we prepared to guide our own relationship with Canadians—all Canadians?”