Thank You for 25 Years of Help and Service

John Chega was homeless for 25 years. He has been using CUPS services since 1989. For CUPS 25th anniversary, John wrote the this article to explain how CUPS has helped him and to provide a little insight into why he needed CUPS services to begin with.

*Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of CUPS and/or CUPS staff.

Thank You for 25 Years of Help and Service 

John Ronald Chega*

I am writing this narrative to express my heart-felt gratitude and show those who are interested, the positive affects the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) has had in my life, and in the lives of thousands like me.

CUPS is a charity that provides medical services to thousands of low-income men, women and children in Calgary. I cannot explain much about their family programs because I have been a handicapped homeless bachelor most of my 62 years. So this accounting will be concentrated on the support and services CUPS has provided to me, personally, over the past 25 years, since 1989 when I became seriously handicapped and homeless.

The first thing I want to tell people about CUPS is their absolute dedication to seeing that their clients receive the best medical attention available. They have their own doctors and nurse practitioners and they set up appointments with specialists, therapists and any specific medical attention that is required or needed. They do this with patience, concern and professionalism.

Their medical system, I believe, was significant in my beating the odds of reaching 62 years instead of only achieving the statistical average for chronically homeless people, men and women, who usually die at an average age of 47.8 years. That means I’ve lived 15 years longer than my peer group average and for that I believe the medical treatment, moral support and housing I received over the years from CUPS was a huge contributing factor. The medical attention I received, although homeless and broke was world class and allowed me to withstand a brutal lifestyle.

In order to give an accurate account of the impact and significance that the Calgary Urban Project Society has had on my life, it is necessary for me to explain a little bit about myself. I tell you about myself for two reasons. The first, is so you will realize how desperately I needed the help that CUPS offered me, and the second, to show you the quality of  life chronically homeless people experienced during childhood, and how that contributes to their miserable situation today. It’s what they think they deserve.

Experts in phycology and parenting tell us that we all receive our sense of self-worth and values beginning around age 5 (when we learn language) and continuing until we are about 8 to 10 years old. During this portion of my life I lived in an environment of fear, violence, alcoholism and both physical and sexual abuse. My parents were both alcoholic. Not the functioning kind of alcoholics that could hold down a steady job and at least provide the necessities of life. My parents abused myself and my older sister with physical violence, sexual abuse and the guilt they had in their own world. We lived, I hesitate to call it a “home”, in a building filled with anger, blaming and sexual shame. We were shipped from relative to relative, to friends of my mother and sometimes we were left with complete strangers. Many believed they were allowed the use of our bodies.

Without going into the specifics of the abuse we endured, suffice it to say I didn’t trust too many people growing up. The values that were embedded in my brain at this time were not only antisocial but defined my self-worth as a “bad” boy whose only value was as a sexual toy or an errand boy. Many of the homeless men and women I have met over the years have similar stories. I was thus treated until at the age of 14 when I was taken out of school and ordered to leave home. I never returned.

At the age of 14, I left home and entered the world as an angry, uneducated alcoholic. I spent the next 12 years working manual labor jobs, drinking and looking for love. Then at the age of 26 I was stabbed, lost the use of my right hand, became handicapped and addicted to pain killers.

My story is not unusual, in fact, in the homeless population mine is a common story, and shows the most damaging aspect of the homeless lifestyle is a “lack of education” coupled with a “lack of self-worth”. The Master, Jesus the Christ, told us thousands of years ago “It is done unto you as you believe” and in no place is this more than significant than our personal beliefs about ourselves.

What we believe about ourselves steers the ship of our life and without healthy attitudes and a forgiving heart, that ship will be damaged or sink altogether in the storms of life. Homelessness is the last shore before death to many of those, through fear, shame and low self-esteem who are unable to change course.  It was exactly this course correction that CUPS provided for me and allowed me to beat those mortality odds I spoke of earlier. The odds that shows that homeless people live a full thirty years less than what is normal in our society… 30 years!!! What the Calgary Urban Project Society did for me was to help me beat that desperate statistic and experience at least another 15 years of LIFE…they helped me change course.

My first experience of CUPS was in 1989 when their office was at 117 7th Ave. S.W. During the day, homeless people could enter the office and grab a cup of coffee, sit down for a moment to warm up, and use the phone. It was often the only place downtown that did not kick you out into the freezing cold. There was a washroom and no one was trying to hustle you out the door. It doesn’t sound like much but when you’re homeless the number of places that will let you inside is very limited. That warm office was a Godsend to many of us.

CUPS was one of the very few places a homeless person could go for medical attention without feeling “out of place” or “less than”. That’s the way you feel, a homeless person anyway, while waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room being stared at by everyone else in the office. At the CUPS Medical Clinic you could walk in with your backpacks and shoulder bags without embarrassment or shame. No-one complained about your odor or if your clothes were dirty and offensive. BUT THAT JUST SCRATCHED THE SURFACE!

One of the biggest issues when authority deals with a homeless person is the matter of “identification.” Normal people have birth certificates, social insurance numbers and pictured identification of some kind. Homeless people rarely do. Why? Because they don’t live in one place long enough to receive mail. By circumstance or just bad luck most homeless people have lost their personal identification and have many doors closed to them because of this fact.

CUPS doesn’t deny you medical assistance if you don’t have a “health care card,” they help you figure out the paper work needed to get another one. Even if you didn’t have the $50.00 administration fee to get the certificate you needed CUPS would still help you regain your social paperwork standing. THIS IS A BIG DEAL to the homeless person. CUPS will help you open a bank account or to get some groceries, they concentrate on a person’s immediate needs and they address the situation with calm confidence.

For me personally, not having the correct paperwork or certificates to access government or charitable services was a large obstacle to me from receiving medical help, applying for employment or just talking to a cop was a big deal, when you don’t have proper I.D. Without proper identification documents the homeless person can be locked in a cell and kept for as long as it takes to prove their identity. This can sometimes take days and can turn into a very unpleasant experience, especially if there are unpaid fines or warrants for your arrest. And since many homeless people are addicts and alcoholics there is a good chance they don’t remember if they have outstanding warrants or fines and this can be a very stressful time for the person who feels that their life and future is in the control of other people.

Calgary Urban Project Society does not give meals or mats to sleep on but they take care of other necessary and important services.

Back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, CUPS published a newspaper that provided work for many homeless people. Either as “writers” or sellers or handling the day to day operations of the newspaper called “Street Talk”. People were given the opportunity to work by selling the papers instead of standing on a corner begging people for small change. The exchange of a product for money changed the whole dynamic of “street corner panhandlers” became “street corner business persons” who were accepted as working people rather than “beggars”.

This may mean very little to most of you, but let me tell you that standing on a corner asking people for money can be a very embarrassing and tense situation. With the proper licensing and a product to sell, beggars became “workers” and raise their social standing above a “lazy bum” status to that of a “productive” person. Many, like myself, who took advantage of this opportunity to support themselves began to rebuild their self confidence in dealing with people and found that they were much more welcome in restaurants and coffee shops because they were seen as workers and not beggars. CUPS created a situation where we were able to “make” money rather than be street corner beggars. And I’m sure this situation contributed much appreciation on the part of the public who are accosted many times a day from people who want their money. In the “buyer/seller” scenario, a refusal is not a personal statement and does not reflect a negative attitude towards either the buyer or the seller. People standing on the street corners selling newspapers made the streets seem safer than seeing them there staring sadly into an empty hat. It cleaned up a lot of the street corners; it made them “safer”.

I became handicapped in 1978 when I lost the use of my right hand. Over the years, my left hand did all the work and after working two jobs during the spring and summer of 2002 I saved $4700.00 and took a drivers “Class 1” drivers course to get my license so I could continue to work through the cold months and in my “older” years.

With the use of only one gripping hand, and after driving big rig trucks for 5 years the power in my left hand gave out and I could no longer grip the wheel with sufficient strength to handle the truck. Now I was in my mid-fifties, uneducated and failing physically. I really didn’t know what to do. I was scared. My only option, as I saw it, was to try and get a disability pension and try to get sufficient funds to maintain a lifestyle without being homeless and unavailable to afford vitamins. I went to CUPS.

It was in 2002 that I started my driving career; I was 50 when I began driving and in 2007 my driving career was over. I was hurt, homeless and physically unable to do much but pick bottles. That was when I met Ingrid, a nurse practitioner at the CUPS medical clinic at 128 7th Avenue. Ingrid was sent to me (or more like me to her) by God to help me get my remaining years in order. I needed help and I knew it. I know saying that Ingrid was sent to me by GOD may seem arrogant but for me Ingrid was exactly who I needed and she was a Godsend to me! Even filling out an application was a stressful situation for me and Ingrid realized this, still, she helped me do many of the administrative and medical steps necessary to access a government disability pension.

Ingrid began helping me in 2007. She went to work and began making appointments and finding out where my medical transcripts were located. Having been homeless most of the past 18 years, at least for the winter portion of the year, I did not remember all the places I had received medical treatment, surgery or just the physical therapy required to correctly diagnose my neurological disorder. The muscular and structure damage I’d created by making the left hand do the lion’s share of the manual labour since 1978.  Pushing wheelbarrows, shovels and steering wheels had damaged what was left of my neck, shoulder and left arm muscles. I could not work. I had no money. I was homeless. I was in my fifties. Can you imagine the fear and hopelessness I felt?

That Ingrid was working on helping me get a better life was a HUGE help. Those dreams kept me focussed on the possibilities and not the worst result. That was when she introduced me to Dr. Martin, a rheumatology specialist  working with CUPS to address the many joint related injuries experienced by many of CUPS clients. Today, most of the homeless population is in their 40’s or older. Many had been hurt at work but were caught up in the Workman’s Compensation time consuming bottleneck. I was just one of many damaged older men who are homeless.

After an introduction by Ingrid and talking to Dr. Martin during his examination of my neck, shoulders and arm, he prescribed a period of non-homelessness. He said, and I quote: “We’re getting you off the streets!” It did not take long because CUPS stepped up with their “Rapid Exit” program and found me housing within two weeks. That was in 2008 and I have only been homeless for 2 weeks in the past 7 years.

As of October 14, I am 62 years old now and I have lived another year past the “Homelessness Mortality Rate” of 47.8 years. Today I have a small warm studio-apartment and live on a small disability pension that barely covers food. I am not bitching, I am grateful; I always try to be…God helps me continuously by urging me to help myself…BUT I don’t believe I would have beaten that 47.8 year mortality rate statistic that has taken so many others. I am lucky…I know I am LUCKY because I am still alive, I still feel…I can still feel LOVE.

This is 2014, the year CUPS is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and I wanted you to KNOW how you’re donations, time and compassion have helped me and many more like me. Thank you, from my heart and God Bless You!

John Ronald Chega

Chega John

If you would like a copy of my book “Through the Eyes of a Homeless Man” just email me and I’ll send you an electronic copy or a printable PDF file.


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