What I have learned in working with the PHS…


I have worked for the portland hotel society for 10 years, and it has been an honour. It is not a job for everyone. In a days work I am a key master; a toilet un-clogger, a peace keeper, a paramedic caller, a listener, a door buzzer, a mop handler.  I have escorted folks to the hospital, and sat with them to keep them from bolting.  I have helped fill out paperwork for new IDs, new glasses, bus passes, gym passes and other bureaucratic BS.  I have scrubbed down hallways and baseboards and wondered what the walls have heard. As a casual employee, I have worked at Insite, the Mobile Needle Exchange, the Rainier, the Sunrise, the Washington Outreach, the Housing Support, the Pennsylvania Supported Suits, for the Community Transition Care Team, the Portland Hotel, the Regal, Pigeon Park Savings… and more. In working for the PHS, I have found that the PHS works for me. When I show up for a shift, I can fully be my creative self, and do not need to put on a mask and sell anything.  I have the ability to create a flexible work schedule which I believe saves me from the slippery slopes of depression. I happen to be a person that does not fit into a neat box of what it means to work a 9 – 5 job. In this community of the DTES, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many interesting characters and have found friends and allies in my co-workers and in the residents of whom we support. There are so many gems in this community; there is so much light in what many people perceive to be the darkness.  Working for the Portland Hotel has given me some of my life’s greatest gifts.

Here are some of the life-lessons I have learned over the last 10 years.

1.  Not everyone has the ability to “manifest their bliss”.  Some people cannot just “get a job”.  People with mental distress are not criminals.  Troubled minds can come from a biological imbalance, a traumatic experience, or simply not fitting in to societies standards.  Humans are complex and diverse, and we are born worthy of love and respect.

 2.  Beyond exterior physical appearance, beyond clothing, and beyond status; there is a human being inside every pair of eyes I meet.  Working for the PHS has taught me an ability, if not a practice of truly seeing the spirit of a human.  We are encouraged to meet people where they are at.  We are not here to change anyone, but to show up and be present.  I find that this gift shows up on both ends of the scale in my ability to be grounded, and give presence to a spirit; weather it be in a politician, a child, or a homeless person.

3.  Calm-passion.  Trust comes in keeping calm.  No matter in what state a person comes to me, weather in rage, in tears, in distress, in chaos, grief, agony, anguish; If I can remain calm then there is an even ground for us to stand on.  This can be challenging when someone tells me to “open the #$%% door you F#$#$& C#$#!!”.. or, confides in me a story of rape or child abuse that has me wanting to cry my eyes out.  Keeping calm is a practice that feeds into the safety of the buildings we support.

4.  Self care.  To remain balanced in life; I need to intentionally release my experiences of the day.  In a day, I can witness and listen to a lot of sadness.  A lot of loss, unfairness and misunderstanding.  The days that I find true connection with people, are the days that I FEEL the most.  I leave “work” with such a strong desire to DO more, I tell these stories I hear into the wind as I ride my  bicycle home.  I dance them out,  I push them into the earth with my hands while doing Yoga.  I have met so many warriors, in particular the woman of the DTES.  I marvel at the miracle strength of spirit I have seen.

(Here are some “pictures” I drew January 2004, that helped me process working nights at the Washington Needle exchange. These are from my journal at the time, and where drawn strictly for the process and have only ever been shared with close friends. The “me” figure has a front and back and  is on a string like a little puppet, that can interact with these two pages.)


5.  How to stay soft while being tough.  When I say soft; I mean sensitive.  I LOVE to notice the subtleties in life.  I appreciate sensual experiences and the wide variety of emotions I can feel as they move through me.  A lot of the time, our work environment can be hostile; crude; rude, down and dirty.  It can be gritty to say the least, and I have found that the grit can be used to clean.  Instead of using all my energy to block that which affronts my being; I have learned to let it pass through me.  As with emotions, that which passes through me IS NOT me; I let them pass, and I try to use any abrasiveness to cleanse and keep me present.

6.  Assertiveness.  I came to work for the PHS as a young naive small town girl.  Non-judgmental maybe, but also perhaps too trusting.  In my first month or so, I gave away a valuable piece of equipment to a resident who told me it was his.  He was a tattoo artist; of course this auto-clave was his!  I can’t believe I didn’t get fired for that.  One of the biggest challenges for me in starting this job, was the nightly room-checks.  Every evening we are to go around the building and check in on every resident who hasn’t been seen that day.  If they do not answer our knock, we are to use our key to go in and make sure that they are OK, and indeed not home, and not in need of help.  What started out as a timid knock, and meek mumbling of ” um, its the deskgirl; um, just checking to see if you are ok” soon became a calm and clear request; “Hey! It’s Candice doing a room-check. Everything alright tonight?”.

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