Agency, Autonomy, and Access: A Disabled Priest Reflects on Solidarity with Homeless Communities
Reverend Matt Arguin in conversation with Julia Watts Belser
July 1, 2022
Rev. Matt Arguin (he/him) serves as a priest in the Diocese of Huron in the Anglican Church of Canada. As a full-time wheelchair user, he has a special interest in theology and disability. His vocation has included working with youth, running a dedicated street outreach to poor and vulnerable communities in London, Ontario, and serving as associate priest for the Regional Ministry between the Church of St. Jude and St. Alban the Martyr. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he joined the staff of the Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness, now named Wish to Be Home (WISH), as a Full-Time Support Worker for people who have recently experienced homelessness.
Julia: Can you tell us more about how your own experience as a priest and as a disabled person shapes the way you interact with people on the street?
Matt: There is a lot of hostility and mistrust between faith communities and with the homeless population. There’s been a history of abuse and neglect. And homelessness is associated with trauma. It doesn’t just appear out of thin air.
One of the things that I was really cognizant of when I was wearing my clerical shirt and collar while doing street ministry, was that for some, the collar was an invitation and a good symbol. And for others, it was a trigger and a symbol of things that caused pain.
I started to realize that it wasn’t always appropriate for me to wear the shirt and collar 24/7. Sometimes, it’s actually better to show up in secular clothing.
Julia: That’s a really significant shift.
Matt: Wearing the collar is considered the appropriate uniform in my denomination. Letting that go was a huge learning edge for me as I recognized the different reactions from the folks I was working with and the effects that clerical uniform can have on those I support. I went from wearing a collar seven days a week to only two.
These questions have become even more significant in Canada, as we reflect on the violence that happened at Indigenous residential schools, [which were established and run by the government and by Christian churches]. In May 2021, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at Canada’s largest residential school, and ever since then, the number of unmarked graves discovered at other schools has just kept growing and growing and growing.¹
We do have Indigenous peoples on-site at WISH, and the Anglicans did run residential schools. So, knowing that I’m connected with that institution and that I’m working with people of Indigenous descent, I have to recognize that for some, it’s a difficult part of who I am. The last of the residential schools here closed in 1993, so it’s not a distant memory. It’s something that’s very, very present.
Julia: How did you respond?
Matt: When the news first broke, there was a movement in my denomination to stop wearing the clerical collar. You’d wear the black shirt, but you wouldn’t wear the plastic tab that goes across your neck. You’re recognizing that until there’s true reconciliation, we can’t represent the church accurately.
It took me a while to get there. For many people, the collar is a symbol of hope, of connection, of caring, and I definitely had that in my street ministry. But as you read more about the residential schools, as you see the pictures, and hear the stories, you’re like damn. It hits you. Through that process of reflection, I eventually joined the no-collar movement.
Julia: As a wheelchair user, though, I imagine that being visibly recognizable as a priest is both really important and potentially quite subversive.
Matt: First and most important, representation matters. Having somebody that is disabled, somebody who uses a wheelchair, with that symbol of authority is powerful. People don’t often think of disabled people as being employable. Sure, you can volunteer, but being in leadership?
So you combine that symbol and that identity [as a priest] with a wheelchair, and then, all of a sudden, people do a double-take. Like, “what the hell do we do with this?”
Julia: How have you navigated that in your own work as a priest?
Matt: My experience with parish ministry has always been that the priest is expected to do all things. St. Paul says that he was all things to all people and, unfortunately, that statement from scripture has been applied to ministry for a long, long time. Even though in seminary, we’re taught that “No, you can’t do everything,” trying to communicate that to parishes doesn’t always work. Some parishes are really good at integrating teamwork, but I’ve definitely been in parishes where there is a “Father knows best” kind of deal.
As a wheelchair user in “church land,” I would say my biggest hurdle, especially when I started, was getting over the infantilization of the priest in the wheelchair. The congregation was being very respectful, but they also wanted to be super helpful. And that’s good and you want to encourage that kind of compassion, but you also want to assert that yes, you’re a grown-ass man, and you can do the job.
One of the reasons it was a challenge for me to be ordained was that my bishop didn’t know where he was going to put me. We ended up creating a street ministry reaching out to the community around the Parish, which was low-income. And it became clear that this was work I could do, something concrete.
As a wheelchair user, there is some vulnerability there. On the street, there’s a recognition that this person in a wheelchair does not have all the advantages, does not have access to all the power structures, even though they’re wearing the shirt and collar. I think that in itself was a big eye-opener for me. Because I realized the wheelchair can be a tool for ministry. It doesn’t have to be a barrier.
Julia: Since December 2020, you’ve been working with the Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness, now known as WISH to be Home.² The program provides support, shelter, and community for people who have previously been houseless. But as crucial as a roof is, I know there’s a lot more to your work than just providing shelter.
Matt: It’s giving the residents access to the things that they need. We’re providing food, shelter, supports, and more–like keeping them on top of appointments. We do things like wake-up calls if we know that they have to go to the doctor’s office or if they need to go to social services. We provide taxi vouchers back and forth for medical appointments. We have consent forms on their behalf, to talk to their social workers or to their different care providers. A lot of the time we’re on the phone back and forth, with people in different organizations addressing various issues.
In Ontario, for example, you can’t actually qualify for geared income housing [housing when the rent is based on a person’s income] unless you have some ID.
Julia: Oh, that’s really perverse! For many folks who’re living on the streets, that’s a really significant barrier.
Matt: Right, so we have somebody that comes in from the city once a week to do an ID clinic and to help them get their health card, help them get their birth certificate, all those sorts of things that they need in order to access housing.
Julia: And after they get ID? What happens then?
Matt: Right now, there’s a 200-person waiting list, which amounts to about three years in terms of waiting time.
Julia: That’s such an intense experience of marginalization. Can you tell us more about how WISH is responding to this kind of structural violence? How does WISH grapple with questions about access, for you and for residents?
Matt: “Ease of access” is a core part of the WISH mission statement. That means ease of access to food, clothing, and other essential needs and services, but also things like harm reduction gear. WISH has always been committed to being a safe-consumption site. That’s a part of what we mean by access.
Julia: What about questions of physical access, in terms of access to the space?
Matt: In Ontario, we have a provincial standard through legislation that’s called the AODA, which is the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. I had the privilege of being part of the planning team before the shelters actually went up. There was an insistence right from the get-go that, at least for the common areas, there has to be some level of accessibility.
The two site managers that are in charge of the project as overseers, as well as the executive director, were very receptive to my feedback. Actually, when I went to go for the training session, we were supposed to go on-site, and I got a phone call saying that the ramp wasn’t built yet. So I asked my site manager, “Do you want me to call city hall? Do you want me to have those conversations?” and he said, “No, I’ll be the one to take care of that.” It was nice not to have to do that heavy lifting.
For the residents, too, access questions matter. For example, we do have a resident who is substantially Deaf, so one of the things that they had to do was install a doorbell with a visual cue.
But there are a bunch of places in the facility that just aren’t accessible to me. The trailers are individual units and are designed so we don’t go in unless we’re invited, because that’s someone’s home. So, these kinds of physical barriers just don’t make “doing rounds” a practical part of the job for me. My other three team members take care of that on a rotation. My job is to be the note taker and incident report writer. That’s been helpful for the whole team because those who are involved in the incident or in the situations don’t have to worry about having to remember all the details.
Julia: Can you offer some insight into the ways the pandemic has had an impact on your work and the residents at WISH?
Matt: I don’t think the project would have started at all, had it not been for COVID-19 because the city was under pressure. A bunch of different organizations were saying, “What are you going to do about pandemic response?”
Initially, the response was to set up space in hotel rooms, but obviously even in hotels, capacity is limited when you have to separate everybody appropriately.
The big impetus was that winter was approaching. We had pop-up communities living in tents by the riverbank and you can’t have people living by the water when you get below freezing.
That was the main thing. We had these communities living in close proximity to each other, and they were both at risk of exposure to cold weather and to COVID-19.
Julia: So the pandemic catalyzed that sense of urgency in a way that an ordinary winter wouldn’t. What’s your sense of how residents were thinking about the pandemic?
Matt: I don’t know how pressing a question Covid-19 is to the residents. When you’re already just trying to survive, pandemic is kind of at the bottom of the list.
I imagine that for a lot of homeless communities, much of the public health guidance we’ve received during the pandemic feels impossible. You have to have shelter and funds to be able to quarantine, to keep distance, or to stock your pantry. There are so many assumptions here, about class and access to resources.
It also begs the question, “What does it mean to be disabled?” If we’re thinking about the social model of disability, then is the lack of access to those resources creating some kind of a disability? Having all those barriers in front of you in terms of housing, access to healthcare, access to goods and services?
If you don’t have a mask, you can’t enter a store. And where are you going to get a mask when you’re living on the street?
So even if you want to go to the store and even if you have some change in your pocket to grab some food, would you be able to?
I think it’s worth asking, “At what point is addiction considered a disability? What points of contact are there between those two realities?” There’s a lot of social stigma attached to addiction, a lot of barriers to government programs, and all kinds of access needs.
If you have an understanding of disability, it makes the work with the residents a lot easier. It’s not about them making bad choices, it’s about them having to accommodate their reality.
Julia: One of the things that really interests me about WISH is that you always strive to recognize the agency and autonomy of your residents. Can you tell us more about that?
Matt: I would say, to add to your question, we must recognize that those who are homeless are already forming communities. They already have those relationships in place. So to give you an example, the folks who became residents at our first shelter had mostly already been living together on the riverbank for about three weeks prior to the shelter opening. They already knew each other. They had already been living together, using together, and helping each other out.
Without breaking confidentiality, I can tell you that in the last week we prevented three overdoses with naloxone. It was residents who alerted us to what was going on. So again, the residents are showing care for one another, lifting each other up, and making sure that they’re safe.
For me, it’s been really interesting to recognize that even though there is often underlying trauma associated with homelessness, even though there is often a desire to escape those circumstances — there’s also a fair amount of pride, a fair sense of community, and a sense of self-resourcefulness.
Julia: It’s so important to center the power and resourcefulness of the residents. How does that get built into the structure of WISH?
Matt: One of the core tenets of WISH is that it’s a resident-led program, so policies about safe use, activities in the common area – those are all decided by the residents. If there’s anything that they want or don’t want on the site, they have a residents’ meeting once a week where they can bring those concerns to the fore.
Julia: WISH is built so intentionally around the idea of community, but I’m wondering if there are community aspects that have popped up organically as well?
Matt: Every day, we get three meals delivered, and every day, the lunches come with either a banana, an apple, or an orange. Well, you get sixty apples, oranges, or bananas delivered to you every day. Pretty soon, the question becomes, “What are we going to do with all these bananas?” Over the course of the time I’ve been there, residents have used the leftover produce to create applesauce, apple crumble, banana bread — and that becomes a community-building activity.
I will say, an important dimension is that it’s not all kumbaya. There are community members that do not get along. You have to do conflict resolution, you have to create space between them when it’s needed. It’s not always smooth sailing. You have to be aware that when you have a community you’re gonna have people that get along and people that don’t get along.
Julia: Thank you so much for such a thoughtful answer. I’d love to have you reflect on some of the power dynamics between residents and staff, because I imagine that’s also a really significant element of community life.
Matt: We call our staff paid community members. One of the interesting things about being a paid community member is that we hold the power. We have the keys to the storage closet, so if residents need socks or clothing, we’re the ones that have to go and grab it. So WISH is not totally devoid of power structures, even when we’re trying to be as accessible as possible.
We have food dropped off every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you have people that take two or three meals out of the bag. Now, do you enforce it and say they can only take one? Or do you let them take all three? There’s a power dynamic there because you’re the one who can enforce it or not.
But I’ve also noticed that while we as paid community members are the ones that are paid to do the cleaning, the paperwork, and the day-to-day stuff, residents are starting to help out with cleaning the tables, sweeping the floors, doing random repairs around the site.
Julia: That’s a really powerful testament to residents’ investment in this community. How do you envision WISH’s work leading to a more equitable future?
Matt: You’re not gonna have any lasting long-term solutions unless you have a team. Right now, we’re working in coalition with at least 20 organizations. Without that sense of cooperation, the project wouldn’t have come together, and we wouldn’t have been able to put pressure on the city to respond.
Going forward, one of the things we want to highlight is that we have residents taking an investment in this whole project. If we get funded for a longer term, it would be interesting to see how that unfolds. What shape will the community take? What other kinds of emotional and social investment would actually happen?
Ultimately, we’re striving to create something better, where people are not just surviving, they’re actually starting to thrive.
¹ For more information, please see: ‘Cultural Genocide’: The Shameful History of Canada’s Residential Schools
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“Agency, Autonomy, and Access: A Disabled Priest Reflects on Solidarity with Homeless Communities – Reverend Matt Arguin in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. July 1, 2022.
Curated and edited by Julia Jackson and Julia Watts Belser
Photo Provided by Matt Arguin
Image Description: Matt Arguin at a WISH site, wearing a face-mask and a Superman face-shield that he received as a gift from one of the residents