Calgary Herald - - CITY - ERIC VOLMERS

A day af­ter Les H. de­cided to give the Mus­tard Seed a chance, he walked into the of­fice of Deb Run­nalls to of­fer a sym­bolic, if alarm­ing, ges­ture. It was a pledge of sorts that he was ready to turn his life around.

“I put an 11-inch blade on her desk,” says Les, who asked that his last name not be used. “I walked into her of­fice and gave her my knife. I al­ways car­ried a knife on the street for years. I told her I was done.”

It was a pow­er­ful ges­ture, al­though per­haps not en­tirely unique for Run­nalls. As Mus­tard Seed’s di­rec­tor of hous­ing, she of­ten col­lected knives and other weapons from po­ten­tial clients at the front door to give to po­lice, who would pick them up once a month. (“I had one guy bring in these great big gar­den shears,” she re­ports.)

Still, it marked the be­gin­ning of a long, if oc­ca­sion­ally rocky, jour­ney Les has had with Mus­tard Seed, a Christian-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enc­ing poverty and home­less­ness.

Les reck­ons he vis­ited Mus­tard Seed eight times be­fore de­cid­ing it was for him. Af­ter serv­ing six years in prison for a string of armed rob­beries, Les spent two or three years liv­ing in ho­tel rooms and on other’s peo­ple’s couches in Cal­gary. A friend kept sug­gest­ing he give Mus­tard Seed a try. Les would walk in and then walk right out again.

“For one thing, I thought they would beat you over the head with a Bi­ble when you walked in the door,” he says. “I’m not a Bi­ble per­son. That was one thing. An­other thing was that I didn’t want to be la­belled as home­less, a street per­son. I used to look down on them at one time, peo­ple bum­ming change. I’d tell them to get a job even though I was out sell­ing dope or do­ing some­thing il­le­gal my­self. It was just to­tally dif­fer­ent from prison.”

But when Les met Run­nalls “some­thing just clicked.” While the 56-year-old ad­mits he was still strug­gling with a heroin ad­dic­tion at the time, he moved into a com­mu­nal, af­ford­able hous­ing unit over­seen by Mus­tard Seed in 2007. It hasn’t al­ways been smooth sail­ing. He says Run­nalls has kicked him out twice “for fight­ing and sell­ing weed.”

“I loved her for it be­cause I de­served it both times,” he says. “So yeah, I just seen a place where I was pretty sure I could get some help. I’ve never been big on ask­ing for help. I pretty well tried to do ev­ery­thing the wrong way my­self since I was a kid. So I told her I’d give it a month.”

That was nearly a decade ago and Les has been in­volved with the Mus­tard Seed, off and on, ever since. A heroin ad­dict since he was 15, Les suc­cess­fully com­pleted a pro­gram at the Si­mon House Re­cov­ery Cen­tre and hasn’t used for four years. Six­teen months ago, he moved into his own apart­ment at the 1010 Cen­tre, the Mus­tard Seed’s af­ford­able hous­ing com­plex that opened in 2014.

In 2010, Les lost a kid­ney to cancer. He is di­a­betic, has Crohn’s dis­ease and is wait­ing for knee surgery. So the Mus­tard Seed’s Well­ness Cen­tre, which opened last year and op­er­ates on the ground floor of the 1010 Cen­tre, is a con­ve­nient ad­di­tion to his life.

The Mus­tard Seed is one of 12 agen­cies that will ben­e­fit from this year’s Cal­gary Her­ald Christ­mas Fund. The money it re­ceives will go to­ward hir­ing a full-time nurse for the Well­ness Cen­tre. The cen­tre has three ad­vo­cates — who help clients with get­ting proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, fi­nances, hous­ing, em­ploy­ment, ac­cess­ing the food bank and other re­fer­rals. There is also an oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist, an ad­dic­tions coun­sel­lor and a psy­chol­o­gist. It part­ners with other agen­cies such as CUPS, which pro­vides doc­tors two half-days a week to the cen­tre. Nurs­ing and so­cial work stu­dents and grad­u­ate-level stu­dents do­ing their eight-month coun­selling practicums serve the cen­tre. Chi­ro­prac­tors, phys­io­ther­a­pists and mas­sage ther­a­pists vol­un­teer their time as well. But a nurse is nec­es­sary to take on some of the work­load, says Boris Le­sar, the cen­tre’s psy­chol­o­gist and clin­i­cal di­rec­tor.

“We have a lot of clients with com­plex phys­i­cal and men­tal health needs,” he says. “There’s a sig­nif­i­cant need for pro­vid­ing sup­ports for those clients, here in this build­ing and in the com­mu­nity as well. That po­si­tion is go­ing to be cru­cial to re­lieve some of the work that our doc­tors are do­ing. They are swamped.”

Along with the hous­ing units and Well­ness Cen­tre, Mus­tard Seed also op­er­ates its Foothills Emer­gency Shel­ter, which has ca­pac­ity for 370 adults.

While Les has never used the shel­ter him­self, he does visit friends there. He also vol­un­teers his time at the Seed’s food bank and will soon start work­ing in ship­ping and re­ceiv­ing for the or­ga­ni­za­tion. He also tells his story as part of the Mus­tard Seed’s De­moCrew, where youth come to spend five days work­ing and learn­ing about home­less­ness, poverty and so­cial jus­tice is­sues.

While he hopes to get his own place by June, he wants to con­tinue vol­un­teer­ing for Mus­tard Seed. Les’s mother died when he was only 11 months old, which started a life of dis­trust as he found him­self trapped and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in group homes, foster homes, or­phan­ages and fi­nally prison.

“I haven’t had my own place in 30-some years,” he says. “I’m not so sure I’ll make it. I just think I’m more ready. But when I do move out, I still need to come here. I need to do the De­moCrew. I can’t just go and never come back here. I will have to or else it won’t work.”

The Cal­gary Her­ald Christ­mas Fund sup­ports 12 lo­cal agen­cies ad­dress­ing so­cial is­sues of poverty, hunger, home­less­ness, iso­la­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and vi­o­lence. All pro­ceeds raised from do­na­tions go to these or­ga­ni­za­tions.


Deb Run­nalls, Mus­tard Seed di­rec­tor of hous­ing, right, and client Les H. share smiles. Les es­ti­mates he vis­ited Mus­tard Seed eight times be­fore com­mit­ting. When he met Run­nalls, “some­thing just clicked.”

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