Homelessness & Ignorance
It is a beautiful fall day and you and your colleague decide that you will go for a walk at lunchtime. The trees have just started to change color and you both comment on how beautiful it is this time of year before winter comes and ruins it. You are walking down the sidewalk and you notice a man up ahead. He is sitting on the ground on a piece of cardboard leaning against the wall of a local business. He is bundled up in a few coats and appears both cold and that he has been there for a while. He is an older man and you can see the long grey hair peeking out from under his woolen toque. Sitting out in front of him is a Tim Horton’s cup which you know he is using to collect some money. Your initial thought is “shit.” Your next thought is a debate with yourself whether you should cross the road so you do not have to walk past him. Yet, you are with your work colleague and you don’t want to look like an asshole, so you keep walking.
You both reach the man on the ground and you avoid eye contact. Your colleague says, “sorry I don’t have any money” and the man just smiles. “That’s okay,” he says, “you have yourself a good day now.” She says thank you and you both keep walking. Your colleague turns to you and says, “I wish I had money for him.” “Yeah” you respond, but that’s not what you feel. You think that he is probably dangerous and you were worried he may do something to you and your colleague. You noticed that he smelled of body odor and that made you uncomfortable. You think that this man needs to stop asking people like you for money and should just go get a job.
Well, here is the thing. He did not ask you for money. He did not say anything to you. He was just sitting there with a cup set out in front of him and it was your choice whether you decided to drop him a few coins. You do not know him. You do not know why he is homeless. And you do not know how he ended up there. No one gets up in the morning and decides to become homeless. And yet, in that 30 second interaction, you made a life’s worth of assumptions about him. Assumptions that not only harm that individual but makes it that much harder for anyone like him to get the help that they all deserve.
“It is not a crime to be homeless, but it is a crime not to help them.”– Mike A.A. Ryan
I spend all day working with individuals who are homeless and I have learned a lot. I will fully admit that before I took this job, I was like that woman. The man sitting on the sidewalk made me uncomfortable and although I would not have judged him in the same way she did, I was unsure how I should be interacting with him. I know better now. I know that every individual who is homeless has a story; a story that could have happened to any of us.
People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Job loss. Relationship breakdown or fleeing domestic violence. Physical injury. Straight up cannot afford rent. And yes, a lot of them have struggled with mental health and addictions. But here is the thing. ALL OF THEM and I mean every person has some form of trauma leading them to where they are at. Without a home. Those of us that have not found themselves in this situation have no idea what that is like, but we may have some understanding of any of these above issues. Some of us have struggled with mental health, whether is it is anxiety, depression or even PTSD. Some of us have lost a job and were unsure what we were going to do to pay next month’s bills. Some of us have lost a relationship leaving us having to move out of where we live and find somewhere new to go. And some of us even have addictions, to alcohol or drugs, but it has not led to you losing your home. Now, for those of us that may have had one, or all those things happen to us, we have something that the individuals I work with do not, support.
We have support from family or friends who took us in when we broke up with that partner. We have loved ones who will lend us the money for a month or two until we can find another job. We have the means to access counselling services to deal with our mental health before it gets out of control. We have the ability to access unemployment in the short term while we search for work, and fortunately will most likely be able to find another job before we lose where we live. We have references and supports and an address that those employers are looking for. We have loved ones who can support us and help us navigate this life challenge that in the future we will look at as an unfortunate bump in the road that is our life.
Not everyone is that lucky. Not everyone has loved ones who can take them in or help them get back on their feet. A lot of them are running from those “loved” ones after years of abuse and would rather live on the street than with their family. Some of them have no other option but to steal a loaf of bread to have something to eat and now have a criminal record that stops them from finding employment. Some of them have never had a place of their own and cannot get a reference so that a landlord will let them move in. And some of them are too unwell, too downtrodden and too dismissed to feel confident or safe enough to ask for help when they need it. Then, your counter to these points will be to tell me that they are dangerous or a drain on the system because “we” are paying for them through their use of welfare.
Well, here is a few facts on that response. Being without a home does not translate to dangerous or lazy. If you were sleeping outside tomorrow, you would automatically change your whole personality to be violent and aggressive? No. Individuals on welfare in my province get $605 a month. $605 for everything they need. That is the equivalent to you getting your Tim Horton’s for breakfast a few times a week and a night out for supper and drinks with some friends. That is it. Now, most rooming houses are running in the $450 – $500 range so even if they are able to find a place, they are left with nothing. And rooming houses are dumps. I mean, actual health hazards and they have no tenant rights while staying in these locations because the government doesn’t consider them a real address. Consider that. Even if you are able to find a roof over your head, even if unsafe, you have ZERO rights. You are paying rent, you live there, and your landlord could kick you out tomorrow and there is not a damn thing you can do about it. And that happens A LOT.
Without an address, without a steady income and without supports, you are lost in a system that does not set you up for success. You cannot get a job without an address but you cannot get an address without a job. You cannot get an apartment without a landlord reference but you cannot get a landlord reference without an apartment. You cannot get mental health supports if you have no way to be contacted and you can’t get a phone without an address or income. In that $605 that “we” are paying for, you cannot even afford a phone. You cannot get to medical appointments because you have no transportation. You can take the bus, but can you afford the cost out of your minimal budget? You are absolutely screwed whichever way you look at it and you know that lady walking by you on her lunch break thinks you have created your own problem.
Now, in saying all of this, I am not naïve enough to think that I will change everyone’s opinion of people who are homeless. What I do hope to do however is just to get you to think. Think before you judge that guy sitting on the sidewalk or that job applicant that has the emergency shelter listed as her address right now. Consider your own fortune and that you are blessed that your loved ones can help you. And, if you do feel moved to help, be smart about it. Yes, you can buy that guy sitting on the sidewalk a sandwich or drop him a few coins. Yes, you can donate clothes or other things to your shelters at Christmas time and throughout the year. But if you want to do more, and have questions about how you can help, go to the professionals. Do not try to “help” on your own as this dismisses the reputable agencies already doing good work. They know what they are doing, and they can always offer real and truly helpful ways in which you can still give back.
What I would like most of all is for people to just consider. Consider that regardless of how that person ended up where they are; they are still a person. They are someone to someone and even if you completely disagree with their life and their choices, just BE KIND.
“She could be a Sarah, she could be an Emily, an Olivia, maybe Cassidy with the shaky hands on the cardboard sign and she’s looking at me. Bet she was somebody’s best friend, laughing back when she was somebody’s sister counting change at the lemonade stand.”– Tenille Townes (Somebody’s Daughter)