I had an interesting experience last week that really affected me – so much so that I had to wait almost a week to write about it. Every Tuesday, I commute to Toronto to my teaching job at George Brown College. On my first day using public transit, I counted four homeless people in a three-block walk from Union Station to King Street. What bothered me more than the fact that they were homeless was the way that the people of Toronto, who appear so desensitized to the homelessness issue in their city, literally stepped over or around these people as they lay, sat, or stood on the sidewalks. It bothered me. A lot.
It made me think of the time a young lady approached me in the middle of winter – she was freezing cold, underdressed for the weather and she was literally pleading with me to give her something to eat. I had no money or else I would have given her some – it wasn’t until I got to my destination that I realized I had a granola bar in my purse and I could have shared that with her.
It is hard for many of us to consider parting with our money when it comes to homeless people because there is always the fear that they will use the money for drugs or alcohol, and so I give money sparingly, and not to everyone – and if I have food available, I offer that instead. Once I offered a man a granola bar because he said he was hungry, and he turned it down. Later that same day, I saw him strutting down the street with a Venti sized Starbucks cup in his hand. So I get it – some folk are “choosy beggars”.
So, after my first few weeks of commuting by bus I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to Walmart and bought 6 boxes of granola bars ($1.50 each) I split the boxes up and did up eight sandwich bags with two granola bars each and figured that would be enough for my walk from Union in the morning, and then for my walk to the Bay St. Terminal in the afternoon. Loaded up with food, I headed off to Toronto.
The first lady I encounter every Tuesday morning, appears to be native. She sleeps at the corner of York and Wellington and when I am passing she is usually either still asleep or just waking up. She is surrounded by suitcases and bags – all her worldly goods. She is so bundled up in sleeping bags and clothes that you can hardly see her face. I handed her a bag of granola bars as I walked by. Before I was across the street, she was voraciously digging into a cereal bar. This week, I’ll give her four bars instead of two.
The next gentleman stands on the other side of the street in front of one of the TD Bank buildings on York. He stands soldier straight, with one hand out, staring straight ahead. He speaks to no one. He makes eye contact with no one. Nobody seems to notice him. He is just another fixture on the street. I handed him a baggie with two granola bars in it, and kept on walking. Next thing I knew, I heard him calling out to me, “Ma’am, please… I can’t accept these. But I’d like to tell you why.”
I had to turn around. I went back and he graciously handed them back to me. He said, “Thank you very much, but I never accept food. I’m too afraid.” I asked him what he meant, and this is what he told me. “I am afraid of poison, or drugs, or razors, or other things that could hurt me,” he said. “There are a lot of people who hate the homeless and they will put things in the food and then hand it out. That’s why even if it is pre-packaged like this, I can’t take the chance.”
My heart broke just a little more. I asked him what he needs. Looking at him a little closely, I realized that he was wearing a newer fleece hoodie, and warm mittens. His bag was neatly but obviously carefully packed. He didn’t smell; his eyes were bright and alert now that he was engaged with another human being. He spoke articulately, and passionately about his situation. What I know about him is this: His name is George. He comes from a small town where you could trust everyone. But in the city of Toronto, not everyone can be trusted, and so he only asks for money. If he gets enough money, he spends it wisely by going to the Salvation Army Store or other thrift shops where he can buy quality items of clothing for very little. He would be able to get everything he needs to survive on the streets for the winter – he wouldn’t freeze. He uses what other money he gets to eat cheaply – a bowl of soup at Tim Hortons, coffee, etc. As long as he got a little money, he wouldn’t starve.
“So – tell me George, what do you need?” I asked him again. His reply cut me straight to the heart. “A little money…” (I gave him $1.50 in loose change – it was all I had aside from bus fare). But then he said, “Sometimes we don’t even need money. Sometimes all we need is for someone to acknowledge us and to make eye contact and have a conversation.” It was all I could do to not break down right there in the street. I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “From now on, George, every Tuesday morning, I will stop and say hello. And if I have some loose change, it is yours.” He said Thanks. I went off to work. But I can’t lie. I was shaken all day. To my core.
I looked at my students differently. A lot of my “kids” are in dire straits. Some are homeless and it takes everything they have to get to school. Some of them are living in conditions that make academic excellence a near impossibility. Many of them come to school hungry. Some of them, without the right early intervention could end up like George. I suppose that is why I keep going back to GBC despite the distance – I love teaching in the Dual Credit and School Within a College programs, working with high school students to show them that a post-secondary education is not just a possibility – it could be a reality for them if they apply themselves. But they need help and support, and I don’t know if any school supports their disadvantaged students better than GBC.
Needless to say, I had enough granola and cereal bars left after my encounter with George that I shared some with the students who were clearly hungry and did not have money for snacks at break-time. What was left went to a young man inside the subway station with a sign indicating that he was new to Toronto and needed some help. Given George’s fear of tampered foods, I asked the young man if he would accept food instead of money. He gratefully accepted it and I wished him good luck. He looks to be only a few years older than my SWAC students. I don’t want any of mine to end up in his place.
Some people will say that giving money or food to the homeless perpetuates the problem. But if you’ve never been homeless, you don’t know what it is like. If you’ve never been so poor that you feared losing your home, you have no idea. Not every homeless person is an addict or a drunk. Not all of them are mentally ill. And only a small percentage of mentally ill people are actually dangerous. Some people just made poor financial decisions that ended badly. Some people were living paycheque to paycheque BEFORE their company decided to “right size” and eliminate jobs.
You won’t know their story unless you ask. And we must never forget that every homeless person is still a PERSON. And every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, even if life has handed them a raw deal, you and I have the power to return some of that respect to them. And if you are brave enough, it won’t even cost you a penny or a box of granola bars. Sometimes letting them know that you see them as a PERSON, deserving of acknowledgement and respect is enough.