A couple months into my first year of Journalism-Print at Niagara College, our class was tasked with writing articles about any social issue that spoke to us.
For two and a half years before enrolling in that programme, I had been a bit of a nomad. I lived in several different apartments and homes (including a van!), in several different arrangements, with several different people. I literally lived out of the garbage bags that I kept my clothes in.
Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine that I ever existed with so little security, or structure and routine. But it was such an important phase of my life because it forced me to be fearless, resilient and resourceful. More importantly though, it allowed me to be exposed to many types of people, from many walks of life, and as a result rendered me incapable of judgement of people that I didn’t know.
I spent a good portion of my free time during these years on a park bench in the downtown core, with a pencil, a notebook and a pack of cigarettes. I could spend hours watching the people pass by – especially in the busyness of the summer.
I’d watch commuters hurry from one bus to another, lovers walk hand-in-hand, buskers play for quarters, and old men share old stories. Sometimes, people would sit beside me, and I’d have fantastic conversations with strangers, but most of the time I would just take it all in and write.
If you visit any place long enough, you get to become familiar with people that frequent the area. As the colder weather approached each year, the downtown core would become significantly more quiet. The only people that were constant fixtures there were the homeless.
Eventually, it would become too cold for me to sit on the benches for long stretches, so the only time I’d be downtown was on my way to or from work while I was waiting for the bus. I’d wait in long lines with people early in the morning and see the spaces that I occupied in the nice weather filled by people who had nowhere else to go.
I’d observe the daily ritual of men in tattered clothes hanging their heads as they’d ask every person in line for spare change; watch women dig through garbage bins for half-eaten doughnuts or a last sip of coffee.
I’d share bus rides with people who were forced to choose between spending their change on something to eat, or getting warm for the hour-long round trip of the #2 bus in the middle of a blizzard.
The amount of homelessness in my city shocked me. Every single day.
So when my first assignment in college was to write an article about a social issue that spoke to me, I had no trouble coming up with an idea.
I decided that I wanted to debunk the myth that the majority of people have about the homeless. I wanted people to know that most homeless people weren’t drunks; that they weren’t spending their money on alcohol; that they weren’t lazy.
Everybody has a story, and I wanted to be their voice.
I wasn’t altogether crazy, so to feel more secure I enlisted the help of my friend Jeff to spend the day with me. He also happened to be one of my roommates in the very first place I had lived after moving out of my parents’ house.
We set off fairly early on an unseasonably warm November Saturday morning and had no trouble finding people to interview. The first two men we met were probably approaching 60, and had us laughing so hard within minutes of meeting them. When I told them what I was trying to do, they were eager to share their stories and to introduce us to friends of theirs who were equally as willing.
I gathered as many stories as I could. Some of them did struggle with addiction; some of them had had tragic lives filled with unspeakable horrors; some had experienced loss so deep that they couldn’t come back from it; some of them had convinced themselves that they no longer wanted to be part of society.
We spent the afternoon walking all over the city, talking to homeless people, entering buildings that we would have never even approached otherwise and learning about the lack of services available to them. At one place, we met a pretty young guy who had been kicked out of his house for being gay. He had since acquired HIV and was a heroin addict.
As the evening approached, they took us to one last place. It was a seedy-looking building, with no name above the door. I think Jeff and I were both hesitant to enter, but we had ignored all sense of normalcy up until that point, so what was the point of starting then?
They wanted us to meet one of their friends. When we were introduced to this dark-haired man, Jeff and I both immediately recognized him from somewhere but couldn’t place it. We took the three men for something to eat and shared a few pitchers of beer with them.
The dark-haired man was particularly articulate, and had had quite a life. As he neared the end of his story, it occurred to Jeff exactly who he was.
Two years earlier, Jeff and I, and each of our significant others had sat across a desk from this man in his home in the suburbs. The four of us had relied on him, as Property Manager, to approve our application to live on his property, in the first home that I ever lived in when I moved out of my parents’ place.
In two short years, he had lost everything and was now sitting across the table from us telling us how he had got there.
Life has a way of taking your breath away.
And some stories stick with you forever.
I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to look at people with new eyes.
On the coldest of days over the years, I would think about the people I met that day. I often wondered how they were doing,
In the middle of one of the most frigid winters that I can ever recall, I think about the homeless more often than I have any other winter.
If you have a roof over your head, be grateful. It doesn’t matter where you’re living, as long as you have a place to call home. Love isn’t measured in square footage anyway, it’s measured in the hearts of the people who occupy the space.