Monday, February 7, 2011


Homeless. Bum. Hobo. Street person. Drifter. Beggar. Pauper. Vagabond. None contributing zero.

Society has a lot of names for people who don't have a home. I don't like most of them (I cringe every time a friend refers to a street person as anything that allows them to forget about the person part. Especially the term "bum". Hate it.).

I have had the opportunity to learn a bit about the homeless situation in Toronto and Montreal and have met a number of people who live on the streets in both cities. Their stories never cease to amaze me. Many of them are just people who fell upon difficult times and simply didn't have a community to provide support. One was a prof at U of T before his wife died suddenly and he couldn't handle the loss of his lifetime partner. Two had been Master students at U of T before spiraling out of control under the pressure to perform.

The idea that one would have to go to one of Canada's big cities in order to witness the problem of homelessness is obviously false. The problem exists in Kitchener-Waterloo - just drive down King Street and you'll see them. The "two dollar guy" is particularly well known. There's Kenny White - he loves to write and will share all about his family if you give him the opportunity to. There's the guy who sits between Coffee Culture and Cafe 1842 and will ask you for change every time you walk past (even if you walk past three times within five minutes)...I really should know his name by now. I could go on.

I live on the south end of King Street in Kitchener and pass by a number of people living on the street each time I bike to/from Waterloo. My roomie (and fellow BWC team member) volunteers at a local soup kitchen every day and at Out Of The Cold once a week. She knows most of the people we bike past from one of the two programs.

Well, last night took a turn of events neither J or I expected though somehow I could have predicted it (and kind of did...more on that later). Around 11pm we heard a man yelling very clearly upset and very drunk. Our first thought was that it was the couple in the main floor apartment. It sounded like he had been drinking too much (it was Super Bowl Sunday after all) and was hitting his girlfriend. I was shocked since I had never heard them fight before and asked J if she had ever heard him yell at her like this before - she hadn't (thankfully).

We listened a little closer as the yelling crescendoed. We quickly realized it wasn't them at all. It was a homeless man banging on our basement door (accessed only from outside) trying to get in. We could tell by the yelling that whoever it was was very angry and felt entitled to a night's stay in our basement. After letting the other tenants know what was going on we all prepared to peak outside to see what was up. I was really rather nervous about this because he was so angry I was afraid he'd try to run at us or something. J peaked around the corner and didn't see anyone so I peaked out a bit further and still didn't see anyone. It didn't make sense - we could still hear him.

It occurred to us that this mystery man was actually already in our basement! Why he was yelling I don't know.

The four of us (J, the couple from down stairs and I) snuck through the knee-deep snow to the basement door on the side of the house. We slowly opened it and found him sitting on the steps immediately inside the door. Despite knowing most of the homeless in the area, J had never seen him before. All completely shocked we didn't really know what to say. What DO you say to a homeless man who has somehow found his way into your basement on a cold winter night?

Questions were flying around. Who are you? What are you doing in here? How did you get in here?

The answers were a little less than coherent. Something along the lines of, "It's okay, I paid him...I paid him. He let me in."

"Who let you in?? Who did you pay?"

"No really, it's okay. I won't hurt anything or make any trouble. Please let me stay here. It's so cold out and I don't have anywhere to go. I'll be okay. Just please let me stay here!" All spoken a little bit (or a lot) slurred and rather slowly. My heart couldn't help but break for him.

"Sir, the only reason we realized you were in here was because you were making noise and trouble. We could hear you all the way on the second floor."

After exhausting our options -he was too intoxicated to go to Out Of The Cold or any other shelter and we certainly didn't feel safe having him in the basement in general but especially considering how drunk he was (with another half bottle of something in his hand)- I resorted to calling the police. We really didn't want to. In fact, I walked out to the sidewalk before calling because I knew J wouldn't want me to involve the police. We really just didn't want them to fine him.

The police arrived quite a while later and found him in the very back corner of the basement. They said it looked like he had been squatting there for a while. We learned his name is Dave.

There's a bit more to this story. I've been half-joking for the past 6-8 weeks that someone was living down there. I was never serious enough about it to search the whole basement but my intuition knew. I've lived here for two years and one night about two months ago I got home and noticed the basement light on. Being someone who tries to conserve energy I wanted to turn it off. You know that feeling when you're a little kid and you run up the basement stairs because you're afraid *something* might get you even though you know nothing is there? That's the same feeling I had that day - I was afraid to go in because I just knew someone was down there. I dismissed my fear because I "knew" nobody was really down there...but I couldn't shake it. I was nervous to open the door and turn out the light even though the switch is right inside. I had never had this feeling with this basement before. From then until now, every time I came home at night the light was on and I wondered.

So where do we go from here? The police took him to detox and then he'll just be out there again, living on the streets of our city. He has no community to support and lift him up in this difficult time. Meanwhile, we have an empty room with a mattress and blankets made available to strangers regularly Granted, they're couch surfers who quickly become friends but they are strangers to begin none-the-less.

I can't help but wonder, "Why not invite him to stay here?"

My logic answers, "Because he has a problem with alcohol and anger and so it wouldn't be safe".

"Since when do I life a safe life though?" I challenge back. "I want to move to one of the most heated conflict areas in the world (this week in particular my heart has been aching to go back to Jerusalem). I lived through a rocket attack in Israel/Egypt last summer (okay so I didn't even realize it was going on at the time...but I heard it and dismissed it for something not dangerous :p ). I'm bravely biking across Canada in the face of a lot of opposition (including from our current government) and expect to face loads of challenging situations. None of this is really all that safe by society's standards."

Logic interrupts, not missing a beat: "Safe and street smart are two different things."

I invite your thoughts on this.

Want to DO something?
Consider joining your family and friends February 26th in the Coldest Night of the Year, a 10km fundraising walk in support of the hungry, homeless and hurting. Taking place in Toronto & Waterloo.

Google "homeless blog" or other things along those lines and you'll find loads of interesting reading material.

Here are some services provided in our area:
Food Bank Of Waterloo Region
House of Friendship - Men's Hostel
Marys Place - Women's Hostel
Supportive Housing of Waterloo
Homelessness And Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG)
Supportive Housing Of Waterloo
Homelessness in Waterloo Region

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! A friend sent me a link to your blog, because she knows that I would like to know more about homelessness. I can share with you my story. One night last November, my boyfriend went out to get some bread and milk. He was gone for like 45 minutes even thought he store is just accross the street. I was worried, but when he got back told me a story. He met a woman on the street right next to the store. She was homeless and she asked him for change. He started talking to her and it turned out that she left her husband, because he was abusive. Her family did not know she was homeless, because she was ashamed about it. She was homeless for 3 weeks. She said she was affraid to stay in shelters so she was spending her nights walking around. She was looking for a job, but without a phone she could not receive phone calls. She was determined to make it, though. My boyfriend gave her $100 and his phone number to call us if she needed help.
    In silence we both realised that even $100 would not do it for her. We brainstormed options. Should we take her in for a few nights to our condo? We don't know her. Maybe she's a maniac, maybe she will rob us. Maybe she wil kill us when we're sleeping. We felt completely powerless in this situation. How do you help a stranger? How do you trust a stranger? We called some motels in the area and asked for rates, we decided to rent a room for her for a few nights so that she can rest and perhaps get her life together. We drove around, but she was gone. She never called us. There is a lot of stereotyping and fear around homeless people. How do we break that down? I am tired of walking past homeless persons like they did not exist. I want to help, but I have my own biases. How do I break them down?