Homeless and Needing your Time
I used to pass by the homeless, wondering what appropriate gesture I could make. Usually I reached in my pocket and gave them loose change or a little food if I had some. But my inner voice, that proverbial angel on my right shoulder, always wanted to do more.
One morning I met a friend for breakfast in Ottawa. He had spent some time on the streets before turning his life around, so I valued his opinions about homelessness. As our conversation turned casual, and when I felt comfortable, I asked what the right thing was to give a homeless person. He stared at me for a few seconds, and then, without hesitation, replied that the most precious thing I could give a homeless person was time. My heart sank, because then it seemed so obvious. I had certainly done more than those who just ignore the homeless, but I had never really interacted with a homeless person. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to; it just never dawned on me.
I like to give myself daily challenges, especially those that involve fighting the social isolation which technology has thrust on us. These challenges involve things that seem mundane but nonetheless are outside-my-comfort-zone, such as engaging in conversation on an elevator or speaking with strangers in public. Some people get uncomfortable with unanticipated discussion, but often, once they realize I mean them no harm, the conversation lightens and everyone leaves with a little more bounce in their step.
Interacting with a homeless person meant pushing my challenges to the next level. One brisk, fall day in Toronto I decided to walk to the train station rather than take a taxi. The walk was only about thirty minutes and my train to Ottawa didn’t leave for almost two hours, so I had plenty of time on my hands. When I got to Queen Street West I came across a homeless man lying on the sidewalk; it was easy to spot him amidst the backpacks, power suits, and clacking heels that characterized most of the street traffic. I felt a little anxious as I approached him – my challenge was upon me but I didn’t know what to do.
I turned my suitcase on its side about five feet away from him, sat down on it, and for about thirty seconds pondered the next step. I’ve always been open about discussing most subjects, even my own mental illness, but nonetheless there I sat, unsure of what to do. I saw a deli across the street and thought, “OK, if the conversation gets awkward or weird I can just skip straight to ‘Want a sandwich or something?’” With the work I’ve done in the mental health sphere, judgement also came into play; not judgement of him or his predicament, but thoughts about personal safety if he happened to be violent – an unlikely but still unsettling possibility. My mind gravitated to an assortment of situations about mental illness that I was socially programmed to think. When I saw that the man seemed to be sleeping, part of me thought about letting myself off the hook.
Then the Ottawa breakfast chat reverberated in my head and I decided to take the plunge. I gently tapped the man’s shoulder and asked if he was OK. At first he sat up and gruffly mumbled “What do you want?,” which made me second-guess my decision. But I persisted. I told him I was early for my train to Ottawa, saw him lying there, and thought I’d say hello. He raised his toque and looked at me, then replied, “Yeah, yeah, I’m doing OK.” I didn’t know what else to say. I asked what happened to him, why he was on the streets. He gave me a very brief explanation, and when he finished I recounted a conversation with a friend who had told me that shelters were sometimes violent places. I asked if that had been his experience. He replied that the meals were good but that he felt safer sleeping on the street.
The conversation lasted about ten minutes, and as it came to a close I gave him my business card and told him to follow up with me. I asked him if he had access to email and he replied that sometimes he used the computers at homeless shelters. He said he would be in touch. Before I left I remembered the deli and asked him if he wanted something to eat, using the pretext that I was going for a coffee already (untrue but I didn’t want him to feel bad, like I was going out of my way). He said “Sure,” so I went across the street, leaving my suitcase where it was. Somehow, even though I had just made a human connection with him, for a split second I still worried that he might run off with my suitcase. Thankfully my better half took over again. I told myself that the value of what was in the suitcase was far less than the value of the connection I had made, and the feeling of trust I had expressed by leaving it there. When I returned I gave him the sandwich and expressed that even though I wasn’t a social worker who could directly help him, I would be happy to stay in touch and hear how he was doing. He said sure, and we said goodbye and continued on with our days.
As I approached the train station, I realized just how difficult I had found this experience. At every turn I had to battle against the societal grooming which had taught me to avoid interacting with the homeless. It’s a lot easier to throw a toonie into a cup than to engage in conversation with someone who looks different than us and reminds us that there are those without the comforts we take for granted. It was incredibly humbling to realize that despite all of the work I had done in the mental health sphere, I was still unprepared for the simple act of speaking with a homeless person.
I’ll admit it – I still don’t often engage with the homeless because, like many Canadians, I’m usually rushing to and from various meetings. But I’m looking forward to the next time I have a few extra minutes so I can challenge myself once again.
A person’s dignity and self-worth can receive an immense boost simply from being approached and treated like a human being. Food and money help, since we all need those things to survive, but we can do a lot more for the homeless by going beyond the token, easy gestures. By engaging with them in a meaningful way, we are walking the talk, and that can only be a good thing for everyone.
As an addendum to the story: just under a year later I received an email from a name I didn’t recognize. In it the man I had spoken with briefly wrote that he was doing a little better and hoped I was well, too. It wasn’t a Hollywood ending in which he told me I had made the biggest difference in his life and everything was great; just a straightforward hello and quick update. In my mental health work I’ve supported (and likewise been supported by) a number of people who have stayed in touch. Frankly, at first I didn’t even know who the email was from. For about a week I pondered off and on who it might be until finally I remembered, and when I did it felt great, like I had made a small but important difference in someone’s life. The simple fact that he replied, especially many months later, told me that he valued the conversation and the time I had given him. Our talk meant enough for him to keep my business card for almost a year, and to spend a little bit of his own time sending me a short hello.
If just one out of every ten Canadians spent a small part of their day occasionally speaking with a homeless person, maybe we could re-humanize the way we treat those human beings who often receive less time from passersby than cute dogs. Let’s challenge ourselves and get this work started, one short chat at a time.