Libraries give me the heebie jeebies. I’m not gonna lie. While studying for both my degrees, I couldn’t handle libraries and you would often find me in places that were ‘happening’. I needed background noise; the deafening silence of a library drove me up a wall.
Fast forward to today, and one of my fave places to blog has often raised my daughter’s eyebrows and she would warn “I don’t know how safe it is there Mom, go into the library like an ordinary person.” Much to her dismay, I would blog in the foyer or atrium of the library and entertain myself by people watching. She’s always surprised at how friendly, her brother, dad and I are even towards people we don’t know. She is quieter and much more cautious. I will readily say hello if someone greets me, anyways…
One particular blogging day, a dishevelled young man of no more than 30 years old sat down at a table a few feet from me. He had a rather worn coffee cup with him and a dirty plastic bag of clothes. I kept typing on my laptop but surreptitiously noted that he was dressed in a faded long sleeved grey top, beige cargo shorts, black and white running shoes, and blue baseball cap. Dangling from his neck was a plastic black cross. He was homeless. I kept typing.
Eventually the young man and I began talking about the weather…always the safest of topics among strangers. We talked about the Indian summer we were currently experiencing and our hopes that it would continue for a while. Periods of silence would follow our short conversations and eventually he would tell me that he was homeless, and I feigned surprise. I didn’t think it was right to tell him that I already knew that. He had only been homeless for a few weeks, he introduced himself as Brian. I smiled and nodded. He started to tell me his life story, I hadn’t asked:
Brian talked about his childhood, how good things were growing up with his sister and that his mom was a good person “most of the time.” But he had lost touch with both. He didn’t even know where they lived. He said his dad was pretty much non-existent and an alcoholic. He hated him. He spoke about his years in high school and that he enjoyed it most of the time, he also at one time had an amazing girlfriend.
I kept listening as he announced that he eventually got carried away with alcohol. He told me about rehab and thinking he could conquer alcohol and every time he stayed sober, something would happen and he would be drinking again. He happily said that he was 10 days sober and I congratulated him. He stopped, smiled apologetically and said, “you know, I know you’re busy and I have no idea why I just told you all of this.” I said it was ok. I gently asked, “how did you end up homeless?” He explained that he had been staying at his ex girlfriend’s place but found her poor parenting skills and overall laziness frustrating and he couldn’t live there anymore. I thought to myself “hmmm he has standards.” So, he went to live in a trailer park with his aunt. He helped her do everything she needed, fix things, clean up etc. Before long, he said management asked him to either pay $40 a day to stay there or leave. He didn’t have money, he didn’t have a job. He said he tried to reason with them, suggested being a handy man, but it seemed that they resented all the work he was doing and said no. So, by early August he was homeless. I asked Brian about local shelters, and he said “yep, I used to rush there and sometimes I would get a bed, other times, I wouldn’t.” Even if he did get a bed, he had to watch his back in “places like that.” “Hmmm” I thought to myself, “he’s smart” There were a few times he got there and the lineup was long and he didn’t get a bed. He told me about one time, when staff suggested he find a spot and sleep outside and gave him a blanket. It didn’t last, because in the middle of the night the cops shone a light on him and told him to move it, “go to the waterfront” they had suggested.
So, he did. He told me he set up a cute little spot with a tarp and some crates. He smiled happily and told me that it was “cozy and really it could be much worse.” His positivity impressed me and made me feel guilty as I thought about some of the first world problems I complain about.
“So, what’s next for you?” I asked. He said he was currently waiting for someone he met at the waterfront. A guy who told him he may be able to help him get in contact with some good friends in Nova Scotia. He wanted to ask them if he could come out there. He needed a fresh start he said, even if he had to hop from train to train to do it. He laughed.
He stopped talking and gazed out a nearby window. I quietly went back to typing. I struggled with my thoughts and my blog because I realized that Brian was the first homeless person I had ever spoken too. I mean, I have given food to homeless people that I would sometimes encounter on the street but we never spoke. I never give money because I never want to contribute to any type of addiction. But this was the first time I ever spoke to someone who was homeless and learned their name and their story.
I kept waiting for Brian to ask me if I had any spare change, I was positive he would ask. He didn’t. I kept working on my blog, but thinking of this homeless young man seated a few feet away, really bothered me. We read about the homeless, the young, the old, the squeegee kids, across our country. We see it on tv and we question why does it happen, people drop money into their metal cans. Listen for the clink and move on, on to their lives.
But I have never actually SPOKEN to someone who is homeless, and on this day, I learned a few things from Brian:
He will keep praying for a miracle
He won’t give up
He’s determined to make it
It makes me think about some of our first world problems and the general sense of entitlement many of us feel. Myself included. “oh my God look at the price of gas!” Brian doesn’t have a car. “seriously leftovers for dinner again?” Brian doesn’t know where his next meal will come from.” The house needs cleaning!” Brian lives at the lake…under a tarp.
That’s when the guilt kicks in and the sense of wonder, how can something like this happen to our fellow humans? And, if it can happen to them it can happen to me. I wonder how I can help this young man.
A few minutes later, Brian stood up “I don’t think he’s going to show up” referencing his friend. “I’ve also taken up a lot of your time” He smiled apologetically. “It was really nice to talk to you. “I look down at my computer and at a banana I have sticking out of my purse. As if reading my thoughts Brian held up a can of chicken. “They say this is pretty good, I even have some mustard here to go with it… I’m going to be fine. “ I felt totally helpless as he walked away, I told him to take it easy, to take care and good luck.
He smiled and said “everything will be ok, I just know it. “I sat there and thought about that for a while. A homeless young man with his world in a plastic bag, a can of chicken and a bottle of mustard just old ME that everything would be ok.
After he left, it was impossible to go back to the blog I was working on. I decided to google some recent info on homelessness in Canada. A recent CTV report said that there are approximately 235,000 homeless people in Canada! Some of the causes are addiction, mental illness, unemployment, family hardships and broken relations. I had just spoken to one homeless person, he was smart and very nice. There are 234,999 more of him out there and the thought just sickened me.
I found myself thinking back to the days that I used to assist with meal prep at a local soup kitchen. I never met any of the people that came in, because I was usually prepping stuff and setting tables. I was often gone by the time they came in to eat. A good sense of satisfaction came with this volunteer position, it may be time to go back to something similar. I realized that it’s not just about dropping off food at the food bank a couple times a year. It’s more about making a consistent difference.
I guess that’s why I met Brian.