Where would you go?
I was challenged by an encounter with a homeless man on Saturday night in Mississauga. I work with the homeless in Toronto out on the street with Project417, but in the past, around 2004, had done outreach in Brampton and Mississauga. Lack of funding and general lack of awareness and sensitivity to the homelessness problem in Peel Region, lead to the cancellation of that program – sad but we had to go where people would support the work to help the homeless, that was Toronto.
On Saturday evening I was attending a Missions conference at Mississauga Chinese Baptist Church on Creekbank Road near the Dixie and 401 area. I’d had a small booth/table set up to show the programs Project417 operates in downtown Toronto to help our homeless friends. MCBC sponsors me for my work with Project417.
While taking a coffee break at the Tim Horton’s on Dixie Rd. at Aimco, primarily a commercial and industrial area, I saw a man coming out of the bushes at the edge of the parking lot displaying the tell-tale signs of being homeless and living outside. Out of all the cars in the parking lot, he seemed to be making a bee-line for mine – well, as straight as anyone with too much alcohol in them can walk anyway, that wavering but determined half-stride, half-stumble that still manages to cover a lot of ground. As he got closer, I could see the grimy and disheveled clothes he was wearing and, sure enough, he walked right up to my car and stood a couple feet away from me peering in the driver’s side window at me. He was sunburned and his right eye and the side of his face showed he’d recently been on the short end of a beating, bruised and bloody. He had a stocky build and looked to be in his forties.
He was wavering on his feet as he stood there and I didn’t roll down the window immediately (it was open a few inches only) because I prefer to take stock of the people I encounter in my work who have obviously had too much to drink. Their behavior and responses are erratic and often violent. I suppose I took too long to say hello because his crooked grin disappeared and he shouted in the window, “Don’t you f**king speak?”. It was sad, because he had walked up to probably one of the only people in the parking lot who understood his ordeal and might have offered to help him out. Instead I just kept quiet and waited to see what he would ask next.
He started to unload on his quiet,captive audience – “Yeah, I’m drunk, and I’m living in the bush over there. I don’t care boy, but my friends are gone, cops got ’em … all in the can now”. I could tell he was from the east coast from his twang. He went on, leaning closer, swaying and staggering, ” I don’t give a f**k!, I get by”. At this point I was really debating whether to get out of the car and have a chat or roll down the window, but he seemed too close to the edge, with that threat of physical violence just simmering beneath the surface. I hate what alcohol does to people. It’s a plague on our whole society.
“I just need some f**kin’ money for smokes and coffee boy, what’s so bad about that?”, he shouted. I slowly rolled down the window, while he started grinning again in anticipation, I guess, of receiving a couple of bucks. But I’m not in the habit of giving money to any of our homeless friends when they’re under the influence. I had in the back of my mind that I’d offer to go in a get him something at Timmie’s, but I wanted to chat a minute first to try and calm him down, before I got out of the car. I have to admit, I was angry too – I don’t respond well to surly drunks – but I recognize that in myself and find that just some non-threatening, quiet conversation can often defuse a situation, so I tried – ” I hear you man, I work downtown with guys out on the street, I usually have food to hand out, but I don’t have any right now… “. He cut me off, waving his hands in the air, the smile gone again, yelling again, ” I don’t give a f**k about them. That doesn’t do me any f**kin good now does it? I just need some f**king money for smokes”, and before I could say anything else and voice my offer of help, he stumbled away in the direction of the Timmie’s drive-thru. I didn’t get out of the car and follow – he was trouble waiting to happen.
I drove back to the conference and couldn’t get him out of my mind for the rest of the night as I fielded questions from people who stopped by my table and asked me, “How do people end up homeless?”. By the end of the night I was convinced I don’t know the answer to that question – at least not the answer people expect to hear.
There some things I do know –
- The City of Toronto, with a population of 2.5 million people has over three thousand emergency shelter beds
- Peel Region with a population of over 1 million (Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon) has just over one hundred emergency shelter beds.
- Mississauga, as part of the Peel shelter program used to have a location on Mavis with another hundred or so beds, but it closed last year due to budget restraints.
- There are over a thousand homeless men, women and youth absolutely without shelter who live outside in Toronto. This is a very visible population.
- There is reason to believe, based on population density alone, that there are hundreds of homeless living outside in Mississauga and Brampton. They are almost invisible. (With Project417, Joe Elkerton used to regularly visit the homeless living in the ravines in downtown Brampton).
- Alcohol abuse does not cause homelessness – roughly 4% of the population in Peel Region can be classified as “alcoholics” – that’s over 40,000 people. Not all of them end up homeless
The questions that come to mind are –
What is the common denominator amongst the homeless population, that could be the root cause of their homelessness?
How prevalent is alcohol (and substance) abuse amongst the homeless, and what special measures, if any, need to be taken when dealing with them?
Why do cities like Mississauga and Brampton devote so much less space to housing the homeless compared to Toronto?
As an outreach worker – how do I respond when the person I want to help is agressive and drunk? If I turn away, am I not part of the problem?
One of our friends, Bob Buckley, on his blog Pathway of Hope says –
Our society in it’s desire to help the brokenhearted, is part of the problem. We provide enough care to maintain a level of survival that I would call the living dead.
How do we become part of the solution?
||Continued – read What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?||
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