The Homeless Nation
By Sasha Khan
Well maybe it's all for the best
But I wish I'd never been lassoed
Maybe it's some kind of test
But I wish I'd never been tattooed
Or been to hell and back
Fade to black
-Mark Knopfler 'Fade to Black'
A Bit of History
Image source: Flickr
The homeless have always been part of our society and just as the society has undergone rapid changes in the last couple of centuries so the homeless have followed their own developmental curve. In 'Wild West' America 300 hundred years ago the homeless were considered as an unwelcome presence and their make up was different from today. Novac et al in 'No Room of Her Own' argues that "among those who lacked designated settlement rights in 17th-century New England, and least likely to obtain public assistance, were widows and children as well as disabled or aged adults, who were often 'warned' to leave town (Novac et al 252)." The whole 19th century and especially the beginning of the 20th saw the rapidly increasing proportion of males among the homeless.
The virtual small towns were formed and built around homeless workers and their way of life. In the words of Novac et al "transient homelessness became masculinized, as well as institutionalized and segregated in cities in the form of 'skid row' concentrations of businesses and services that catered to the basic needs of poor, family-less workingmen (Novac et al 252)." Moving closer to our days we can see that homelessness reflects the current state of affairs in Canadian society. As Canada proudly adopted the policy of multiculturalism and equal rights for men and women so did the homeless.
Nowadays, they come in all shapes and sizes from all walks of life and have nothing to do with a seasonal work or absence of thereof. They even have their own website at homelessnation.org where people are invited to share their stories or leave a comment. The homeless have long become an integral part of our urban landscape and it is too bad that we, as a society, have overwhelmingly negative or at best condescending attitude towards these people. Too bad because if we earnestly want to solve the problem of homelessness in Canada we should see these people as citizens, possessing the same rights and freedoms as the rest of us, instead of treating them like outcasts that don't belong in our society.
Us and Them
The homeless in our just and civilized society are being attacked from all sides by the government, by police and by so-called normal people like you and me. Politicians created a climate of intimidation and intolerance towards these people, police chose them as their favorite target for harassment and ordinary folks like to vent their frustrations on them, which in extreme cases can take the form of a murder. Kathy Hardyll, a street nurse and a long time advocate for the homeless in Toronto, in her article "Now They are Killing the Homeless," gives chilling accounts of what might happen to you if you ever find yourself living on the street of a big Canadian city: "In the wee hours of June 5, Adrian Fillmore was found in the bus shelter he called home, his throat cut.
On May 28, a homeless woman was shot in the head near a downtown apartment building. Casey Smith was only 40 years old. A few days before that, John Currie was found bitten to death at another downtown intersection (Hardyll 259)." There is no shortage of stories like these, but they never make big news, because homeless people are seen as human trash who in a way 'deserved' to die the way they did.
Police like to harass them just for the heck of it. I imagine, if I were a patrolman with a long shift ahead of me and a lot of time to kill, a homeless person lying on the street would seem like an easy target and even a desirable distraction from the work routine. You can harass them with impunity and if you happen to have a sadistic streak in you, even derive some pleasure in the process.
Hardyll mentions a homeless man whose sleeping bags were pepper-sprayed or a whole group of homeless people who were burnt out of their site at Spadina Ave. and Lake Shore Blvd by police (Hardyll 260). If asked, police representatives will say that they don't make rules, they just follow them and point a finger at the city officials, who on the one hand, refuse to open new shelters and on the other, pass bylaws against panhandling and sleeping outside (Hardyll 260).
I guess the city bureaucrats have a sadistic streak to them too. This undeclared war on the homeless begs the question: Who are these people that we like to hate or pity so much? Are they really so fundamentally flawed or just fundamentally screwed, or both.
Fallen through the Cracks
To better understand who we are dealing with here it might be helpful to look at real life stories of three home-grown men who, at some point in their lives, found themselves on the street.
Joe is 24-year old intelligent man who dresses like a 'typical' Canadian guy: blue jeans, a tee shirt, running shoes and a windbreaker. The condensed account of his life up until now that he developed to present to countless social workers runs like this: "I left home at 16, got myself a job working for a cleaner, pretty soon I had my own contacts and started a company. I got married at 18, had 2 kids, and had a house and a mortgage. My wife left me and after that I couldn't take it and started using cocaine. Pretty soon I couldn't pay the bills and I didn't care anymore. I lost everything and now I am here (Fleming 238)." The event that triggered his downfall was departure of his wife together with the kids and after that, in his own words, he didn't care. Joe sees his homeless situation as temporary, convinced that he just needs some time off to pull himself together before plunging back into 'normal life'.
Jake is a 26-year old native Canadian who currently lives in a men's shelter in Vancouver. He doesn't look like a 'typical' homeless person and his story doesn't have much drama to it: "Jake had worked for almost 18 months full time six days a week in a progressively more responsible position, finally achieving the status of kitchen manager in one of Vancouver's restaurants. He suddenly found one day that his will to work had left him. For him, homelessness was an oasis away from responsibilities he was being asked to perform (Flemming 241)." Jake thinks that he simply got burnt out and all he wants to do for now is 'to get his head clearer'.
Dave is 27-year old who left home when he was 16 and has been living in shelters and on the street ever since. Despite being homeless for so long Dave never loses hope that one day he is going to come back as a fully functional member of society. In his own words: "I'm not rushing nothing. I'm just gonna reconstruct my life slowly. I'm just gonna do it, but do it slowly and casually, and be happy that's all. I wanna take care of the mind. No stress, no nothing (Flemming 242)." During his homeless years Dave has developed complete dependence on the system, always adding though, that he has no one to blame for it but himself.
All three stories make me think that we have much more in common with the homeless than we would like to admit. In fact, the stories show that anybody, myself including, might find himself in a similar predicament - a scary thought, if I consider what awaits me on the street.
Apparently, I am not the only one thinking these thoughts. It turns out that the city officials can sometimes be useful and get something done not only for them but for the city as well - an encouraging news in the world where politics became a dirty word and every move on the part of the government is met with suspicion. The article 'Montreal to Spend $35 Million Fighting Homelessness', which appeared in Concordia independent newspaper The Link last October, talks about the concrete steps the mayor of Montreal is willing to take to address the problem: "On Oct. 13, Mayor Tremblay announced plans to build 750 new housing units for the homeless by 2013.
He also pledged to work with the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal to provide officers with sensitivity training in order to shift police focus away from arrests and ticketing that disproportionately affect those who live on the street (Curtis Oct 19 2010)." No matter whether the mayor is doing it to boost his popularity or for purely altruistic reasons, it still can be seen as a welcoming development, never mind long overdue.
Another part of the solution should be the homeless themselves. They have to find their raison d'être and the willingness to change things around without which no solution can ever be permanent or even long-lived.After all, as adults, these people have to bear some responsibility for their plight and take charge of their lives instead of drowning themselves in booze like so many of them do. As Chris Aung-Twin, a blogger at homelessnation.org, succinctly put it: "We can all try harder."
Aung-Thwin, Chris. "We Can All Try Harder." an excerpt found at homelessnation.org, a website by and for the homeless.
Curtis, Christopher. "Montreal to Spend $35 Million Fighting Homelessness." The Link, Concordia's Independent Newspaper, Oct.19, 2010.
Fidelman, Charlie. "Police Say They Aren't 'Dumping' Itinerants." The Gazette, March 4, 2011.The article questions Montreal's police practice of 'dumping' people on the street.
Hardill, K. Now, They Are Killing the Homeless. (Taken from Behrens, Laurence. et al "Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum." Canadian Edition. New York: Longman, 2003. 259-261.) Kathy Hardill is a street nurse who has been working with the homeless in Toronto since 1988. The article talks about brutality of being a homeless in Toronto.
Knopfler, Mark. "Fade to Black." (a song) Warner Bros, 1991
Novac, Sylvia, Brown, Joyce, Bourbonnais, Carmen. No Room of Her Own. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1996. (Taken from Behrens, Laurence. et al "Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum." Canadian Edition. New York: Longman, 2003. 249-255.) The authors all have academic credentials - Sylvia Novac, Ph.D., Joyce Brown, M.S.W., M.E.S., and Carmen Bourbonnais, B.A. - and were commisioned by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to prepare this document. This exerpt looks at how the gender factors into poverty and homelessness and gives some historical perspective on the issue in North America.
O'Reilly Flemming, Thomas. Life on the Streets. Canadian Scholars' Press, 1993 (Taken from Behrens, Laurence. et al "Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum." Canadian Edition. New York: Longman, 2003. 237-249.) Dr. Flemming is chair, Applied Arts and Health Sciences, Seneca College and has taught at the University of Wndsor, University of Toronto, York University and many other schools in Canada. The author examines some of the causes of homelessness by looking at several specific cases that document the plight of individuals.