As I did my seven-minute stroll to my favourite café this morning, I passed no less than three ‘homeless’ people I didn’t recognize. If you spend a lot of time ‘out in the neighbourhood’, you recognize the regulars, chat with them, get to know them a little. You notice new ones, wonder where they came from, why, what’s their story.
One of them was a woman partially hidden in the shade of some bushes, trying to brush her teeth. It struck me as a valiant attempt to maintain personal standards. A little self-respect, in such circumstances is important.
Only the morning before, I had noticed a fellow washing his face at a leaking outdoor faucet. I’d been surprised at his efforts – the faucet couldn’t have been a foot above the ground. For a split second I wondered why he bothered. And then I was disgusted at my own thought. I know better.
Another chap I’d never seen before is shuffling down Roncesvalles Avenue as I write. Slowly down the street, then slowly up the street. He may be living the impact of alcohol abuse, or even brain problems from anti-psychotic medicine – sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. This fellow paused near a smoker and pointed at her cigarettes. She gave him one, then he pointed at her lighter. We’re wondering why he didn’t speak.
It’s a chilly morning, and I find myself wondering how they’ll manage when winter comes. I have a repeating fantasy of winning a lottery and buying a home in the neighbourhood, where perhaps a half dozen would share the space, in some kind of ‘supportive housing’ arrangement. Yet I wonder if that would even be legal. And can you just imagine the “nimby” reaction.
My fantasy moves in the direction of trying to stir up some compassion, and perhaps organizing workshops for the potential team of neighbours, illustrating how their support and generosity could help transform the lives of these people. They would learn why they need not be so afraid of the ‘mentally ill’. They might even learn how to help during a crisis or a ‘psychotic episode’. Perhaps they could even do a little fund-raising occasionally.
I remember the ‘sponsoring groups’ that formed around 1980, to help the famous “boat people” of southeast Asia. A group would include people with different skills or efforts to offer – from chauffeuring, to help with shopping, or learning, or just providing money. We called ours a “boat people committee” for lack of a better label.
Our work started months before “our” boat people arrived, with learning about their culture, diet and a bit of their recent history. The day they arrived, we had a volunteer translator available, a driver, a temporary home (mine). Their first few years in Toronto were made much easier than it is for most refugees, because of our support.
I can imagine similar neighbourhood teams forming around supportive housing. “Success” would mean the once virtually disabled residents would eventually become independent – enabled. What a dream.