Much is said about the homeless crisis by politicians, activists, and community leaders, but seldom are the voices of the homeless ever heard. The homeless are treated as political footballs or tools for proving empathy credentials, spoken of as public nuisances or social evils, but rarely as human beings. Members of “regular society” prefer not to think about them, pretend they do not exist, or worse, turn guilt into victim-blaming; in reality, most people are in denial of the fact that these people could have been us.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with a fellow named James at a Downtown Tim’s. The well-travelled reader might be familiar with him: James can sometimes be found holding the door at Granville Station, with a coffee cup in one hand and a book in the other. On the floor lies miscellaneous items of little monetary value. I asked James to tell me a story. This is the story.
James’ sister died when he was young. His mother, devastated by the loss, sent James to live with his grandparents. It was all downhill from there. To this day, James remains scarred by the abuse he suffered at the hands of his grandfather.
After spending time at the Nova Scotia Residential Center, where he was the recipient of further abuse, he ran away for the first time at the age of 12. “I’ve been on and off the streets since [then],” said James.
When he was only 18, James hitchhiked for half a day from Amherst, Nova Scotia to Saint John, New Brunswick. From there, he hitched across across the country: first to Calgary, then finally arriving in Vancouver. He has lived in Vancouver ever since.
Here, he fell in love with a girl from Montreal. They’ve been together for 18 years, and got married in 2002. James has also developed a network of friends from around the city. For example, he talked a bit about his friend Slinky, who came all the way from Newfoundland.
As previously mentioned, James enjoys reading books. He says that he reads two or three novels a week. He usually gets used books for free, but sometimes uses what pocket change he has to buy a book. After he has finished reading, he simply recycles the book for somebody else to read. When I asked why he reads, he says that books help him escape into the fictional world.
“It’s that, isn’t it?…Drugs, books, and video games.”
“Do you do drugs?” I asked impulsively.
“Yeah, I have a heroin addiction,” he replied. A silence ensued. I was unsure of what to say, so I muttered, “You know, there are some who say that drugs…are why people are on the streets.”
He paused. I liked it when he paused. I came to find that to be a positive thing. Whenever he paused, he had something real good to say. For a man who has been homeless from such a young age, he was noticeably pensive. His vocabulary was beyond any reasonable expectations (probably from his two or three books a week). His astute observations came with a certain brilliance, yet also a certain obviousness to those who did not reside within our bubbles.
“I find the opposite to be the case…well, 50-50,” he replied, “Often [people] are on drugs because they are homeless.”
He pointed out that his story is not a unique one, and that many people he knows originate from similar circumstances. His conclusion seemed only logical—after all, how exactly does one escape from such malaise, except through drugs, books, or video games?
“Why do you think people believe the misconception, then?”
“I think they need someone to blame,” he replied. To many of us, this is a face we remain oblivious to; yet to him, it was oh-so-obvious: after all, a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Many cannot accept responsibility for letting down an abused child, and thus must seek someone else to blame.
He continued, “Even now, I see the big discrepancy between rich and poor…I’m more likely to get help from someone like you than [the government]…or a rich guy…They won’t even shake my hand. They think I’m dirty.”
“Do you vote?”
“I don’t trust the system. It’s very hard to trust the system once you’ve lost faith in it.”
While pondering over that statement, I recalled a quote from the late English Parliamentarian, Tony Benn: “Hopeless people don’t vote.”
“Do you have hope?”
It is not hard to realise that people like James are no different from anyone else. Homeless people are not vices but victimised and vulnerable. Yet, communities across the world continue to take concrete steps to vilify them and to make their lives more difficult: from so-called “bum-proof benches” to anti-loitering and anti-panhandling laws. If indeed a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, then Society first needs to treat these members as human beings.