LIfe on the Streets 3: Panhandling

We see people panhandling for loose change all the time in our cities.  It’s commonplace.  We have come to adopt certain attitudes towards panhandlers and developed our own patterns of giving (or not).

We make assumptions about those who would ask us for a handout, and we have prejudices about the different approaches people take when asking for money.  However we respond, we walk away and the next person on the sidewalk is hit for a donation.

Generally, those who ask, ask unashamedly, without reservation, boldly, maybe even arrogantly.  Some have learned to hit the right buttons and tell one (maybe of several) stories that have brought them success in the past. It looks so easy, like anyone could do it.

That’s what it appears to be right now, but it wasn’t always like this.

What about the first times?

What would it be like to have no other choice but to ask others for help?  When you have exhausted all of your options?  You ask people for money: not your family or friends (that ended long ago), but complete strangers (who generally are opposed to what you are doing). 

All of your resources are gone and you have hit the wall.  You have no other options, so you do what you have to do to survive.  Pride is long gone and the memory tapes of ‘loser’,’ useless piece of ____ ‘, useless bum’ –  that were ingrained into your thinking from childhood come to the resurface, are reinforced and become your reality.

The first few times it would be hard – maybe the first few thousand – but it becomes a part of who you are.   Blame, shame and desperation have become your daily portion.  

There’s  no way out.  It’s your life now, and you get used to it.  You get better at it.  You harden yourself to the shame, and do your ‘work’. You know where to go, what to avoid, work the angles, develop the stories, and push yourself farther and farther away from who you once were.

Panhandling, it’s pretty simple.  Easy.  Straightforward.  Right?

 “Hey mister, any spare change?”

Life on the Streets I: Walking

I arrived back in Ottawa late last night and drove through the downtown area on the way home. I saw a man walking with a garbage bag over his shoulder and as I approached, I wondered if this was someone I knew.  It was.

Eddie is somewhere around forty years old and has been habitually homeless.  He doesn’t use alcohol or drugs but he does have some mental health issues, and a major story that has brought him to where he is tonight.  He is friendly, can carry on a conversation most of the time, and is one of our friends. 

I want to take you to just one part of Eddie’s life:  Eddie is a walker.  He walks.  And walks.  And walks some more.

He is constantly on the move, from one styrofoam cup of coffee to the next, from one doorway or abandoned building to another when he is ‘moved along’.  He is allowed to most of the social service agencies in our city, but really does not access them.  He has trouble, as I mentioned earlier, with mental illness.

OK, so I want you to imagine for a brief moment what it would be like to be Eddie. Not the voices inside his head, or the trauma that has formed his life, but something simple, that we can all ‘get’.  The walking piece.

People who are experiencing poverty and homelessness are always on the move.  Police, business owners and citizens all say, ‘Move along.  Go Somewhere Else.’ (I have not ever located this place called ‘Somewhere Else’, but I have a suspicion that it must be pretty full by now).

Walking.  No where to go, just walking.  Heat from the concrete, frostbitten toes, soles from the donated runners separating from the tops and flopping, wet, damp, wet and even frozen. Not sure of your welcome anywhere, but a basic understanding that you are welcome nowhere (many good citizens tell you this, but the voices in your head confirm repeatedly). Some degree of danger, because when you are alone and on your own you are an easy target.

We might imagine some discomfort in our own walking experiences perhaps, but realize there is no reprieve here.  No let up.  No stopping. You can’t get another pair of shoes and dry socks.  There are no boots available, just used donated runners – when you can find a size close to your own.

Where would you go?  Can’t go for coffee, ‘cause you have no money.  Restaurants are out.  Drop in programs, maybe, if you are safe.

You just keep on walking, walking, walking.  Endless walking.  Keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, but there is no end.

Welcome to one part of Eddie’s world.

Any ideas?

Life on the Streets I – Walk

I arrived back in Ottawa late last night and drove through the downtown area on the way home. I saw a man walking with a garbage bag over his shoulder and as I approached, I wondered if this was someone I knew.  It was.

Eddie is somewhere around forty years old and has been habitually homeless.  He doesn’t use alcohol or drugs but he does have some mental health issues, and a major story that has brought him to where he is tonight.  He is friendly, can carry on a conversation most of the time, and is one of our friends. 

I want to take you to just one part of Eddie’s life:  Eddie is a walker.  He walks.  And walks.  And walks some more.

He is constantly on the move, from one styrofoam cup of coffee to the next, from one doorway or abandoned building to another when he is ‘moved along’.  He is allowed to most of the social service agencies in our city, but really does not access them.  He has trouble, as I mentioned earlier, with mental illness.

OK, so I want you to imagine for a brief moment what it would be like to be Eddie. Not the voices inside his head, or the trauma that has formed his life, but something simple, that we can all ‘get’.  The walking piece.

People who are experiencing poverty and homelessness are always on the move.  Police, business owners and citizens all say, ‘Move along.  Go Somewhere Else.’ (I have not ever located this place called ‘Somewhere Else’, but I have a suspicion that it must be pretty full by now).

Walking.  No where to go, just walking.  Heat from the concrete, frostbitten toes, soles from the donated runners separating from the tops and flopping, wet, damp, wet and even frozen. Not sure of your welcome anywhere, but a basic understanding that you are welcome nowhere (many good citizens tell you this, but the voices in your head confirm repeatedly). Some degree of danger, because when you are alone and on your own you are an easy target.

We might imagine some discomfort in our own walking experiences perhaps, but realize there is no reprieve here.  No let up.  No stopping. You can’t get another pair of shoes and dry socks.  There are no boots available, just used donated runners – when you can find a size close to your own.

Where would you go?  Can’t go for coffee, ‘cause you have no money.  Restaurants are out.  Drop in programs, maybe, if you are safe.

You just keep on walking, walking, walking.  Endless walking.  Keep on moving, one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, but there is no end.

Welcome to one part of Eddie’s world.

Any ideas?

Bedbugs or Brutality?

I walked past Jim sleeping outside the convenience store on my way to the bank.  He was OK, probably tired from a late night.  The doorway of the building he was laying across was vacant, and he was ‘out of the way’ at least, from pedestrians and cars.  No danger.  No alarm.

This is Jim’s ‘area’, I guess you could say.  He would pan outside the supermarket, play his guitar for donations (or not), and generally was easy to get along with.  He knew how to do his ‘work’ and got by – as best a person could get by, homeless style.

I have wakened Jim on occasion to see if he was OK, or needed something, or if I had something for him.  Today everything looked good, so I let him sleep.

He comes to the office regularly, and we have gone out of the way to help him with recording some of his songs, created CD’s for him to market and so on.  He appreciates the help, but he is pretty entrenched in his lifestyle for any radical change – at least for now.  So, we do what we can, and wait for the day when he wants to make a change.

Back to the street.

On the way back from the bank, one of Ottawa’s finest has pulled the black and white over the curb just in front of Jim’s spot.  A young constable, mid twenties, has the task of ‘moving Jim “along”.  ( I have yet to discover where ‘along’ is.  For sure it’s not here and not now).

It doesn’t look pretty.  Jim is shaken up from his peaceful sleep, rushing to gather his things to the tune of “Hurry up.  You need to move – NOW!” and other such pleasantries.  Jim slips his foot out of his oversized running shoe and shows the peace officer his feet – black and blue and cut.  “I can’t move fast – look at my feet”, Jim shouts at the policeman, who by now is donning his black leather gloves. 

I stay and watch as a witness, in case something goes awry, but it gets cleared up.  “Cleared up”.  Sounds good, clean, and neat, but it’s far from anything even remotely connected with clean or clear.  It’s messy.

I am grieved whenever I see this happen, and it happens all the time. Some business owner, or not – maybe it’s just time for a ‘sweep’ of our streets from city hall – whatever… it’s dehumanizing, degrading, condescending and sometimes brutal.  It’s about the wielding of power and the power of injustice.

Jim has tried to get housing, but it’s not an easy option for him.  He had to leave his last place because of the bedbugs.  Lots of them – hungry too! 

At the very least, there aren’t any bedbugs on the streets – just the police.

What’s worse?

Getting a Place of Your Own

Harry has been desperately searching for shelter since he was released from jail three months ago.  He has been squeaky clean – no drugs or alcohol since his discharge.  He is pleasant, kind and often helps others with their troubles.  (Oh yes, he’s still a bit rough around the edges, but we are proud and happy to see how he is managing things at this time).  The one major glitch in his life right now is finding a place of his own. 

I spoke with him at some length and he gave me the ‘Housing 101’ summary.  I took note of his thoughts and feelings about what it is like to have your own place.  Three phases: On the streets; Looking for Housing; Finding a place.

ON THE STREETS

You are nothing.  Nobody wants to know you, know who you are. You’re the bottom of the shoe.  You feel like a ‘low life’, limbo, and you are always wondering the ‘what if’s’: what if this, what if that.  You feel like an empty shell, like you are just spinning your wheels.  You feel depressed, deprived, miserable, and angry – angry at yourself.  You get depressed, real depressed.

LOOKING FOR HOUSING

Agencies, housing help, your worker… it’s all the same story.  It’s one long headache.  Living in a bad area is worse than homelessness – people always knocking on your door, buy this/that… there’s no stopping it.  So ANGRY!

Me: ‘How hard is it? One to ten?’

TEN!  It’s not about money. If you’re starting over, you need money, references, someone to vouch for you.  Twenty years ago, if you had the money, you were ‘in’.  Not today!  Used to be:  “Oh, on ODSP (Ontario Disability Service Plan)?  OK, just fill out this form.”  Not now.  It’s fill out this form, that form, get references, who will vouch for you? When something comes up, we’ll call you.’

It doesn’t happen.  Not any more.  Getting housing is like winning the lottery – about the same chances.

WHEN YOU FINALLY GET HOUSING

It’s about 100,000 pounds off your chest.  Your mind is at ease, all the pressures are gone, complete turnaround.   If you got no place, and then you get a place, you lose the anger, you can relax.

It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s yours.  You go to the door. You have the key.  You open the door and shut the world out behind you.  Maybe you have a TV here, a bed there, a little table – it’s your place, your domain…

When you finally get your own place, you can begin to think about what to do next.  You have more patience, you can start to plan.  You’re not on the edge, not jumpy.

You get a place, you see things different; you answer different – there’s no more anger in your voice.

You can put your feet up and say, “I’m home and this is mine.”

Getting a place can make the difference between success in reintegration and re-offending. We’re doing what we can to make Harry’s search successful.