Monday, January 5, 2009

A chilly dose of reality

Last week on my blissful day off, the boyfriend and I decided we needed to get out of dodge and head for the big city. Or at least, a bigger city.

After our meal, we bundled up against the cold and strolled around the park where boyfriend pretended to push the military tribute tank while I pretended not to know him and watched the skaters.

The tableau of kids and adults alike, playing on the ice in front of the bandshell was a familiar one. The usual blur of neon snowpants, parents crouched in the endless task of lacing and unlacing skates and the one or two beautiful skaters who manage to look like something out of a Christmas Cookie tin despite having to avoid the inevitable rainbow explosion of snowsuit collisions.

It wasn't until we rounded the bandshell and headed back to the car that I noticed a far less idyllic scene. Walking briskly towards us was a young man in a threadbare sweater. He had no mitts or hat and I realized with a shock that what he was walking quickly away from was the garbage bin behind on the other side of the bandshell.

By the time I had absorbed what I had seen and what it meant, the man was gone. With no cash on me and no knowledge about London shelters, I don't suppose I could have done much anyway and it's not as though he was sitting there with a sign. It's not like he actually asked for my help. Still, I felt shaken.

It's just that I hadn't seen anyone desperately hungry enough to scrounge through a garbage can for food since I lived in the really big city. It's certainly not something I've come across in my current corner of rural Canada. And even in the city, I never got used to seeing people sleeping on the streets. I wound up carrying around granola bars in my purse to hand out to anyone on my route to work who looked particularly hungry. As futile a gesture as this undoubtedly was, I couldn't just walk by and see these people every day, and not be moved to do something, even if it was a small something.

And the more I did it, the harder it became not to because every time I timidly offered food, I had to stop and really acknowledge that I was interacting with a fellow human being, not just some part of the urban landscape.
I like to think that if I'd stayed longer than the three months it took to complete my internship there, I would have found a better way to make a contribution.

So I guess what shocked me about seeing this man, was the realization of how easy it has been not to think about these people and their lives, now that they're not directly in my line of sight. I suppose the best I can do from where I am is support the local United Way and send some letters government way.

Any other ideas?


Elle Bee said...

The tank, bandshell and outdoor skating rink had London memories rushing through my mind far before you named the city.

Sadly, London is full of people like the man you describe. Sadder still, with the closing of the mental hospital, many of those individuals on the street have no medication, no idea what they are doing, and are lacking the help they need.

Working on Richmond Street, I used to encounter individuals like this daily. Other than buying them a warm meal, I also had no idea how to help. Call me a cynic, but government letters have little impact.

Sarah said...

Yeah, I guess sending a letter every so often is not the most proactive way to approach the situation, but I still hold out hope that some letter I send or petition I sign might have a bit of a ripple effect somewhere along the line.
Of course with this whole proroguing business, it kind of feels like I might as well try a message in a bottle.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that your comment that they are not "directly in your line of sight" may be a key - put them in your line of sight, and others. Sadly it's true - out of sight out of mind. If we can keep homeless people in sight, make them less part of the landscape and more of our social sphere...*shrug* We started a "Mitten Monday" at our work, collecting toques and mittens for 10 minutes of extra break time, we have a thermometer with a sign that gauges how cold it is if you have a coat.. how cold if you don't. I think it's a process of making the comfortably invisible, visible. And putting pen to paper is never a lost cause! *smile*

LipstickOne said...

Wow. I live in NYC and these people are apart of my everday life. You must always have compassion.that is what seeing these people and acknowledging that they are in fact human, teaches us.

Elle Bee said...

I love mieletcannelle's suggestions.

Sarah said...

Me too. That thermometer thing especially is a great idea!

Mari said...

What about a photo project? Maybe a blog with photos of a homeless person with every new entry. A first name, small bio and the contact info for that city's shelters or one charity to link to like the one you mentioned. It would give people a chance to make donations, and even small ones would add up if enough people found the site. I think the stories would be a real eye-opener for all of us.
There but for the grace of god...

*PinkNic* said...

I've given you an award, check out my blog :)

Kyla Bea said...

Volunteering at a local shelter is a great idea too – or surf the websites of your local homeless advocates and see if there are programs they recommend supporting!

There is a great program where I live where you can donate to the salvation army and get different coloured keys in exchange for the money – you give those to people in need and then they can exchange them for meals at soup kitchens in town.

It’s imperfect, but it’s a nice way to know that you’re really providing a full meal in a safe place. In Winnipeg people actually freeze to death each winter, so it goes a long way.

Sarah said...

Thank you so much for your ideas lovely ladies.

Mari, your photo project idea is a really interesting one. I may have to enlist the help of some of my friends still in Toronto or London.

And Kyla Bea, I'm definitely going to ask around about ways to get more involved locally. I was thinking I might also see if any of the high school human rights groups have anything going on.