Homelessness Considered

Although regarded as extraordinary, homeless persons in general I find are in no way unusual. Every city has them, and it is only because no adequate effort has ever been made to ensure all people have a home. I am unable to say what might constitute an “adequate effort,” except by way of noting that the public’s money would be required, something which would be broadly objectionable, and of course might well end in failure. As I write this, the Ottawa-Carleton government seems to have made no co-ordinated effort to get the homeless out of sight.

I remember some years ago (in 1996) there was a sharp rise in the number of people pan-handling in downtown Kingston. This would have been shortly after the government of Ontario decided to ‘get tough’ on the crime of not having a house in which to live. For a period of about one year you could commonly find someone sleeping on the ground whenever you went into a public building at night – as I did to pick up my mail, for instance, or to get money from the ‘automated teller.’ All of a sudden they were gone (the homeless, I mean.) The Kingston solution, as best as I can infer, was to have people rounded up and sent elsewhere, that is, to other cities and towns with precisely the same attitudes and approach to the problem of homelessness. This practice was widespread enough that the phrase Beggar-thy-neighbour was applied to describe it. I expected something similar of Ottawa, but it may be that the scale of the problem has discouraged the effort. Or perhaps they have not yet got around to it.

In any case, homelessness would be a scandal if people cared. The gut feeling that The poor will always be with us induces resignation even in individuals who are of generous disposition. Then there is the human psychological tendency to see an individual misfortune as tragic, whereas apprehended in large quantities misfortune causes one to numb to the matter. There are so many living on the street that you take it for granted, the way you take for granted the certainty of crowded buses and noise and inconvenience. Anyone who dwells on the shame of it all is likely being hypocritical. There is no doubt that it is a terrible thing to be homeless, but the real obstacle to changing conditions has never been a general absence of pity. The greatest enemy to improvement is the idea that the solutions have all been tried, and look what happened.

What ‘successful’ persons rarely consider – for the thought is unbearable – is how precarious their own existence is. Hardly anyone under thirty-five is able to sustain what is today called a middle-class standard of living without assistance of some sort along the way, typically from family. In my own case, well into my adult years an objective description of my economic status, considering in isolation my income, was that I was poor. A ridiculous notion, for I lacked nothing essential. What stood between me and ruin? One might argue education and talent and effort, but the correct view is that the essential facts all concern good fortune. Even my education, talent, and effort all in the end are matters of circumstance beyond my control. For I had the good fortune to be healthy enough to make an effort, and I had the economic status I needed to get an education, and talent was given to me at birth.

Even to look for work requires an amount of economic security. You cannot improve your lot when your energy is going into the mere animal struggle for body survival. It was pure good fortune that I had a supportive family that could and would keep a roof over my head while I looked for work, and it was pure good fortune that I have the intelligence and skills I need to, as they say, compete in the global economy and succeed in what is after all a ruthless world. From this it follows that the lack of these things is a matter of bad fortune. Probably the chief difference then between a homeless person and a person who has a home is this: the former is alone in the world, and the latter is not. And yet the ‘pick yourself up’ speeches never stop and probably never will, even though they are as out-dated and irrelevant as bootstraps.

Concerning ‘panhandlers’ I’ve made a sort of catalogue of the actual people who you will find in Ottawa asking for change. As a point of fact, I should mention very few actually ask for change, preferring instead the convention of placing a hat or some such receptacle on the sidewalk.

· Two men regularly stand on either side of the Kent Street St Patrick Catholic Church entranceway before and after masses. They are not aggressive, but they appear to be exploiting either Catholic guilt or the vulnerability of worshippers about the time of mass. As a matter of scientific curiosity, I’ve wondered how the church folk measure up to a non-church crowd of passers-by. Does this strategy yield a better return?

· There is a man with a reddish beard at the Bank Street bus stop on Albert who I believe is the happiest man in Ottawa. He smiles at each passer-by and says hello. When I took the bus in from Nepean I got out of the bus early, at Bank, just to say hello to him. (It’s probably also relevant that to me he looks like a leprechaun.)

· On O’Connor Street, in front of the Druxy’s delicatessen, a man gives out photocopied newsletters which I presume he himself has made. They are full of odd bits and pieces of information. The last I read was about Schizophrenia. Sometimes he produces muck-raking articles on the government.

· There is a man with two dogs at the corner of Metcalfe and Albert. This is the busiest downtown intersection because all westbound buses stop here at all hours of the day. Many people take the time to talk to this man. He must have some clout to have got this corner.

· A man stands in front of the Ottawa public library with his cap in hand. He has very sad eyes. He reminds me of someone, but I don’t know who. In my imagination I see him dressed for winter. All you can see are his eyes.

I could go on, but you will already have noticed how innocuous, even banal, these descriptions are. These folks seem to have a routine from which they appear hardly to deviate, and most of them are no more aggressive than a lamp post. I’ve no doubt I am in danger only of the aggression of the ‘gainfully employed,’ and since I was nearly run over by one of them recently I can say this without irony.

As far as the style of panhandling goes, there are, as I’ve suggested, certain conventions. Some hold a cup, others put a newspaper on the pavement. Some make eye contact as you pass, others do not. But the principal convention of panhandling is the cap, apparel’s lowest common denominator and the contemporary symbol of Everyman. It is the chief tool of the trade. And panhandling is a trade, something done each day with the same inevitableness of rising for the office job. The principal difference is that the office of a homeless person affords no amenities, even of the most basic character.

As for the idea that a little job training will help … an intelligent person ought to question this idea. Job training for the homeless? Without a proper residence, everything else is near impossible. And while a job seems like the common sense route to a house, you’ve got to have a shower, some decent sleep, and a meal to undertake the considerable task of finding work. Homelessness sweeps away the foundation one needs for a ‘normal’ life to take shape. And in the case of panhandlers often mental problems are involved as well.

I know I am dwelling on this, but it’s only because I sometimes feel the needless, active stupidity of people is rather too much to take. You can hardly get away from the self-congratulation over the ‘new economy’ long enough to suggest some very old things are still with us, and in growing measure. [- December 2000]

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