By Val Cimesa
For the purpose of this story, many of the names have been omitted or changed for the safety of the individuals, or at their request.
"Listen here." He stepped forward, aggressively pointing the knife at my chest. "I don't know what you're playing at, but I don't need any bullshit from you." He spat on the ground, brown-yellow teeth bared.
"I'm not lying to you. Seriously, what the hell would my motive be? I'm a student. I'm writing an article on homeless people. I'm trying to do a profile, if I can."
"Fuckin' sicko. You're trying to turn us in to the cops."
"No, I'm not. I don't care what drugs you do, if you've been arrested, or any of that shit. I just want a real story."
He stepped back, and flipped the blade into the handle. "Don't come back here." He gave me one last look, and then pulled his hood up.
This wasn't what I wanted. I started out interviewing the homeless and documenting their difficulties, and what resources are available. No one seemed willing to comply.
And then the real story came through.
* * *
Downtown Ottawa is always an interesting scene. The overarching glass buildings cast shadows on the homeless, hiding them from sight. Sometimes you can hear the jingle of change in a Tim Hortons cup. Occasionally, unexpected rants break through the city smog. Many people have become accustomed to ignoring them: they no longer look, or see a human being there. Abandoned, the homeless blend into the scenery.
People seem to know what goes on around here. Often, the people you see begging for change don't need money. At least, not in Ottawa. Many facilities serve three meals daily to the homeless and at-risk, and shelters are available for those who need a place to spend the night. The resources are there: the Ottawa Inner City Health Inc. is comprised of 21 corporations that serve the homeless. The Ottawa Mission offers addiction services, food, clothing, shelter, and health care. Shepherds of Good Hope, Catholic Immigration Services, Carlington Community and Health Services, and the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre all offer services and meals to those in need. Many of them are funded by the City of Ottawa to better the community, to help homeless people succeed. Those who beg for change are only a small subsection of the homeless in this city, but citizens have come to their own conclusions, often thinking that any change they give will go towards alcohol or drugs.
They wouldn't be wrong in thinking that.
* * *
A man with a long, scraggly black beard stood in front of the Hartman's on Bank and Somerset, conversing with passersby. He had a small pile of food accumulating behind him: a pizza box, bananas, apples, bread, a half-eaten sandwich and a Subway beverage. A dog was sniffing around, and the owner jerked it back, scolding it for attempting to eat the food.
"I was raised a farm boy, ya'know. So, I know how to use one of these."
He rummaged around in the oversized jacket, and pulled out an embellished hunting knife. He swung it around a few times to prove his point, and then quickly looked around before replacing it.
"Well, I guess self-defence is... important."
"Yeah..." He nodded, and pulled a pipe from his pocket. It was wooden, hand-carved with precision: a thing of beauty.
He lit it, inhaled, and heavily exhaled. "You've gotta be careful when you have weed. I mean, I have all the food I need" -- he gestured to the pile -- "and the res' is for pot."
"Would you say that it's a coping mechanism?"
"Naw... I see nutin' wrong with pot. It helps me get through the day. Was an alcoholic, n' it was bad. This is better."
His name is Chris, and he is a recovering alcoholic. I still see him there sometimes. He always carries his pipe, and I always carry my notebook. We nod to one another, and carry on.
* * *
According to the Panel Study on Persons Who Are Homeless in Ottawa, the average beggar is uneducated, lacking the skills and resources to acquire and sustain a job. Some suffer from mental illness. Some just don't want to work. Some fell from grace. And some lost the title of "middle class".
Allan Redwick graduated from the Business Administration program at Algonquin College more than a decade ago, hoping that it would bring him a respectable career.
"So what happened?"
"I lost. Big."
"What do you mean?"
"Things fell apart. No jobs. I mean, it's the same story everywhere. You start out great, then you get screwed in your job, alcohol, drugs. You lose everything so fast. I was living in a two-bedroom apartment with my wife. It was Hawaiian-themed: she loved Hawaii. Now I live under the bridge on Queen [Elizabeth], right on the canal."
"So, what can I do to provide those resources, the help that you need?"
"'Cause no one cares. They like their drugs, their booze. Why change a good thing?"
* * *
The transition from autumn to winter cannot be ignored in Ottawa: the cruel winds will only continue to harass us as we go about our days, and the street population will continue to increase. Commercialized Yule represents gifts and hope, to mask the inevitable debt that will follow. Some will end up homeless for the holidays.
The stories are similar. People think that everyone needs to hear their "important" story, and that the injustice they experienced is essential to substantial social change. Often these are stories of petty theft, criminal acts, and substance abuse.
Some plead for a vague form of change.
Society's standards of living will always fluctuate, as will the job market. People will lose jobs, gain them, fall between the cracks, and resurface. No individual hinders the success of the homeless. Eventually, society has to rid itself of blame. There are always resources available to those that need support services, and people must take the initiative to seek help if they need it.
I asked many people on the street what they needed to succeed, or to be happy. Many answered, "alcohol" or "drugs". Some stated they wanted housing and food, perhaps the comfort of a family. I suggested places, and listed what they offered. They passed it off. Perhaps they didn't want the humiliation of relying on a shelter to survive. Maybe there is a basic primal need to sustain oneself without outside help: we are a prideful species.
I wanted to blame our system, create a bit of counterculture stir. I wanted to believe that people couldn't possibly allow themselves to fall so far, to commit violent acts or resort to substance abuse as a form of escapism. But I see Allan and Chris -- both chronically homeless individuals that I met on my journey. Allan still carries a mickey. Chris is always smoking marijuana. They all have their tools, be it an empty coffee cup or a hat, and the art of conversation. They all have their reasons for living on the street. And ultimately, we must accept one basic fact about people: you can't force change upon anyone.