This isn’t a rant about how to fix homelessness. It’s also not about me playing the role of a martyr. I’m no stranger to rolling up my window when approached by panhandlers – although doing this has made me question my own compassion. I’ve ignored people on the streets by avoiding eye contact. In my recent years of property management and owning properties, I’ve asked myself why on earth do people self-defeat by choosing to spend their money on drugs and not their rent. I can be compassionate, but I can’t float a mortgage by running a shelter. Eviction is eminent.
This past Sunday, while at church, I ran into a former tenant whose future seemed desolate. Despite my many attempts to reason with her, she was downright abusive to me. Amongst many things, she told me that she hopes when my husband comes home, that he smells of another woman’s private parts (language modified…).
Yet, I do believe things happen for a reason – sometimes the harshest people can teach us the best lessons about ourselves. Sometimes knowing what we want isn’t as easy as knowing what we don’t want. I quit my property management contract because she was the cherry on top. Not because I couldn’t handle it – but because life is too damn short to do things that suck the life out of us. Running into her at church was difficult. My heart kept telling me not to judge or condemn, but I felt angry that she stepped into a place where I try to become closer to God. There was a lesson to learn. In what world would someone spread so much hate if they too weren’t also burdened by trauma? The way that woman sees the world must have been shaped by her experiences. How sad (!!!). I’m fortunate to have so many things, my family at the top of that list. I worked my way back to a place of compassion and forgave her in my heart (not to her face as I didn’t have the chance to).
What happened today, though, is the real reason for this message. I attended one of my son’s favourite parks. Pridefully planned by the same man who planned Central Park in New York. A gem, some local residents may call it. A place for all, others might say. But today, it was very clear that many do not believe the park is a place for all.
I get to the park and as my son tries to run for the playground, I do my “harmful apparatus” inspection. No, I don’t want my son to get pricked by a needle. Hello, there is an opioid CRISIS in North America. I’ve seen uncapped syringes before at parks. It disturbed me deeply, but now I know to prevent harm I must ALWAYS do a walk around. It is there and we must all deal with it to the best of our ability.
After my inspection, I looked around and beyond the view of the playground was a make-shift tent with a blue comforter draped over a bench. There was a wooden coffee table blocking one end. A grocery cart full of clothes with a squirrel rummaging through it. There was a jar of jam, some boxes and cans littered about the area. When I looked closer, I saw a foot move from underneath the blanket. Someone was sleeping there.
We carried on, my son climbing up the playground and me underneath the bridge pretending to be a troll. He went down the slide over and over again, passing by mommy troll and laughing to his heart’s content. He was so happy, and I was so happy to be with him, laughing. As we moved to another section of the playground, I could see a well-dressed man with grey hair and pearly teeth taking a picture of the make-shift residence in the middle of the park. As he approached the sidewalk next to the playground, he asked me, “what do you think about this?”
“I don’t like seeing homelessness,” I replied. “Rents are high and some people are dealing with major issues in their lives,” I said. “It’s sad, but whoever is in there isn’t bothering me, nor my son.”
He continued to tell me that he was a lifelong resident of St. Catharines and that he helped to make improvements to the park. He was disturbed by seeing the person sleeping in the tent and deeply encouraged me to speak with a city counsellor about my sightings. He must of thought – a mom with her toddler son must feel scared playing at a park with a homeless person sleeping under a nearby park bench. But I wasn’t scared. I was ashamed by how I’ve become immune to viewing homelessness as something people choose. People choose. What part of their homelessness stories are choices?
As the man left, he again encouraged me to write a letter to a city counsellor, I felt sad.
As my son kept asking mommy to play with him, we continued on at the park, with the recent conversation at the back of my mind.
That’s when I saw another man approach from across the street corner with his phone-camera held up and snapping a picture of the make-shift residence. He asked me, “what do you think about this?” To which having already been caught off guard, yet in the zone, I responded, “I’m compassionate towards homeless people and regularly serve lunch with my kids at the homeless shelter.”
He said, “This isn’t right. We need boundaries. The mayor is all about compassionate cities…. Yet where are the resources?” He went on to explain that homeless people choose to be where they are. He cited an example of a man approaching the homeless folk under the pavilion and offering them a place to stay for the night. He concluded that only one person took him up on the offer. I rebutted by saying, “many of the people who are homeless have experienced levels of trauma we just can’t comprehend. People trauma. Being burned. If some stranger came and told me they were going to help me and asked me to sleep somewhere, I would have likely declined, too. Homelessness needs to be faced with compassion.”
The man went on to explain that he has three rental properties adjacent to the park and that it’s difficult to find suitable tenants when there are homeless people staying at the park. I told him I understood where he was coming from. The problem, I thought, isn’t that people find it not-ok to sleep at the park, the problem is that we are not treating the homeless as people. They are dehumanized. They are the “types” of people who many think we need to protect our kids from. We are actively perpetuating their negative experiences (and negative view of humanity and repeating their trauma) by lacking a heart for people with no place to call home.
To whoever was sleeping under the bench, I hope you had sweet dreams. My son and I considered leaving you his favourite Lightning McQueen card but we realized we didn’t want to startle you. Instead, we’re sending lots of love your way and writing this message with the hopes that others will tap into their common humanity and also send love your way.