I do what I can.
I’m sitting on the sidewalk
as a woman, huddled in a blanket,
a patterned do-rag on her head,
sobs on my shoulder.
i put my arm around her
and say, “it’s okay.”
knowing that nothing is okay,
it will never be okay.
i’m beyond my depth.
i don’t know what to do,
or what to say…
anything that comes to mind
is shallow and meaningless.
this woman’s experiences
are completely foreign to me.
what do I know —
about motorcycle gangs?
about sleeping on the streets?
all i can do is let her cry,
tell her that she has forgiveness,
that what saddens her,
what keeps her awake,
or gives her nightmares,
is all in the past.
it’s time to forgive herself
and love herself
in the present moment.
she can’t go on.
she can’t stand the pain.
she can’t do this anymore.
drink is the only thing
that numbs her mind;
enough to endure–
enough to pass out at night
and do it all over again
the next day.
i can only do
and say so much.
it’s always a pleasant surprise
to see her sitting on the sidewalk,
knowing that she’s made it
through another night;
that she hasn’t been taken
by violence, sickness
or the police.
Have you sat on a frozen sidewalk watching pedestrians walk past as if you were invisible? Have you been physically or verbally abused, spit upon, had hot coffee thrown at you because of your appearance? Have your friends been beaten or worse, doused with gasoline and set on fire because they were sleeping on a park bench? Have a dozen or more of your neighbors been murdered over the past ten years?
There are many reasons why people become homeless: losing a job; family break-up; family violence; mental illness; poor physical health; addiction sickness; physical, sexual or emotional abuse – to name just a few. But, the defining reason is the loss of housing.
Can you imagine the problems of being homeless: no credit; no privacy; no mailing address; no phone; no private bathroom; no stove; no washer and dryer; no locks to secure personal belongings or to ensure your personal safety? My street friends endure this merciless punishment every day.
It’s a staggering fact that “1 out of 3 Americans are 1 paycheck away from being Homeless”. They are homeless because wages are low and housing prices are forever rising.” (Medium.com) https://buff.ly/2BNvL90) Statistics have shown that housing is no longer affordable for low-income earners. Often, taking on a second or even a third job is necessary to pay the rent.
I once thought that our government and social service agencies provided a safety net that would take care of those in dire need. I volunteered at a homeless shelter and found that was not the case. I asked Joy, who features in all of my books, why she didn’t go to the Salvation Army for meals. She said, “I was raped there last Christmas, so I don’t go there anymore.”
In a Toronto Globe and Mail article, January 14, 2018, the subheading read, “As temperatures dip, the city’s homeless must often choose between freezing conditions and sometimes dangerous public shelters.” A homeless woman named Barb was quoted, “It’s safer out here. There are no bugs. No one’s going to beat you up or steal your shit.” https://buff.ly/2Nfcq5F
I have heard sickening stories of abuse as children and babies are born with drug dependencies. Most of these people have mental and physical illnesses, suffer beatings, broken bones, stabbings, and have a fear of abusive partners, or the police, or both. Authority in any form is seen negatively, as a means to control their lives. The homeless shelters are noisy, infested with bed bugs, the scene of fights and a place where personal items are stolen. Most of these people prefer to sleep inside common areas such as bank foyers, outside under bridges, or behind dumpsters.
Debbie noticed the cloth bag I was carrying. On it was printed Hope Shelter where I volunteered. She said, “There was a man who was barred from No Hope Shelter. The temperature was minus forty degrees. No place would let him in. He froze to death standing up, leaning against a brick wall.”
“Why was he barred?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter why he was barred! Nobody should be forced to freeze to death!” I agreed with her.
“Get a job!” is a comment often heard on the street. To casual passersby this may sound like a reasonable solution; however, to a homeless person, there are many invisible barriers as to why some people are unemployable. Applications for employment require a mailing address, email address and phone number, something that the homeless can’t provide. Interviewers expect candidates to be well dressed. This is difficult if you’re living out of a backpack and relying on public washrooms. Illiteracy is a factor among some of the homeless. They need assistance to complete an application of any kind. Education levels may be low due to eviction from the family home at an early age. Drug use often leads to incarceration and a prison record. All of these factors are barriers to employment. In a variant of the well-known phrase attributed to John Bradford, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Bearded Bruce described his situation as follows, “Hi Mate, I’m going through a hard time. Someone photographed me panhandling and now my welfare has been cut off. I went to their office to see them and I nearly lost it. All I’m getting now is three ninety-five a month. I said to the guy, ‘Where am I going to live on three ninety-five. The cheapest room in a boarding house costs four-fifty. Could you live on three ninety-five a month?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘If I was a prostitute you’d accept that as working, but if I say I’m a panhandler you won’t accept that!’ He said, ‘You’re right, panhandling is against the law, prostitution isn’t, as long as there is no solicitation involved.’ You see, if a high priced call girl with her own apartment does tricks she can claim that as income. She even has to pay taxes on it. It’s a crazy world we live in. I’m going to claim to be a prostitute.”
With the assistance of my sister-in-law, a real estate broker, and her husband, a retired financial planner, we envisioned the CARDIFF HOMELESS REHABILITATION CLINIC. The objectives of this clinic are as follows:
-Providing accessible mental and substance abuse/addiction care for the homeless in the Greater Ottawa area.
-Utilizing a service system that emphasizes trust, respect, confidentiality, compassion, empathy and spirituality.
-Collaborative professional effort and commitment from volunteers in the health care industry (doctors, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, etc.), administrative support.
The Ottawa Innercity Health Resource assists the various organizations servicing the homeless in Ottawa. We have met with them on several occasions and received their encouragement and support. They offered the volunteer services of addiction medicine specialists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists and any other staff required. What we need is a building.
We don’t wish to duplicate services already available but, from speaking with my street brothers and sisters, I learned some reasons why present shelters and other homeless services are avoided and others need to be improved. I took our clinic proposal to the people forced to live on the streets and asked for their advice. Bearded Bruce had the following comments:
“Follow up and job placement would be mandatory. These people would need to trust that there was someone to turn to if they had a relapse or things went bad. You must be willing to accept people who are drunk and/or on drugs. At present these people are barred from AA and the Salvation Army. They demand that an addict be clean for twenty-four hours before entering their premises. There is a small window where addicts have hit rock bottom and may decide that they desperately want recovery. If an addict or an alcoholic can resist for twenty-four hours they don’t need a program. In Scotland and Holland, addicts commit to seventy-two hours where they are locked in and sometimes tied down. After that, it’s their decision to stay or go.”
“There would need to be a pharmacist to administer the drugs of choice. Methadone is not a substitute for heroin, it replaces the craving and is administered to a user who has given up the drug, much like a nicotine patch is used by someone quitting smoking. You can’t just slap a patch on a smoker and expect any results. They have to have a deep desire to quit. Being told by a doctor that you either quit or die is often enough motivation.”
“It’s essential that there be representatives on the board who were down and out drug users or alcoholics and are now in recovery. Nobody else would know the hell that recovering addicts go through. As an example, a man wouldn’t be effective as a counselor at a rape crisis center, unless the man had himself been raped. A healthy youth wouldn’t be effective counseling to elderly arthritis sufferers about how to deal with their pain. As a parent you wouldn’t be effective counseling pedophiles, you’d look down at them with disgust. Am I getting my point across?”
“Another thing you would need is security. If addicts can’t get money for drugs they’ll resort to violence and stealing. This causes bad feelings. If both the thief and the person stolen from are in the same room, or if one is outside and the other is inside, they’ll break down the door to get revenge. If you’d like, I’d be willing to speak to this group, and could refer other people who may be of value in the program.”
Ted added, “I know so much about those places I could be a counselor. In group sessions when you first arrive you have to give a statement. It would start with, ‘I am an addict and I can’t control my addiction.’ Sometimes, when young girls were asked to describe their situation they’d start crying and say they couldn’t talk about it, the counselor would say, ‘Go over and talk to Ted. He knows what’s going on.’ So, they’d come over and I’d say. ‘You have to be open and honest. You say you can’t talk about what happened, but the truth is that you’re not willing to talk about it. The only way this program is going to help is if you put your heart in it.” These people need help, but they want it on their own terms. They don’t choose addiction. It’s a disease and should be treated as such.
The CARDIFF HOMELESS REHABILITATION CLINIC is a viable proposal and would make Ottawa a much better place. I have the time and medical support but lack the money to either build or rent a suitable property.
What I have learned over the past years has changed my life. The people, who I consider my friends, are alcoholics, drug and other substance users. Some work as prostitutes, some have AIDS, most or all have served time in jail for various offenses. All of them I would trust with my life. They have welcomed me into their street family. I am honored to consider them my brothers and sisters.
“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone,” said Ronald Reagan. The next time you see a person begging for money, smile, say hello and open your heart. Offer to buy them a coffee or a breakfast sandwich. Perhaps, they are in need of bus tickets to attend an appointment. Converse with them and consider the words of Bill Nye, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Without exception strangers are people just like us, seeking happiness and an end to suffering.
~RWISA Author, Dennis Cardiff
Thank you for dropping by today’s RWISA “RISE-UP” stop. We hope that the message contained here has moved you in some way to RISE UP and do something; one small change could impact the life of another without you even knowing it. Don’t just sit around talking about the problem, be part of the solution. It doesn’t take much when you decide that you are going to RISE UP!
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