Living and working in Gastown, I've gotten to know, or at least recognize, a number of the homeless (or at risk of being homeless) folks who frequent our neighbourhood. My living room features a large piece of art I bought on the street from Ken Foster. I always donate to the "condom lady," who walks around giving out condoms, lube and information on sexually transmitted diseases. I never hesitate to walk around my neighbourhood, at night or any other time of day and have never felt the need to avoid the colourful cast of characters who form such a large part of Gastown's culture.
There's one guy in particular who always sits outside the Tim Hortons in the bottom of my office building. He doesn't say much, nor does he carry a sign of any kind. He just sits cross-legged, sometimes gently rocking back and forth, and waits. I've occasionally bought him meals, and have seen other people do the same. I've always had a soft spot for this guy - I'm not sure why. It may be because he doesn't ask for help, or demand my attention. But it may also be - and this sounds terribly judgmental of me - because he looks so much like a regular everyday joe.
It's easy to demonize some of the scarier people who approach you on the Downtown Eastside, with huge haunted eyes, arms riddled with track marks, clothes in rags, who scream obscenities at you when you don't give them what they want. That's not this guy. He just seems like a "normal" person who has been dealt so much bad luck that he's buckled under the weight of it. In truth, all of these people deserve our attention and compassion, all of them have been the victim of personal tragedies. All of them are living their own version of "normal." I'm not saying it's right to judge any of them, or to feel more compassion for one than the other. What I am saying is that this guy who sits outside the Tim Hortons has not become such a shell of his former self that I can't recognize a bit of myself in him. I think that's why I feel personally affected by him.
I ran some errands at lunch today, and as I returned to the office, I saw him. Standing on the corner - the first time in however many years that I've seen him standing up - was Tim Hortons Guy. He was up, dressed, and selling copies of Megaphone magazine and also the Hope in Shadows calendar. I did a double take as I walked by him - was that really him? It was! I was almost in the office door before I turned around. "How much is the calendar," I shouted back to him. "Twenty," he yelled back. "And the magazine?" "Two bucks." I dug in my purse for my wallet, walking back to him.
"I don't have a twenty," I said apologetically. "But I'll take a magazine." He looked at me quizzically. "Didn't I already sell you a calendar?" he asked. "No," I said, "but I'm glad you're selling them!" He grinned. I handed him my toonie, took my magazine, and went into the building. I felt so proud of this guy, so happy to see him standing on his own two feet, in every sense of the word, wishing I could tweet/Facebook/text every single person to go and buy a magazine, a calendar, whatever this guy was selling, now that he'd decided he was worth the effort. It completely made my day.
For those who aren't familiar with Megaphone, it's a street paper, that operates much the same way that the Big Issue program does in the UK. Sellers buy the magazines for 75 cents. They sell them for $2, which means they make $1.25 for each magazine they sell. If you see a vendor, pick one up. There is a "Find a Vendor" function on the Megaphone website that can point you towards sellers.
Megaphone also released a report this week on homelessness deaths, based on data they had compiled from the BC Coroner's Service. The average life expectancy for a homeless person in BC is between 40 and 49 years of age, around half the life expectancy for a British Columbian, generally speaking. There are approximately 16,000 homeless people in the province. That's a lot of us who are at risk. If it only costs you $2 to help a person make their life a little better, or a little longer, will you do it?