Encounters of the homeless kind

November 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

A man rummaging through a skip at the back of ...

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Over the summer I spent some time with someone who lived on the streets for a few months of his youth. Talk about time spent expanding my comfort zone. That experience challenged me to look at the streets of Calgary in a new way, and at the people who currently occupy them, from people in suits walking to work to people pushing shopping carts from one dumpster to the next.

It’s true that we’re afraid of the things we don’t understand. I don’t understand the world of the homeless, and admittedly, on the whole, it frightens me. I have a hard time even beginning to wrap my head around how they got there and why they’re choosing to stay there (there’s an entire other argument to be made, I’m sure, on whether or not it’s a choice).

Today I met one of the nicest, most friendly people I’ve ever met on the streets of Calgary. Yes, on the streets–that is, after all, where he lives. Well, technically he calls a city park home.

I’ve spoken with him before. Last time he was telling me about how lucky he felt because someone thought to drop off a new blanket for him. I didn’t think to ask him his name at the time.  Just politely conversed in return while I finished transferring my recyclables from my car to the large green bins. I remember him also saying how he had found a radio. The music was playing from somewhere nearby where I imagine he had found an outlet to power it. When I was done, he bade me good day and off I went without another thought to this man by the recycling bins.

I was out for lunch at Local 510 one day over the summer with some colleagues. We were eating on the patio and this guy walked up to our table and asked us for some money. He was near tears and told us he had HIV and that his parents had kicked him out onto the street. He was trying to raise enough money to find shelter. Skeptically, we all fished out some money for him. After he left, one colleague leaned in and said “I’m pretty sure I recognize that guy. He hangs out around 17th Ave a lot.” Is his story true? Who knows. Maybe parts of it are.

There’s also the guy who sits on a crate downtown day in and day out. I’ve passed him several times, but I’ve never stopped. The last time I walked by him, I spotted a loaf of bread tucked under his crate. Is that what this man eats every day? Where does he come from? Where does he go at nightfall? And why does he do nothing more than sit on that crate? Only in my last couple of trips by him did I make eye contact and smile. Why was that such a hard thing for me to do?

Today, I was back at the recycling bins. As I opened the door to my car, I heard a radio playing. I stepped out and saw someone rummaging around the bins like last time.

As I approached with my recycling he turned around and said “Hello! How’s your day going?”

“Fantastically! Thank you. How is yours?” I replied.

“Oh, I’m having the most amazing day! I slept until 2:10 this afternoon.”

“Really? That must’ve felt nice! I haven’t been able to sleep that long into the day in quite some time.”

“I don’t usually get that much sleep either. This was the first time in five years I’ve slept that long! And man did it ever feel great!”

And so on we conversed while I finished unloading my car. Another fabulous thing about his day was that one of the garbage men had given him a garbage picker. It was a metal rod with prongs attached to the end and a handle he could squeeze to bring the prongs together. He even did a demonstration of it for me, picking up bottle caps, bottles and bits of paper from the ground. Works wonders for reaching inside the bins too.

It was at this point that he paused long enough for me to ask him an important question.

“What’s your name?”

He looked up and said “My name’s Bart.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Bart. I’m Wendy.”

He smiled and kept talking. I learned that the park is his home. He takes great pride in keeping it clean. “You won’t find any garbage around here, no sir! I make sure I pick up every last bit of paper to keep the area looking clean. I hate dirty things. It’s not like the recycling centre over by the grocery store. That one’s a mess! People put stuff everywhere,” he paused. “Well, actually, it’s not the people bringing the recycling in. It’s all the pickers. They just don’t care. But me? I care.”

Last summer I went to find a geocache with another friend of mine. The one we picked to search out was in this very park. As we explored the shrubbery along the backs of the houses, I remembered seeing a sleeping bag up in a tree. I wondered now if it belonged to this gentleman.

After a spell, he said, “Well, you’ve probably got other places to be. I’ll let you go. Have a nice day!”

I got into my car, drove home, and haven’t stopped thinking about the whole encounter all evening.

I can’t get it out of my head just how happy he was to have a tool that made his job easier and how proud he was to be keeping the park clean. As I was pulling away, another man drove up to bring in his recycling and Bart started up again and asked “Hello! How’s your day going?” All with the same warmth and another big smile.

*Names used in this post are fictional… well, except mine.

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§ 2 Responses to Encounters of the homeless kind

  • Andrea says:

    Wendy yet again I’m struck with the experiences you have and the words you use to convey it. Not many people choose to smile at or talk to a homeless person but yet even that small gesture does so much. Like talking to a stranger on the bus, it doesn’t have to be a scary thing. Thanks for reminding me why it’s good to be me and why one of the best gifts I have to give is a simple smile.

  • Wendy Peters says:

    Thanks Andrea! This post has stuck with me throughout the walk. Homeless or not, instead of averting eye contact when I’m walking by a stranger, I’m making it… or at least being half of the equation open to connecting :). A smile really does go a long way!

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