The brakes on our van have been shuddering, so I took it to Valley Tire and Brake. I was in town and had to wait, so I took a walk. Not far from VT&B there’s a lovely section of tree-shaded creek. It’s in the city, so it has concrete sidewalls, but it’s peaceful and pretty nonetheless. It’s been trashed by endless homeless people. My suggestion regarding assisting the homeless?
Pay them to pick up the trash in the homeless camps. But I digress. Someone actually had been picking up the trash since I was last there. The walkway and the creekside were relatively clean. The creek is the green diagonal in this google maps overview.
I walk there for a couple of reasons. First, it’s often deserted, a calm and natural oasis in a busy city. And second, sometimes I meet homeless people there. If I have time I like to talk to homeless people, the drifters, the rejects, the underside of our society. Always room at the bottom for me to learn something.
So at ten-thirty this morning I was drifting along the creek, enjoying the day. As I walked down the lane, I came to a man in his thirties sitting on an upended milk crate. He had a pack and a bag of stuff on the ground next to him. I wished him good day, touched the brim of my cap, and kept walking. I went up around the corner and got a cup of coffee. And a doughnut, but don’t tell my gorgeous ex-fiancee.
And as is my habit when I’m having work done in that shop, I walked back the same way. The sun was warm, dappling through the trees. The man was still sitting there. So I asked if he minded me sitting with him a moment. He said fine. I sat on the ground. There was only one milk crate.
I asked if he was homeless, if he was sleeping on the streets. He said he was. I asked why. His answer was curious.
He said “I have no family out here on the West Coast. So I have no place to sleep.”
I was reminded of Robert Frost:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Yes, he was a man without a home.
I offered him half my doughnut. It’s what you do when you’re sitting in the dirt. I asked about working. He said he’d had work. He said he probably could get work again, at a place he’d worked before.
But then he’d made it through the winter, and the nights were getting warmer, and the days were sunny … his voice trailed off.
I looked at him. He was in his thirties, an apparently strong and capable black man. Not well-educated, but hearing him talk it was obvious that he thought about things. I was curious what kept him homeless.
Then he offered me a swig of what he was drinking, which turned out to be a “Natty DADDY”. A look at the side revealed that it was no less than 8% alcohol. And it was huge, 25 fluid ounces (3/4 liter). A bit of research on the web this evening reveals the following photo and reviews:
Appearance- What you would expect, straw yellow/gold with a fluffy head that lingers.
Smell- Faint aroma of corn, bread, sugar, and yeast.
Taste- Follows the nose, but it’s actually quite pleasant, like drinking liquified bread sweetened with a touch of sugar.
Feel- Very full bodied for the style, which I love.
Overall- As far as cheap malt liquors go, this is my standby.
And then there was my favorite review …
it is wat it is…cheapo beer…at first it was fark this …now its like not bad maybe it got brewed a lil better….i like it….my cheap go to beer…its like drinkin 4 beers in 1..drink it cold….drinkem slow….drunkness creeps up on u
I can testify that it was certainly as advertised. And with that, I understood what kept him homeless. He was an alcoholic. My mother and my mother-in-law were both alcoholics who only gave it up in their later years. Having watched them both struggle unsuccessfully against their addiction over decades, I have compassion for alcoholics. It’s tough. Like the man said, “drunkness creeps up on u”.
So we sat and sipped Natty DADDY and shared a doughnut. About that time, a white guy of about forty-five walked by on the path, maybe six feet (a couple metres) away from us. He very studiously avoided making eye contact with us. I laughed after he’d walked away. I said, “I bet not many people look at you.” He looked down and said something I didn’t catch that sounded like “Mumble mumble twenty-one”.
I waited, looking puzzled.
“One out of twenty-one. I keep count,” he said. “Twenty-one people walked by me this morning. You were the only one who looked at me and said good morning as you were walking by”.
We both pondered that, and sat and enjoyed the creek, and the trees. I asked where he was headed. He said for a while, nowhere. Later on he was going over to the Gospel Mission in time for the food. He said that the food was good and the praying was OK with him.
The sun danced and flickered on the water, reflecting flashes on the underside of the tree leaves. He said when he looked at the trees and the plants and the water flowing by, he knew that they were made by something beyond human power. Just as he was describing the beauty of our surroundings, a lovely large bright yellow butterfly appeared, working up along the creek from downriver. It was diligently rowing its way through the calm morning air. We both watched entranced as it bounced and bobbed on past us, and flittered its way up the creek until it disappeared. I said. “It can fly all day on a sip of sugar”. He liked that thought. He said he could fly all day on a sip of Natty DADDY.
So we watched the morning some more, and after while I said my goodbyes, and I left him sitting there on the milk crate finishing the last half of the 25 ounces of 8% beer and enjoying the sunshine. After I’d walked a little bit he shouted “Thanks!”. I turned and waved and shouted “My pleasure”.
Now, let me be clear at the outset. I have no easy solution to either alcoholism and other addictions, or to homelessness. And I know because I talk to them, that every homeless person’s story is different. With that, a few observations.
Regarding alcoholism and addiction, what works best are the 12-step programs. What works worst is making either alcohol or drugs illegal. Making them illegal just makes a bad situation worse. It piles legal problems on top of the personal and social problems caused by the addiction. I discuss this at length here.
Regarding homelessness, much of what passes for assistance to the homeless suffers from what I call “the pigeon problem”. The pigeon problem is best epitomized by the observation that if you feed them … they will come.
Let me say that these efforts at assistance to the homeless are generally impelled by the best of motives, by compassion and humanism and generous impulses. However, they suffer from the pigeon problem. What we want to do is to REDUCE the number of homeless people. But feeding the homeless leads to MORE homeless people, not fewer homeless people.
What the homeless need are paths out of homelessness. Making it easier and more comfortable to be homeless does the opposite. It confirms people in their homelessness. I mean, if you’re getting free food and a free place to sleep, why go to work?
The homeless problem is complex because of the wide range of causes—alcoholism, mental illness, drug addiction, divorce, laziness, developmental problems, being thrown out by parents, PTSD, lack of education, illness, the list is long. And for many of those, there is little that we as average citizens can do.
However, what we can all do is to actually look the homeless in the eye when we cross paths with them. Since our eventual goal is for them to return to society, the very first step on that path is to acknowledge their existence. Yes, in my experience, sometimes that invites unwanted pleas for assistance. Usually, I take the Nancy Reagan approach—I just say no. Politely, but firmly. But that is a good thing—it shows them that there are people who are willing to engage with them, people willing to look at them, but who don’t want to encourage their homelessness and dependency.
In addition, when we look away from them and make them invisible, it allows them to normalize their own behavior and appearance. Often the appearance or actions of the homeless are shocking. It helps them to see that people are shocked at how they look or what they do. It is a valuable reality check.
It also helps them to know that they are not outcasts, that they are not beyond the pale, that they are not invisible to the rest of us.
Please be clear. I’m not asking people to give food or money to mendicants. That doesn’t work because of the pigeon problem.
I’m saying that these are people who are teetering on the edge of the abyss. Having someone look them in the eye and wish them a good morning may be what keeps them from falling today. It is far from enough. But it is a beginning, and it is something we can all do—stop ignoring the problem, stop looking away, meet it head-on, look homelessness in the eye.
And yes, to us it seems to be a small thing.
But down at the bottom, it’s important enough that this morning, a black man who has almost nothing in this world patiently counted how many people walked by him but would not meet his eyes or acknowledge his existence in any way …
Anyhow … that’s what happened to me when I went to get my brakes fixed. What a world, full of marvels in its most mundane parts.
Best of the season to all,