author: annie trussler | op-ed editor
“Homeless people are people, and frankly, it breaks my heart that people must be reminded of that fact.”
It was a Saturday night, and above everything, it was cold – the kind of cold that seeps into your bones and weighs you down. I had just left the Globe Theatre, as I’ve begun teaching again, and I thought such a cold night deserved some sugar. I stopped at Safeway on 13th Avenue, picked up some of those pre-cut Pillsbury cookie dough packages, and quickly jaunted back my car. I hadn’t made it far before a woman, probably in her mid-thirties, politely asked to speak. She proceeded to tell me, evidently afraid and extremely apologetic, that she was saving up to buy a single room for $80 a month, and that it was extremely hard for her to maintain a job because she was suffering with HIV. My heart was already aching, but when she hastily insisted she would only use the money for the room, and not drugs, alcohol, or anything of the sort, my heart absolutely shattered. I gave her the $10 in my front seat, gingerly reminded her she had to stay warm, and went on my way.
I’ve been thinking about that woman from the moment I met her. I find myself wondering about her: where she is, if she managed to get the room in question, where she stayed that night, so forth. Mostly, however, I’ve been thinking about the last thing she said to me. I’ve been thinking about how desperately she told me she would only use the money for the reason provided, as if it were somehow illegal for people most in need of money to also be entirely earnest at all times. We have all heard time and time over that we shouldn’t bother giving anyone on the street money, as we have “no idea what they may use it for.” Which is why I must ask: who cares?
Why do you, in particular, care? You aren’t the one sitting on the street corner, you aren’t the one spending 24 hours a day in lethal temperatures, you’re not the one risking your life to ask perfect strangers for spare change. The current treatment of the homeless and underprivileged is an excellent, though disheartening, testament to human empathy; or, a lack thereof.
The ability to see a human being as anything other than such really forces modern conceptions of poverty into perspective; the idea is everywhere: people are undeserving of welfare, of food stamps, of spare change, a meal, a place to stay. This may be simple to say, yes, for your conservative uncle, with his mouth full of the expensive food he gets to shovel in his mouth every night. Yet, we must take the time to simplify. Do you believe that every human being deserves the right to food, water, shelter, and health care? If no, why? What could a single human being do to be denied the right to live?
Simultaneously, it paints a telling portrait of economic status, and what really lies behind it. If the right to existence is determined by one’s access to money, then the evil of capitalism is indeed more deeply rooted and insidious than I would ever care to put into writing. “They may be an addict,” you say, and yes, they very well might be. Addiction is perhaps one of the most damaging and life-consuming mental illnesses to be burdened with. “They may use my money for drugs.” Perhaps, but what were you using that toonie for? Why do you really care? Why do you care if an addict buys a sandwich or a gram of weed? Really? What has that two dollars lost you, other than a little more of your empathy?
I’m writing this on Tuesday, Jan. 17, a Tuesday, and last I checked, it was around 3 degrees Celsius. Warmer, compared to the vicious cold we have recently endured, but nothing to sleep in, nothing to live in. This warmth won’t last, either, leaving the hundreds without homes facing potential death every night. This doesn’t include the risk of murder, rape, suicide, or incarceration.
I’m not under the impression that anyone reading this will listen to me, and I wouldn’t expect you to; however, should you choose to, I implore you to part with a five dollar bill, buy someone a coffee, a blanket, a scarf. You face hardships, as we all do, but few that rival sleeping in freezing temperatures every night with zero empathy in return. Homeless people are people, and frankly, it breaks my heart that people must be reminded of that fact.