Begging for change

May 13, 2021   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

I’ve seen him around town, always on a bike. He’s middle-aged, never seems to be in a hurry. His complexion makes me think he spends a lot of time outdoors. His clothes make him look as if he’s shrinking inside of them. He locks his eyes on me, looks like he’s ready to push me away with his gaze. I had a strange feeling that we’d see each other again. 

Like so many things in my life, the very real issues of poverty and homelessness were first introduced to me through fiction. Nelson Algren’s short stories are set in the streets of Chicago, in the alleys and corners, halfway houses and flophouses of Division Street, Wabash and Wicker Park. Algren was writing about people I had never known, people I had rarely seen — beggars, thieves, prostitutes, the destitute, society ‘rejects’.

I used Algren’s books in lieu maps on my trips to Chicago over the years. I turned the pages of his books while turning corners in his neighbourhoods, read his sentences as I walked down the same streets he was writing about. The people in his books were long gone, but others had taken their places. While tourists shopped along the Magnificent Mile, shopping bags in hand, I walked in the spaces between, and behind, the tourist sites and attractions. Algren opened my eyes to an invisible world, a world where people live deep inside of shadows. 

With Algren on my mind, and my camera by my side, I started walking the streets of Toronto. I’d wake before sunrise and wander the city, always alone, trying to see the city through a new lens, figuratively and literally. The people I met on the streets left an indelible impression:

There was the old man, at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, covered in a plastic sheet. He was sitting precariously upright, on a milk crate, holding himself up with a single finger. He was sleeping. It was 20 degrees below zero. 

There was the man I met on Jarvis, just south of Dundas. We talked; he smoked. I commented on the LCBO bags full of empty beer cans. He looked at me and shrugged: ‘How else do you expect me to make it through the night?’ I asked if I could take a couple of pictures of him; he agreed. I saw him again the following week. He asked for some money; I gave some to him. Before he walked away, he told me to come back so that he could see the pictures I took of him. 

I met a man behind St. Michael’s Hospital. He was sitting in a wheelchair, smoking. He was missing a leg (I didn’t ask). He asked me to wheel him around the city, to get smokes, to meet a friend in the park. We had spent a couple of hours together — talking, hanging out. He asked me to take him to his place, so that he could grab something from his apartment. He invited me upstairs; I declined. 

While working for a volunteer agency, I was given the task of handing out Christmas baskets to our corporate sponsors. Most of the time the baskets were left at the reception desk along with all the other baskets. I was annoyed; I decided I’d give the baskets to people who could use them. I drove through downtown Toronto handing out the baskets to the homeless. 

After wishing a young man Merry Christmas, and handing him a basket, he reached out to shake my hand. My first inclination was to pull away. I was ashamed of my reaction. I shook his hand; I felt his humanity. I’ve never forgotten that touch. 

The Canadian Observatory of Homelessness (COH) reports that men between the ages of 25-49 make up 52% of those that experience homelessness in Canada. Young people between the ages of 13-24 make up about 20% (30% of these youth identify as LGBTQ2S). The COH also reports that Indigenous and racialized people are overrepresented in these statistics. 

Some people might think that homelessness is not an issue in our community, because it’s not as visible as it is in larger urban centres. In the city, you see homeless people everywhere you look – under the Gardiner, doorways, street corners. You see homeless in the city because that’s where the services and programs are. In a community like ours, the homeless are in libraries, forested areas, in barns, places like Island Lake and Monora Park. 

The root causes of homelessness in a small town are the same as in the city – poverty, mental illness, inadequate housing, domestic violence, substance abuse. What makes being homeless in a small town more of challenge is that we don’t have the same services and programs that are offered in larger regions like Peel. How is a homeless person going to access a shelter in Brampton if they don’t have transportation? 

When we come out of COVID, we are going to see a community that has drastically changed. Businesses have closed; housing prices have pushed people away and, for some people, out onto the streets. We’re going to have to respond to help those most in need. I’m happy to hear that the mayor is establishing a Committee on Men’s Homelessness. When the call for volunteers is put out, I will be signing up to help. 

There he was, again at the corner of Centennial and C-Line. Same jacket, clothes; no bike. This time, he was pushing four shopping carts filled with boxes, bags and clothes. He’d take one cart, walk it 15-20 feet, go back and get the next one. It looked as if he was moving. To where? 

The carts were lined up at the intersection. He waited for the light to change; perhaps, he was waiting for something more to change. 


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