Thursday, June 19, 2008

My heart broke this weekend

I spent this past weekend as a homeless person living on the streets of downtown Toronto. The experience was part of my training with CSM, and the five interns partnered with the summer interns and workers from Evergreen Ministries, which is part of the larger Yonge Street Mission. Evergreen does this experience annually and encourage all of their staff to participate - this summer was CSM's first go-around.
Friday afternoon our city director took us to Double Take, a community thrift shop, to buy a homeless outfit for each of the CSM interns. I ended up buying an old, dingy baseball cap, a oversized white tshirt, black exercise pants, and some really old black tennis shoes. Once we got back to our housing site and changed, the five of us played in the dirt in the parking lot and a nearby park to make ourselves look more believably homeless. We then drove downtown to Evergreen Ministries.
After an orientation and what to do/what not to do, we (the CSM interns and Evergreen staff) were split into groups. Every six hours during the day, all of us would meet back at Evergreen (we weren't allowed to go inside again) to switch groups. The smallest daytime group was 2, the largest was 3. Jennifer and I were paired with Steve, the only male intern at Evergreen. We started at 6pm, and were to meet the rest of the larger group at midnight to look for places to sleep. Since all we were allowed to carry was 50 cents for an emergency phone call, we needed to figure out how to make money so that we could eat for the night.
Jennifer, Steve, and I decided to panhandle. If you don't know, panhandle basically means to sit on a corner or a street and beg for money ("Can you spare any change?"). Most of the time, you use a hat or a cup for passers-by to donate money into. We first decided to try our luck on Church and Wellesley, which is Toronto's gay village. I hoped that my natural good looks and southern charm could score some major cash (haha). Well…it didn't. In fact, the only thing I got after about 45 minutes was a pass for a subway ride. Steve didn't make any money either, but Jennifer got $5 from a transvestite! We then decided to move on to Bay Street (the financial heart of Toronto) and try our luck there. Absolutely no luck for me or Steve, but Jennifer ended up getting $100 from a man smoking outside of Red Lobster who identified his own children in Jennifer. After her streak of luck, we met up with Shannon and Victoria from Evergreen and made our way over to Chinatown on Spadina Avenue to eat dinner!
We met with our larger group at midnight, and broke into two groups of about 8 to look for a place to sleep for the night. Initially my group decided to walk through "Boystown" to experience what some of the darker aspects of the city are. "Boystown" is a part of downtown Toronto that is hidden from site because it is where young guys (about 13-21ish) who live on the street prostitute themselves to older men to make a living. Most of them will tell you that they aren't gay, but that this is the only way for them to make money outside of drugs. We didn't really see much going on, so we decided to duck into a hotel lobby to take a rest. My roommate Jake found an empty lounge upstairs, so our group crashed there until about 2am when we were asked to leave. We ended up walking across town to sleep on the campus of the University of Toronto for about 4 hours.
Saturday was a day full of walking. One thing most people don't realize about being homeless is how long the day seems when you have absolutely nothing to do. Fortunately, we learned the tricks of the trade from a few street kids, and ended up eating all of our meals for free on Saturday. For breakfast we ate at a soup kitchen at St. Stephens-in-the-field Church, for lunch we ate at a community barbeque for the homeless sponsored by a local church, and for dinner we went to a drop-in shelter at St. Peter's Anglican Church. Saturday night we enjoyed a free, outdoors fiddle concert at Dundas Square until we found a small park to all sleep at near the Women's College Hospital. Apparently during the night, another homeless man joined our group and slept next to me and I never realized it! I guess he felt safer sleeping in a group of strangers rather than sleeping by himself on the streets.
Our experience ended this morning (Sunday) at 9am with breakfast at Evergreen. Our city directors were waiting to greet us and hear all of our stories.
I knew that this was going to be a tough weekend, and I knew that I'd learn a lot about street life. My heart completely broke for street people because of how lonely, humiliating, and dehumanizing being homeless really is. While I was panhandling, hardly anyone would look at me, give me money, or at least say "I'm sorry." On a few occassions, people walking their dogs actually tightened their leashes so that even their dogs couldn't acknowledge me. At one point, a group of people stopped to have a ten minute conversation right in front of me without once looking down at me. It's really embarrassing and shameful-feeling to have to beg. I couldn't bring myself to actually look people in the eye and ask for money. When you're homeless, you lose all dignity and self-respect. It's such a tragedy.
I'm really glad I got to experience homelessness, if even for only 39 hours. The experience has really opened my eyes to the extent at which people are forced to live because of family, financial, personal, social, or medical problems. I've learned that each person on the street - no matter their circumstance - deserves respect and appreciation simply because they are another person. Although I probably won't give out money to every street person I meet, I will definitely acknowledge their existence with a "hello" or "God bless you." They deserve at least that much.
- Jason Horrell, CSM Toronto Summer 2008 City Host

No comments: