Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Homeless

Working downtown has its major ups, but also some downs. I love the easy access into the city centre on dedicated bus routes. I love that if I have to run errands after work, I'm at least already halfway to where I need to get. I love the busy-ness of downtown, how alive it is, and just the variety of people I end up seeing (writers are people-watchers, and my commuting time, combined with my coffee time and my errand time, is my people-watching time and gives me a lot of my inspiration).

The down of downtown is the poverty you sometimes witness. I get off the bus two and a half blocks from work, and depending on which stop I get off at, I am almost guaranteed to see 4 different homeless people every day, sitting on the different corners. Some of them are very cheerful and thoroughly courteous, smiling good morning, never asking for money, commenting that it's cold or warm, snowy or windy or rainy today, or telling me that they like my Habs' scarf.

One of my colleagues knows most of them by name, and knows their stories. If you've been working in my building long enough, you almost definitely know the man outside the Holt Renfrew with the big, brown dog, the long hair and the beard. He's cheerful, always. He has a mental illness that isn't obvious right away, and one of the breakfast places downstairs gives him free coffee whenever he goes into the building.

On Thursday, I decided to treat myself to a soy latte, and on my way into the Second Cup, I saw a homeless woman I had never seen before. She was sitting a few feet from the door of the store, hand out, staring off and looking sad. She was young, maybe 35 years old. I went in, and 5 minutes later, with my $4 coffee in hand, when I came out, she wasn't sitting anymore. She was standing in the same spot. Sobbing. Just completely caught up in her grief about something, and it was so incredibly sad. I can't begin to imagine what happened in those 5 minutes, and the scariest thing is that probably, nothing happened. Her life was already bad enough before I went into the store, and just as bad as I came out. But imagine yourself sobbing alone in the middle of the street, with commuters averting their eyes and passing you every which way. It was enough for me to nearly start crying myself, but not enough for me to ask her what was wrong. I was afraid, and somewhat shaken, so I took my coffee and continued to my building.

I didn't see her this morning.

I read in the paper this week that the homeless rate in Ottawa is rising quickly. I can't imagine what drives someone to such a terrible state, to the point where they lose everything and are alone with no one to look after them, invisible in plain sight of everyone who passes them in the busiest part of a city. I try to remember to thank God everyday that I don't know the pain of having nothing and no one, but my family, my shelter, my peace of mind and faith are all things I take for granted until I see (really see, not just absently notice) people like this woman I saw on Thursday.

I won't even try to analyze the reasons for it, or point fingers, or take political sides on the homeless issue, but I do believe that in general, our society would go a long way with more compassion. There is a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that says: "Even your smile to your brother or sister is charity". This is a charity we can all give to afford.

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