On Saturday, a crew of 300 volunteers dropped into the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre to help clean up in and around the area. The volunteers were from across Canada. They were here for a conference organized by their church. As part of the agenda, they devoted a day to making a difference in the community. For three hours, I took a team of 21 volunteers along the river pathway east of the Drop-In. We walked beneath a canopy of trees, strolled the concrete pathway, lugging our bags and picks, our hands enveloped in latex gloves. We picked up cigarette butts, pieces of glass and paper, old clothing left on the river bank, pop bottles, plastic bags and other debris. I carried a special container to hold the needles and syringes we found until they could be disposed of safely.
We laughed and chatted. Shared stories and jokes. A couple of the volunteers in my group were from Vancouver. The irony of leaving the garbage strike in that city to help clean up Calgary's garbage did not escape us.
As we wandered along the pathways people stopped and chatted. "Hey! Good work!" they called out as they rode by. "Nice to see people getting out and pitching in." Some of course, had to support us from the negative side of the street. "It's about time you people did something." "If you got rid of the druggies the garbage wouldn't be so bad."
We humans are funny creatures. We talk about leaving a legacy and then leave garbage lying around with seldom a thought about the impact of our debris upon other human beings and the environment. For those who are homeless, leaving garbage behind is sometimes the only sign they'll leave on a world that doesn't want to see them.
Being homeless isn't easy. I understand the proclivity to pick it up, use it, drop it and leave it. Not much has value when you're homeless -- especially yourself. Treating the environment the same way you treat yourself is an extension of the state of your inner world.
But what about those who aren't homeless? What about the 'normal' people who live in homes and apartments and still treat the environment like one big garbage can?
Yesterday, while waiting for the volunteers to arrive, I cleaned up around the area across from the Drop-In known as Triangle Park. On the road, beside the curb, was a pile of cigarette butts -- an entire ashtray full. Obviously, someone had stopped at the red light and while waiting for the green, dumped out their ashtray onto the road. Nice.
Every day in the media there are articles about the deplorable state of being homelessness represents. Armchair pundits shout out -- Shut down the shelters. Pull out the supports. That'll make 'em straighten up right quick. They'll have to get jobs or at least quit smokin' the crack that's makin' them sick.
If only it were so simple.
Last weekend, as I came back into the city from a weekend in Canmore, I stopped at an intersection waiting for a red light to turn green. On the cement curb diving east and west traffic, a young woman stood, hat in hand, looking for handouts. She smiled. She waved. She greeted people with shouts of, "Hey! It's all for a good cause." And, people complied. They rolled down their windows and tossed their coins into the bright orange cap she extended towards them. The light turned green and everyone continued on their way feeling good about themselves. They'd supported a good cause. And they had. A charity devoted towards finding a cure for a deadly disease is a worthy cause.
Parked on the grassy verge at the side of the intersection, the big blue and orange community van belonging to the charity was plastered with banners encouraging people to Give to the Cause. Volunteers leaped up and down, cheering, waving at the passing cars, encouraging those at red lights to open their wallets and support the panhandlers walking beside them. Drivers honked their horns.Waved. Called out cheers. It was a lively intersection filled with purpose -- and a cause.
On another corner, a homeless man walks between the waiting cars at the red light, a handmade cardboard sign held up against his chest. "Please help. Homeless. Hungry. God Bless." The drivers stare steadfastly forward, watching the light, wishing it would turn faster so that they can get away from this sign of what’s wrong with our society. No one rolls down their window. No one smiles at the scruffy-looking, dark haired, bearded man as he shuffles along the roadway, holding out his cap, asking for help. A man without a cause.
On one corner, a worthy cause. On the other? What label do we use? A hopeless case? An undeserving drug-addict breaking the law?
One deserves our support. What about the other?
Yes, the funds raised to support research into finding cures for disease are important. But what about their tactics? By mimicking the methods used by homeless individuals, are they not legitimizing the very tactic we deplore? The one warranting tickets from police attempting to deter the unacceptable practice of panhandling.
Someone empties their car ashtray on the street and drives on, leaving behind their garbage. We don't give a lot of thought to their passing by other than to possibly mutter under our breath, "some people's children" -- or words to that effect. Rains come and sweep away their garbage and we continue on with our day.
A homeless person drops their garbage on the sidewalk and disappears from our sight. We sweep away their unsightly mess and pick up all signs of their passing. We've got a lot to say about what they've done. A lot of names to call them. But hey! What can we do? They're just the homeless, good-for-nothing, lazy drug addicts. They've made choices. It's their own fault. Why can't they get a job like the rest of us and at least clean up their own mess?
Cleaning up the garbage on Saturday I found evidence of the thin line that divides us. We're all human beings. We're all under stress. We're all capable of making a difference; like the volunteers from communities across Canada who pitched in to clean up our neighbourhood. They don’t live here. They just wanted to help out. Every Sunday afternoon, a clean-up crew heads out from the Drop-In to pick up garbage. It’s an opportunity for all Calgarians to pitch in and make a difference. Aside from a core team made up of Alderman Joe Ceci, a few supporters, Drop-In staff and volunteers, few turn up to help.
Sometimes, what we do is not that different. We talk about making a difference and look for someone else to pick up the garbage. We lose our way on the road of life and look for someone else to give us directions. We search for labels that legitimize our efforts to change the world and stick to the side of the street we're on. Our eyes blinded by the rightness of what we’re doing, we don’t see what’s happening on the other side. Good cause. Hopeless case. It's all in our perceptions.