Last night I was part of Voices from the Street 2008. A group of social service agencies and volunteers conducting a homeless street count in Calgary on the night of May 14th. Over the course of two to three hours, one hundred volunteers wandered the city streets identifying how many people were without shelter, sleeping rough. Each group had a specific geographic area to walk, a clipboard with census sheet to mark off how many people were 'visibly homeless' and a shopping bag full of 'goodies' to give away to those willing to engage in conversation.
The purpose of the count is to identify trends -- the count has been conducted by the City every second year since 1992. Homelessness has risen by 32% every two years since the first count. Is that continuing? Are more people sleeping out? Are more people drifting into homelessness? The count helps project forward what facilities will be needed. And, helps identify what's working. What's not? Where are the gaps?
Moments from last night stand out in my memory like dewdrops in morning sunlight. Crystal clear. A perfect prism encapsulating the moment, magnifying all that is wrong, all that is sad about homelessness.
It took awhile for my group of four to find our feet on the street. We weren't sure how to approach someone. How to engage in conversation. The first man we enumerated walked past us. "Do you think he's homeless?" a team member asked. "Hmmmm. Not sure." We backtracked and called out to him. "Excuse me. We're doing a street count. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?"
The man replied, his demeanor open, the tone of his voice pleasant. "Sure." He swayed slightly on his feet. A tattered black leather jacket hung off one arm. A backpack swung from one shoulder.
"Do you have a place to sleep tonight?"
"Me? Hell no." He laughed. "I like to rough it. Expose myself to the stars."
"Do you ever use the shelters?"
"Not any more," he said. "I'm barred." He paused. Looked at us. Looked down at the ground. "I'm not a bad person," he pushed a rock away with the toe of his workboot. "I drink. That doesn't make me a bad person."
We gave him a couple of cigarettes. A bag of cheesies. A bottle of water. "Thanks for taking the time to chat with us," we said as we parted and walked in opposite directions.
We didn't ask everyone. Two guys walked by, their open necked shirts clean and crisp, a cell phone in one hand. No cigarette. No can of beer tucked into a pocket. We didn't stop them. Another man walked towards us, backpack, weary posture, unshaven face. We stopped and spoke to him.
We were making judgments with every step we took. Every person we met.
Some of the folks were easy to identify. Sleeping in the park. Sitting on a park bench, shopping cart parked beside them. A bottle of booze tucked into their bag but still visible. Shaggy hair. Shaggy beard. Scruffy clothes. Dirty hands. Torn pants. Scuffed up shoes. Those people were easy to identify. When we approached them they were always friendly. Always open about talking about their lives -- albeit determining fact from fiction was not so simple. Alcohol was generally the common ingredient in the mix of their perspectives.
At one point, we walked across a darkened parking lot and found three men sitting on the ground in a far corner. A case of beer sat beside them. Two boxes of donuts were open on the ground. In front of them, plugged into a block heater outlet, a small colour TV blared the news. We walked up, said hi. They welcomed us graciously. "Want a donut? The guy at the donut shop always gives them to us at 10pm. He's great."
We told them why we were there. I recognized two of them from the Drop-In. They didn't recognize me.
They willingly answered our questions. Age. How long in the city? How long on the street? Where did they come from before here? Did they have a job? Did they ever use the shelter system? If not, why not?
They laughed and joked amongst each other. They regaled us with stories of their adventures (and misadventures). Stories of sneaking into boarded up buildings to stay out of the cold winter winds. Of hide-aways with cable TV because the building management forgot to turn it off when they'd turned everyone out in anticipation of tearing the building down. Of cops swarming them in another parking lot where they'd set up their nightly camp because the building owners were afraid of their presence in the dark. They swore us to secrecy as they told us about one building manager and his inability to keep them out of his buildings.
I wondered why they asked us to keep their secret. And why they immediately trusted us when we quickly replied, "Of course." A vulnerability of the street? Misplaced trust. Trust given too quickly. A history of trusting the untrustworthy. An assumption of co-conspiracy? Assumed community?
We talked to teen prostitutes. Runaway teens. Elderly men with years and years of street life pounded into their worn out shoes. Pockets dragging with the weight of hands buried deep within their folds, holding off the cold, clutching a bottle for support.
We put a granola bar in front of a woman lying on the grass in a park. She looked pregnant. Sound asleep? Passed out? A man walked up and told us, "She's okay. Just napping. She'll wake up in a bit and move on."
We talked to teens hanging out. Teens hanging on to some vestige of humanity as they politely thanked us for the chocolate bars and water bottles we handed out.
We didn't talk to one man wheeling a spiffy looking bike down a quiet avenue. His companion stopped to chat with us but he kept moving. Kept putting distance between him and us.
Them and us.
Two sides of the street.
One of the last men we talked to stood in front of us as we waited at a red light to cross the street. I wasn't sure about talking to him. He stood aggressively. His arms lifting up from his sides as if he thought he might be able to fly away. It was late. 11pm. Dark.
One member of the team tried to open a conversation with him. "Hi, we're doing a street count. Do you have a place to stay tonight?"
The expletives flew fast and furious. He aggressively pushed his body towards us. I wanted to calm his anger. He seemed stoned. Or perhaps he had a mental disability. I offered him a cigarette. He thought I meant a smoke of something more potent. I backed away. We all backed away. We crossed the street. Kept walking away, his expletives colouring the air behind us.
As we worked our way back to our starting point, we came upon the first man we'd encountered earlier that evening. He was sitting on the sidewalk at the back of a gas station. Beside him, an older gentlemen sat in a wheelchair.
"Hey," the man said. "I know you. I met you before."
We smiled and reminded him of our encounter earlier.
"I remember!" I didn’t know if he was surprised he remembered, surprised to see us again, or surprised we remembered him.
He was visibly more inebriated than before. He had trouble holding himself upright and unlike previously where his conversation was lucid and polite, his words were laced with expletives. He wasn't threatening. Just colourful. Between the expletives he kept insisting, "I'm not a bad person."
I asked the gentleman in the wheelchair if he had a place to sleep that night. "Oh yeah," he replied. "I'm going there." And he pointed down the street to a building two blocks away where those under the influence can spend the night.
The other man interjected. "I'm going to push him there in a little while." He added his signature phrase. "I'm not a bad person." And then promised. "I'll be careful with him." He pointed to his buddy. "I'm not a bad person. He's my friend. I take good care of him."
The language of the street. I'm not a bad person. He's my friend. I take good care of him.
The street with a language of its own. Colourful. Filled with expletives. Filled with the human condition pouring out in words of denial. Words of fear. Of pain. Of defiance. Of camaraderie. Of shared experienced. Common ground.
The young woman standing on a corner, looking for business. "I'm not a crackhead," she told us when we asked if she had a place to sleep that night. "I got my own place. I quit doing that shit six months ago. I can take care of myself."
The young couple, tattoos and spiky hair, demographic markers on the dark side of the street. "We don't use no shelter. We can take care of ourselves."
Taking care. Good care. Any care on the street is not easy.
Being careful is not part of street life.
Exposed. Vulnerable. Naked to the eyes of passers-by. Easily identifiable. Easily targeted. Easily counted by census takers on a warm night in May.
We didn't ask everyone if they had a place to sleep last night. Only those who looked like they didn't. They were easy to identify.
And when we parted we wished them well with a concerned admonishment to, 'be safe'.
As darkness descends, the street can turn mean. You gotta be safe.