Looking the other way

I met someone on a hiking trip once who made the very accurate observation that you often see completely different things walking back along a path you just walked. All it takes sometimes is a slight shift in perspective.

This isn’t a post about travel. It’s not about writing, except insomuch as all writing is about the human experience. It’s about an opportunity I had today that got me looking at things, and people, slightly differently.

My new workplace takes a turn sponsoring breakfast at the local…hmm, it’s not exactly a homeless shelter…the local support centre for those living on or very close to the street. People from the office volunteer, and I joined the crew this morning.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I see people on the streets every day, but so often I look the other way. And not in a way that shifts my perspective. To be fair to myself, it’s often the loud people (I don’t like noise) or the troublemakers who get our attention, and that becomes the image that dominates when someone mentions ‘street person’.

Seeing things differently

However, the thing that really struck me today was the diversity of people who came for the breakfast. Men and women from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. Young people who didn’t look like they were even out of their teens and older people who couldn’t carry their own plates.

This is the face of the homeless…and the not quite homeless. There were also people there who aren’t homeless yet – they’re just in a position where they have to choose between a roof or a meal.

There were a couple of fellows with briefcases and blazers where – I’m being presumptuous here – maintaining that external appearance seemed to be a part of how they held on to their sense of self. There was a First Nations fellow who kept making “what do you call an Indian” jokes – which I didn’t like – but I could see that he was the trickster, the jokester, who kept people laughing; I could see him being the card even growing up. There was the younger woman taking care of an older woman, carrying her cup, telling her not to use so much sugar in her tea. And there was the woman who spent the whole time reading her book, because “it helps me forget my problems”.

Yes, some of the people there were drug addicts. Even though I didn’t confirm that with them, it was clear. But there are also people who are mentally ill or have had one too many hard knocks in life and can’t find their feet again (or are trying their hardest in a society not built for supporting that effort). We forget that, in some cases, there is no support network because their families won’t or can’t take care of them…if they have family.

It’s sobering, and eye-opening, and makes me think of my own life. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in various aspects of my life. But there were times, if I had lost a job, or hadn’t had universal health care, or hadn’t had a family to support me, it wouldn’t have taken much to put me in a similar position to the one those individuals find themselves in.

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