Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.
We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.
Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.
But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”
As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner, a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.
Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:
Wake up. Survive.
Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.
In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.
But I’m not sorry, not really.
As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.
When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”
Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.
Eventually, I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor. I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.
For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute, the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.
This is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real-world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.
The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.
Let me start to be honest:
I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.
It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.
Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.
The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?
One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me and politely asked the way to the train station.
Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.
Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”
Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.
Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it won’t matter, because no matter how much I change, the world won’t change with me.
There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means zip if everybody else in the world is pretending there is no problem.
People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.
Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.
My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication – that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead, it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.
I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.
This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.
I used to think that people who are homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.
But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we won’t pull them back out again.
No matter how loud they scream. We won’t pull them back out again.
We just shake our heads and apologise.
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.