I recently came face-to-face with homelessness, when I allowed a young man who had been living on the street to spend the night in my home. This is not something I normally do, nor would I recommend it to others, since there are obvious risks involved. However, it was an important educational experience for me, and it gave me a very different perspective on who the homeless are.
Over the years I’ve often opened my home to young people in need who had nowhere else to go. Interestingly, I’ve never thought of these young people as homeless until now – yet having nowhere else to go is one of the criteria. Where would they have gone if I had not taken them in? Like this particular young man, they might have ended up on the streets. My actions did not always result in positive consequences, and on at least one occasion an individual I had helped later broke into my home. But overall those I helped have been very grateful and have gone on to do well in life.
This particular saga began a few weeks ago, when we were all having a relatively quiet evening at home. I was sitting in my easy chair studying and my daughter was stretched out on the floor doing some songwriting. We were idly chatting, when she received a phone call. She immediately got up, and I overheard her worried voice encouraging the caller not to be upset, stating that he could come over and she would try and help. After she hung up, she told me that the caller was a “friend” who was frightened and in fear of his life. He was calling from the house where her band members normally rehearse, but had nowhere to go and had been living on the streets for several weeks. A few days previously he had been accosted by a group of men who had robbed him and threatened him, and since that time he had been roaming the alleys in fear, walking all night long and finding shelter where he could.
I was naturally concerned at this whole story, and not eager to place my home and my family at risk. My daughter has a kind and tender heart, but is often too willing and trusting in helping people. The first question I asked was whether mental health issues were involved, and whether the threat of harm was real. She believed there were mental health problems, likely the individual was bipolar, but verified that the incident he spoke of had occurred. She said she had seen him accosted previously outside the bar where she worked, and that she and others had helped scare the guys off. I suggested that, rather than have this individual come to our home, it might be wiser to call the police and have them escort him to a shelter for the night. She agreed, but expressed the opinion that her “friend” had not found the police to be very helpful. We started to make calls to shelters in an effort to find him a place for the night, when the doorbell rang.
The young man had received a ride from one of the band members who was heading home, and like it or not, he was now in our home. He was a nice-looking, skinny young man in his early 20’s, who obviously had fallen on hard times, now looking rather dishevelled and disreputable. His expression was hesitant and somewhat vulnerable as he came into the kitchen and sat down. I was not exactly sure how best to handle the situation that had now been thrust upon me, so I decided to gather as much information as possible in order to determine what this person was all about, how he had ended up on the streets, and what kind of danger his presence might represent to my home and family.
My daughter made him a cup of tea, and I grilled him with questions. As his story emerged, I realized that it was a story that could happen to almost anyone. Up until a few months ago, he had a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Suddenly everything went downhill. He broke up with his girlfriend and lost his job. With no savings and no financial resources, he was unable to pay his rent and was evicted. Although he managed to find a place to store his meagre possessions, no friends were willing to take him in for more than a few days at a time. Without a place to call home, finding a job was extremely difficult, and after exhausting his friends’ hospitality, little by little he found himself out on the street, no money, no home, scared, and feeling helpless. As the days passed by, it became harder and harder to find a way out of the cycle, and he had taken to walking the streets all night long and hanging out and napping at different places during the day. Things finally came to a head earlier that morning when he had been accosted by a group of men who attempted to rob him, threatening to kill him if he remained in the area. At that point he had made his way to the rehearsal house and called my daughter in the hopes that she might be able to help him.
I asked about resources such as family. He told me his father is in Ontario, and his only other family in the city is his grandmother. He had gone to her for help, but she was unable to take him in to her seniors residence, nor was she able to assist him financially. Even if he had money for a long distance call or was able to raise bus fare to go back to Ontario, he was ashamed and too embarrassed to go to his father.
My questioning turned to his feelings of paranoia, and whether or not he really was in danger of being killed. This was my major area of concern, of course, and I suggested that he needed to call the police. It seemed plausible that he was, as my daughter suspected, suffering from mental illness, and his paranoia seemed to bear this out. However, he was very coherent and logical when explaining what happened, and looking at his somewhat shabby appearance and hang-dog expression, I did not doubt that his street survival skills were lacking, making him a convenient victim of a street attack. Reassured that those who had threatened him were not following him to my home, I again encouraged him to call the police if they surfaced.
The discussion then turned to his options. We discussed trying to find an available bed in a shelter (we had already called and been told they were full but still taking people in to sleep on mats), but he expressed a worry about getting there and the fear that his attackers would find him, since the shelter was in the same inner-city vicinity where he had been. Although the immediate goal was to find him a place for the night, I tried to encourage a plan that would be longer term, getting him off the street and back on track. He agreed that he would be willing to go to social services for temporary assistance, but I could see that a mixture of pride and embarrassment was still underlying, and he really seemed to have no idea where to begin.
The questions ran out and I finally decided to give the matter some thought. It was getting late, and he stretched out on the living room floor and fell into a restless sleep. My youngest daughter prepared a late supper, and we woke him up to what he said was his first meal in several days. By this point I was satisfied that he did not represent imminent danger to my family, and finally agreed that he could spend the night here, on the condition that first thing in the morning he would call social services and make some arrangements to get his life straightened out. He agreed, and left early the next morning.
In retrospect, it could have been a risky decision, but compassion got the better of me. He seemed young and helpless in many ways, and his story was not all that unusual. It could so easily have been one of my daughters who was left alone and living on the street – just the “right” combination of circumstances and an individual finds themselves homeless. Add mental illness to the mix, and I could understand how quickly a person could spiral down into a situation that is out of control. All too often there really is no place to go, no place for shelter, no money, and no place to get help for mental illness. The vast majority of the homeless do not fit the traditional picture of the transient street beggar. Most are like this young man, caught in a transitional situation, just needing a leg up to get life back on track.
About a week later, this young man came by. I asked how things had turned out, and he explained that he had applied for social assistance, and had managed to connect with a mental health professional who had helped him sort things out. He proudly added that he would be starting a new job that following Monday as a cook in a downtown restaurant, and that he had found a place to live. He thanked me profusely for being there for him that night. I wished him well and he went on his way. Hopefully he will remain among the success stories – I tend to think so.
I didn’t thank him, but he did something valuable for me in return. He made me see the face of homelessness. It was not looking out the window to the other side. It was a reflection in a mirror.