Although I have never starved for food or lived without a roof over my head, I have known those who have.
In the early-’80s, my friend was kicked out of her home for the fact her divorced parents simply couldn’t care for her anymore.
She was 14.
There were no cell phones back then, so the months would pass before I’d hear from her.
When she’d call, via a pay phone, my parents and I would offer to take her in for a meal, a respite from whatever was out there, which wasn’t much.
At that time, my friend was sleeping in a “squat,” actually an abandoned warehouse near the upscale Yorkville area of Toronto.
There, she and other abandoned and lost kids kept warm by huddling under torn-up blankets. The only light was the flicker of candles burning.
It was a creepy place.
It was there where I met a guy everyone called “Riff.” He was about 18 and came from a background of violence and trauma. Like most street kids, he had been hit by addiction, living a life ruled by a dirty needle or a huffed bag of industrial glue.
His glazed and sunken eyes were a trigger of the disease that had taken hold, but he was still young and strong – menacing almost.
Like many homeless people, he could not afford an education, a shower, or clean clothes, hence, employment was not available to him.
He had managed to avoid social service agencies for years for the fear he would be placed in a group home.
He survived by panhandling, competing for coins while sitting huddled on the sidewalk, usually near a grate where warm air from the subway below would serve as a salvage from the biting wind.
For food, he would join the other homeless by going on bread runs at 4 a.m., looking for any spare nourishment in the alleyways when bakeries and restaurants were usually off-loading their goods.
It was a harsh life, some survived, others weren’t so lucky.
Fast forward 13 years later.
While I was a student in Victoria, I was assigned to write a story about the upcoming civic election. I chose to interview one candidate’s take on the city bylaw which prevented aggressive panhandling. One of the rules was to have panhandlers sit six feet away from any business or store front.
To get a balanced view, I decided to get a panhandler’s take on the bylaw, so I approached a man I had seen on a street near where I lived.
He was hunched over, and when he looked up, he gave me a toothless grin just as someone tossed him an apple.
He told me his name was Sean. He looked so familiar, and after scrutinizing his face and asking him a few questions about his past, I figured it out. He was Riff.
He remembered my friend, and smiled weakly when I told him that she was now safe and sound – a mother of two boys.
Riff had made his way west to escape the cold and the overcrowded streets of Toronto. He had worked odd jobs, mostly labour, but Hepatitis B prevented him from steady employment.
He was clean from drugs, except for the medicine now saving his liver. He was still living in shelters; still on the streets begging to survive. Still broken.
The moral of this, if there even is one, is that you never know the story behind that person who is out there on the sidewalk asking for spare change.
In my own experience, you can’t save everyone, but you can hear their stories, acknowledge their presence, and recognize that not everyone chooses that way of life.
My friend may have escaped, but Riff could still be out there. He could be dead. I’m still looking.