Each morning from my sixth-floor apartment, I watch my neighbour pack his bed and get ready to start the day. In an elaborate ritual, he folds blankets to be stowed in an enormous rucksack, then carefully rolls a bulky sleeping bag up tight. Finally, he meticulously sheathes the pieces of cardboard that formed his mattress inside plastic wrap to protect them from the wet. Then he begins the short trek up to the bushes in front of the fence that runs along the subway corridor. Here, these few worldly goods can be securely hidden until he returns many hours later. Only then does my neighbour stand upright, shift his shoulders into his heavy jacket and trudge off to commence the next chapter of his day.
I don’t know if he knows I’m watching. Or if he cares. In the summer, there were mornings when I quite envied him. Sleeping under the stars, and waking to chirping birds and the grass newly mown by the city parks department had its appeal. As autumn and the first snow arrived, I was sure he’d move on to a shelter. But as winter set in, with the snow knee-deep, he was still there.
I’ve experienced the predictable rush of thoughts. Should I offer him money? Should I call social services and have him picked up? Should I contact my member of Parliament with a renewed appeal for affordable housing? At least we should take him some hot breakfast, my wife insists. So far, we’ve stopped short of doing anything.
All these impulses seem inadequate if not worse, intrusive. I fear being a busybody. I am reminded of when I was a young man in Winnipeg and instead of giving a panhandler the quarter he requested, insisted he join me in a nearby restaurant to share a bowl of soup — and the longest 20 minutes of the poor man’s life.
Taking another tack, I have tried to respect how much hard work it takes to maintain an independent life, avoiding the shelters, picking and choosing the soup kitchens, getting yourself to the right ones on the appropriate days. Even to panhandle with any success demands skills that should provide case studies for business schools. “If you’re happy and you know it, spare some change,” a perennially cheerful chap used to sing at a prime corner of midtown Toronto. He knew he needed to sell passersby a version of his misery (but not too much), all the while sustaining a gimmick that made him stand out.
What’s unavoidable is a deep perplexity. The poor you always have with you, Jesus said.
This seems a statement of stark reality, though. Jesus being Jesus, he more likely put it out as something the rest of us — more fortunate, if you like to use that term — would perpetually have to wrestle with. A burden for our conscience. Every generation, every culture, needs to confront the reality of disparity.
In the case of my world, behind the little park are condos where penthouses sell for $16 million. What then is required of us? Certainly, that we enact justice. But, just as importantly, that we face our motives and separate pity from respect. And perhaps finally, that we cope with the simple idea of “neighbour.”
In the midst of these differences, we all are a community.
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