" SpiritofSaltSpring:BC:Canada:GulfIslands:SaltSpring:Salt Spring:

November 19, 2009

Homeless on Salt Spring

I see him sitting in the cafe soaked to the bone. His curly hair hangs in damp rotini spirals and water drips off the dark brown tips adding to the sheen of his face. His eyes always seem a bit wild to me. Piercing. On alert. Stuck in the fight or flight response. On Monday, the beginning of the torrential rains, he freaks out in the office first thing. "I hate this fucking island," he yells right at me.  He lives on a boat that someone gave him that has mold and no heat or electricity but he won't go out there because the only way he has to get to it is via a canoe and he's afraid he's going to drown trying to get there in the dark and the winds.

At first, because he's been coming into the office for the entire year and I know him - or at least who he presents when he is in my presence - and it is as if his behaviour is the definition of insanity - doing something over and over again and expecting different results - instead of feeling the compassion I should, I head off in a very wrong direction in my response.

"And what's different about this winter?," I ask.
"What do you mean," he says?
Suddenly it dawns on me. Don't go there.
"What's your point?" he asks more aggressively as we stare at each other.

Another man, barely holding it together, on the phone to the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, after being on hold for at least 20  minutes gets the bad news.  No, that place isn't going to work. It's too expensive. They won't pay. The desperation that he has been keeping well hidden and at bay rises and in its place arrives a palpable hopelessness on today this International Men's Day 2009 in which the theme is  positive male role models. I expect neither of these two men had any when they were little boys or they wouldn't be so lost. Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know their stories. I would like to know their stories.

In a split second, when it dawned on me that trying to make someone who is stuck "see the light" by repeating what seems obvious to you is just as unconscious as expecting them to change a lifelong pattern and the only useful and available response has to be compassion. I quickly got that. I remained silent.

He continued to vent.  I looked at him and I said I couldn't imagine how horrible that would be. I couldn't imagine how cold that would be. I was sorry that he was in this situation. And it worked. He suddenly went quiet. He seemed appeased. He just needed someone to feel SOMETHING for him. He left.

The next day he comes in and I ask him how he is. I tell him that I was thinking about him last night and wondered how he managed. He seemed much better.
"I spent the night on a friend's boat," he says.
"I got in the canoe at 6:00 am. It was now around 1:30 pm."

When I thought of Salt Spring, before I lived here, I'd think artists. But, really, in addition to the marvellously lucky or successfully ingenious or hardworking wealthy and all those artists, there are a very large number of people living on the edge. People who have babies when they have no jobs, no high school education and skills that will keep them poor forever.

Until I moved here, I had no idea what a priviledged existence I'd led. I had no sense of the absolute lack of education and workplace skills that still existed out in the "general population". Maybe because I've spent so many years in the past, working at The University of British Columbia" with my last stint at the Department of Computer Science, that the lack of computer skills on this island by people in need of work is not just unbelievable but it's actually downright frightening. It says a lot about Canada's future and where it's headed.

Knowing how to use a computer, regardless of what you do for a living, is a basic skill for the 21st century. And, yet, there are people who have never touched a mouse. They approach it the way you expect them to, the same way we all did when first confronted by manouvering it.

I would like to kill the interface designer at Microsoft who came up with that pretty round and user-antagonistic icon in Vista that hides all the operating functions because when luddites sit down in front of a computer, they are completely baffled by what to do after they get their bottoms into the chair and suddenly I feel like I've become tech support for people who have come from some other planet in some other century who act as if computers were just invented last week or at worst, that they are evil and the cause of all the social ills in the world. I can't relate to either group. But, I can have compassion for them. That can be my lesson today.

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
Wisdom to know the difference."

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