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December 21, 2009

It Takes a Village to Care for the most Fragile

The fragility of this spider web reminds me of the fine line between the haves and have nots. The berries are the wealth in the world and the web is the majority of the world who are barely surviving; invisible, clinging to hope.

He sort of lumbers when he walks from side to side as if his feet are sore. He's big and wide and black. He has a name from the bible. He's 57-years-old.  He brought me a Christmas card the other day because he's come into our office more than a few times and in real terms, in ways that I could really make a difference, I've done very little for him. I've been friendly. I can't fix his reality.

I don't know how he got on this island or how long he's lived here. I think he's lived here for quite a few years and prior to this year he claims he's never been homeless. He is sleeping on the cement, under the shelter of the United Church's porch roof. He has a foamy and a sleeping bag.  As long as the temperature is above freezing, there are no cold weather shelters on the island but there is a lot of support for such a small place. There's a transition centre for women and another one for men who can spend a maximum of three months there. He's already used up his three months.

When the temperature dips below freezing as it did a few weeks back, the Salt Spring Community Centre opens its doors at 6:00 pm. There were approximately 9 people who had to make use of it.
"Are you cold?" I ask him.
"No, I'm not cold," he says. "My back's sore," he says.

The difference between this man and a lot of others is that he isn't complaining. He doesn't expect anything, at least not from us. He doesn't come across as hopeless. He tells me, when I sound worried about him, that he's okay. "Things will get better," he says. "I'll get a job again in March." He lacks a sense of entitlement.

If you're homeless, you can get food on Salt Spring almost every day of the week - usually a free lunch. While there is never enough, there is quite a bit of support here from the churches and the amazing community centre which is also where the Food Bank is located. There is someone who works there whom I've never met named Jamie Alexander who is the main interface to the community and he sounds like an amazing guy.

My co-worker, on more than one occasion, has had people in her office - men and women - who end up in tears. The woman who is fleeing an abusive relationship from another province. The guy whose baby died of SIDS a few months ago and is about to head off to rehab as soon as he can catch a ride to where he needs to go off island. The woman who has used up her employment insurance and can't seem to get the type of job on island that she's qualified for but she's lived here for 10  years and this is her home. And, there's the people who have come here because they wanted to live here but had no idea that jobs were so limited. You wonder how that couldn't be obvious  - the fact that jobs are limited on a small island - but you bite your tongue.

I don't feel guilty. I feel curious. I don't feel sympathy. I feel empathy. I feel gratitude (there but for the grace of God, go I). I don't feel judgmental, but there are days when I'm very judgmental.  I feel philosophical. I don't feel responsible, I wonder about all the personal choices that have led them to where they are now. A lot of the time I feel powerless knowing that listening is the only concrete thing of value I can give.

When I lived in the West End, I passed homeless people every single day. I became hardened to them because I didn't know them and there were so many that the only way to carry on was to become oblivious. It's not so easy in a small town to do that when you get to know them as people first.

This man says he will drop in again tomorrow. I'm ready. I have something to give him to brighten his day. Afterall, he's truly the only person I know who needs a gift to remind him that strangers do care and to perhaps help, just a little, to keep his hope alive.

1 comment:

Ben Anderson said...

Very nice piece, Gayle. Hope your holiday season is continuing, as bright & cheerful & joyous as ever.

Peace & Love & Light,
Ben ;-)