I’m trying to figure out where I’m at on the squeegee issue.
Squeegees are all mixed up in with my ideas about the homeless, poverty and safety on the streets. With wanting to be compassionate while also wondering why the city’s gone to hell in a handbasket.
On Saturday, I spent a couple of hours in Allan Gardens, watching volunteers prepare a meal for those in the tent city. I greeted a handful of neighbours and activists — the sorts of people you’d expect to meet at demos. (So yes, there were what naysayers are calling “professional activists” at last weekend’s demonstration, broken up by police around 6am on Tuesday.)
I also discovered some odd attitudes.
An acquaintance was really hungry, but wasn’t sure he should be standing in line for the free food which, after all, wasn’t for him. As a joke, he asked if I had any “homeless clothes” to lend him, so he’d fit in.
The homeless man sitting by me, a tall and gangly teen, mildly responded that he was wearing his homeless clothes. The two looked quite similar, but for the extra black tape on the homeless boy’s boots, holding the worn sole to the leather.
That boy is what many want the ideal homeless person to be: polite, thoughtful, well groomed. He’s hoping to go to school in the fall.
Most of the hundreds of people in the food line — and I’m not exaggerating the numbers — didn’t look like that. Some were grotty, unshaven, had lost a few teeth along the way. The older men had the look of alcoholism. (There is a man at Church and Wellesley who slurs his speech all the time, sober or not. I’ve always assumed that’s the result of alcohol poisoning.) They’re the kind of people we step over when we go to the bank machine. They’re the ones who make us sad.
They’re the folks who’ve been here all along, and we’ve shared the neighbourhood with them for many years.
Then there are the street punks. You know the types: scarlet mohawk ‘dos, living on the street for the fun of it. The dangerous ones.
They’re in your face asking for change. They’ve got their squeegees out while you roll up the window in your car.
People hate ’em. With a vicious passion, I discovered at the last Church-Wellesley Neighbourhood Police Advisory Committee meeting.
I can’t figure out the hatred. I remember my own youth — dyed hair, rebellion, trying to make my own way. Still trying to have some fun while doing it. I remember what it was like to have no job and no money.
Hooking up with a woman who had nothing but a credit card. Grocery stores didn’t accept American Express, so we’d go to drugstores and buy what food we could find — potato chips and cookies.
Maybe it’s the anger of dissatisfied grown-ups confronting failure or lost dreams or being trapped in responsibilities we’re tired of.
Maybe it’s the fear that we’re losing our gay neighbourhood. Presumably, then, we gay people are okay with Moose, the tall dirty-blond who squeegees in drag at Church and Wellesley. We’re worried about our own safety.
But I’ve noticed that anger and rudeness are met in kind. I’ve always politely refused to give money or smiled or even laughed at jokes — and been treated similarly. And I don’t have it in me to demand that the homeless and the squeegees be turfed. I don’t have it in me to blame the mentally ill for being a bit off sometimes.
Some of these kids have been kicked out of their homes. Some have run away. Some are just fucking around for fun. Though as it was starting to rain on Saturday, I wondered where the fun was in sleeping in wet clothes in the mud.
Shelters are violent places. There are no affordable apartments out there. The vacancy rate is terrifyingly low, the rents incredibly high.
A poverty activist on Saturday told me journalists need to tell people that they have to care. That we are beginning to demonize the poor.
Gay village residents tell me they want the street people to go away.
I just want to know where they should go.
Eleanor Brown is Managing Editor for Xtra.