On being … insights from a stranger

By Ingrid Sapona

Because of the pandemic, I’ve taken to daily walks to try to maintain cardio fitness. I’ve found a few different routes I like, but on weekday mornings I tend to do the same route – a nice mix of flat and hills. I go at pretty much the same time every morning and so there’s a handful of folks I see regularly enough that we greet each other.

That particular route takes me through a streetcar underpass (kind of a tunnel) and past a streetcar stop called Humber Loop. This stop is a juncture for a few different lines and a bus route. Unlike most streetcar stops, Humber Loop has a brick building that serves mainly as a rest stop/service stop for streetcar drivers. On one end of the building, however, is a glass enclosed waiting area for folks to wait out of the cold or rain. There are lights and a few very uncomfortable benches, but that’s it.

Because I walk very early, I’ve noticed some homeless people sleeping on the hard, cold benches. The building is not heated, nor are there any public washrooms – it’s strictly shelter from the elements. It always makes me sad to see them, but I figure at least it’s better than them being outside.

One morning last week, as I was passing through the Loop, I noticed a senior ambling up the hill a bit ahead of me. She was going slowly and I knew I’d end up passing her, but I hesitated a bit because I figured she probably didn’t expect to hear anyone behind her at that hour. When I caught up to her, I gave her a wide birth – not just to social distance, but so as not to frighten her. As I passed, I made sure to say good morning, so she knew I was friendly.

When she looked up, I saw she had on a face mask. She was wearing a black raincoat and I noticed a lapel pin that looked like a cross and she was holding rosary beads. When she returned my greeting, I noticed she had a charming, old-world accent that sounded Italian. When I apologized for possibly startling her, she assured me I hadn’t. She then pulled down her mask, making it clear she wanted to have a bit of a conversation.

She said she was just thinking about those poor men – pointing in the direction of the streetcar building. I said yes, it’s sad to see them. I told her that I’ve noticed three or four men there every morning. She shook her head. I said that the only good thing about the whole situation is that at least they’re not out in the cold and rain. But, I added, I know it’s not heated and when winter comes, it must be awful. She agreed but added, “Never mind the cold… that’s not the worst”

I quickly interjected, “Oh I know, where do they get food?” “It’s not just that,” she added again. Pointing to the facemask pulled down under her chin, she said, “We feel safer because of this, but what about them? Because of the virus, there aren’t even places for them to clean themselves now!” I nodded in agreement, as these are all things I’d thought about all these mornings.

Then, looking more distraught, she said, “But worst of all… they have no LOVE. There’s no one to touch them, to love them. Everyone needs love. And who loves them?” I was dumbstruck by her insight and all I could do was nod in sad agreement.

When I composed myself a bit, I confessed to her that I’d never thought of that aspect of homelessness. Though I’ve often thought about – and donated to charities that provide – food and shelter for people living on the street, I never thought about the fact that they have no one to love them. After a few minutes of silent, shared anguish, we began walking together up the little hill. When we got to the top, we nodded at each other and headed off in different directions.

The rest of that morning’s walk I could think of nothing but the conversation I had with that stranger – a woman I’ve never seen before, or since. Her innocent lament helped me realize how focused I’ve always been on people’s physical needs. Though I do believe it’s important to ease hunger – because it impacts body and mind – I’ve disregarded the most crucial needs of all – the need for love and a sense of belonging.

I wish I could end this column by telling you I’ve done something to help fill those kinds of needs for any of the homeless people I see in the morning. But I haven’t come up with any concrete way of doing that. Nonetheless, I’ve thought about that stranger’s comment so many times in the past 10 days, I felt the need to write about it.

Thanksgiving is around the corner here in Canada. I know many of us have been thinking about the fact that Thanksgiving will be very different this year because of Covid-19. But, for many homeless people, I’ll bet it won’t feel much different from any other day. My hope is that those of us in a position to ease the hunger and physical harshness the homeless face – on Thanksgiving and every other day – will do so. But, regardless of any monetary support you may be able to provide to help the homeless, my hope is that this column prompts you to also recognize the void of love and loneliness homeless people face every day and that you try to help fill that void.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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