If I drive by where they are working, they will give me a wave and a slight smile, but when they come to the kitchen at meal times, they will not meet my eyes. If I say hello or good morning, these same girls will respond in kind, but will not look at me directly.
“Can you spare 10 bucks so I can get some smokes?” Again the supplicant will not look me in the eye but constantly shift his eyes away from mine if I so much as try to take a look at him. Once they get used to begging, then they will look directly at you, but the newer ones can’t look, mostly because of shame.
I have never been in the situation where I have had to ask for money, nor have I tried to barter away something I valued for financial gain. In the 20 years I have been at the kitchen I have witnessed both. With no work, or no incentive to move on, the lure of street life can, over a brief period of time, suck a new person in. Once they ignore the warnings of their heart and make the step to be included they degenerate quickly. I have personally witnessed it happen to both men and ladies. For some it can happen within a year, others more time than that, but most often they will fit in, given time.
To see a healthy, pretty young woman totally degenerate in a year’s time to having to work the street in order to survive is probably one of the saddest things I witness. Equally hard is watching a man lose his job and not able to find another, eventually adapt to street life. For both genders it often involves alcohol and or drugs, which weakens their resistance to total capitulation. They have to ignore the reasoning of the heart, but poverty can do that.
One fellow that was in that situation two years ago came into the kitchen and in conversation with him I found that at that point he did not drink or take drugs. With no work forthcoming he soon became acclimatized to the street. Now two years later he no longer looks like the robust 45 year old I first met. He more often than not looks like he is totally hung over or had a bad night on crack. After countless rejections, he no longer looks for work. He is shrinking into a mentally degenerative state that in a couple of years will put him on AISH, something we have seen far too often. The greatest change they make is not physical, it is emotional and mental. They have given up. If they had a moral code when they first came, they have dispensed with that as well.
With constant rejection for work and any other help they might need, street life and its ‘delights’ do not take long to make a person ignore what their heart tells them to do. Discouragement speaks much louder than empty promises of work or help, so it is really no wonder that they turn in that direction.
For those of us who have always had work and a lot of the pleasures that money can buy, we don’t often understand what it is that these folks face every day. We don’t have to walk the streets looking for work or something to do to fill our time. We don’t have to walk from one end of downtown to the other just to have a meal or find a place to lay our head at night.
One thing though; we all face this single challenge at one time or another; do we or do we not – ignore our hearts?
Chris Salomons is the kitchen co-ordinator of Potter’s Hands in Red Deer.