A little over a year ago, my wife and I did the unthinkable—we sold our little dream home in a leafy residential neighbourhood just north of the Beaches, and bought a big old Victorian house with our son and daughter-in-law right in Toronto's downtown core.
As you can imagine, the transition took a little getting used to. Upon moving into the neighbourhood we were excited at the prospect of living ‘car free’ and being nestled amongst quaint little urban parks, soaring buildings, boutique shops, not to mention restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. What we hadn’t taken into account was the presence of the residents who were here long before gentrification and the condos arrived.
At first, I tried to ignore the sex workers standing outside our front door, the homeless men and women mingling on the sidewalks near the shelter down the street, and those struggling with drug addiction, who to be honest, at times look both menacing and lost. Part of me wanted to pretend these people didn’t exist—to walk around them, see past them, as if turning my head away would somehow magically make them go away. I’m not proud to say that, but it’s true. Part of me wants to live in a neat and tidy, predictably calm neighbourhood, but guess what? Life is not ‘neat and tidy’.
What I haven’t told you yet is that I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, myself. And those sex workers I was talking about, well many of them, like me, have a history of sexual violence in their childhood and adolescence. So not long after moving into our new neighbourhood, I came to the realization that if I can’t find empathy for these individuals I pass on the street every day—the marginalized, precariously-housed, addicted, and traumatized—how can I feel good about myself when I put my head down in the comfort of our home every night?
That was the point at which I truly planted myself in my new neighbourhood and began to see everyone who shares it with me. My wife and I started making eye contact with the sex workers outside our house, and gradually they began to trust us and to open up to us. And I can tell you that many of their stories are heartbreaking, but I can also say that there is a quiet dignity and at times a routine mundaneness in how they interact with their clients and other sex workers.
A few months back, I was invited to the premiere of Lowdown Tracks, a powerful documentary by Emmy award winner Shelley Saywell that profiles a few of Toronto’s precariously-housed individuals and the role that their music plays in their daily joys and struggles. I left that screening feeling jarred and uncomfortable—not so much overwhelmed by the scale of the homeless population within our prosperous city, but more so about all the lives and unlived dreams that comprise those ‘faceless’ statistics. What struck me most was listening to one of the artists profiled in the film describe what a typical day looks like for him. Having to leave the shelter before 8 AM after another restless night, and then having to face hours and hours of alone time wandering the downtown with no place to go and nothing to do.
Just last weekend my wife and I were walking past a large men’s shelter around the corner from our house. The shelter is located on a busy downtown street and is situated directly across from a large park and community center. There are always crowds of men mingling outside the shelter, and there is typically a lot of garbage and abandoned food containers scattered across the sidewalk and all over the grass outside the community center. I turned to my wife and I said, “This is disgusting… why doesn’t the shelter staff clean up all this mess?” That’s when my wife pointed out, “There are no garbage cans available outside the shelter, so what are these men supposed to do? If you don’t give people a sense of dignity and ownership of their space, how do you expect them to treat it?”
I hate to admit it, but my ‘default reaction’ is always to judge others, distance myself, and to avoid the hard conversations. You know what the ironic thing is? I thought living in the frenetic hustle of downtown would make me less patient and desensitized—the truth is since moving down here, I’ve become more empathetic and aware of the marginalized population and my role in that marginalization.
I’m reminded of an interview I was watching with the author and activist Dr. Marta Vega. In the interview, Marta recalls an incident that occurred when she was a teenager. She had walked past an old family friend on the street without acknowledging him. The young man had struggled with addiction and was now living on the streets of New York City, and Marta felt too embarrassed to make eye contact with this young man. Marta's mother took her daughter aside and sternly said: "That could be you, that could be your brother, that could be your sister, that could be me... Don't you ever not recognize yourself in somebody else."