Volunteering is not just something I love to do, I believe it truly is a duty for those of us who have enough free time to do it. But I can feel a bit uncomfortable in new or unfamiliar social situations. So the majority of my volunteer work tends to be what I’d call “one degree removed”. I’ll sort food at a food bank, encourage people to donate Christmas turkeys, or give my time helping at charity fundraisers. No doubt I’m helping, but it’s comfortable: I have a job and I know what to do and expect.
This past winter I volunteered with Burrito Project Toronto. I prepped vegetables and then helped make close to 100 burritos. Some were sold for $3 to help fund the project, the remaining ones are given for free to people in need in a nearby neighbourhood.
This week I’ve decided to go out and help directly. Instead of cooking – something extremely comfortable for me (ask me how often we make burritos at home!) I’ve signed up to help distribute them.
At 1PM I find myself at Moss Park – a neighbourhood that some consider dangerous. I can’t speak to that first hand but I can say that there’s a fair bit of drug use and a lot of shelters and social service agencies. While some may describe the neighbourhood differently, there is no denying that there will be people here who will appreciate a free meal.
I meet three others at the Moss Park Market, a store housed in a shipping container that sells affordable fresh food. This is where the burritos will be sold to support the project. Any not sold will also be given away.
We split in to groups of two, one group takes a bag of burritos and heads toward a shelter. We take our cart full of food and head to Moss Park.
At first I’m my usual shy self, reluctant to talk to people as the other person I’m with calls out to people she sees on the street asking if they’d like a burrito. I realize that it would be ridiculous to just walk with someone giving out food – why am I here if not to help people? And so I reach in the bag and grab four burritos, calling out to people as well.
There are a number of different reactions. Mostly people are glad for the food. Some ask for a second for later or for a friend. Other people clearly want to be left alone and quickly walk away. I wonder if perhaps they’re expecting a sermon along with their meal.
In some ways the park lives up to its reputation. We start to walk toward a man holding his hand up to his face, looking up at the sky. We think he’s taking a photo of the skyscraper behind us until we get close enough to see that he’s got a glass pipe and is smoking crack. We leave him to that.
We come upon a group of friends sitting on a cluster of benches. Some accept burritos, while one person says “No thanks – I’m just sitting here smokin’ and cokin’.” We don’t even realize what he said until a few minutes later when we ask each other “Wait a minute – did he really say that?”
In the past I’ve found that this neigbourhood could be a little stressful. Sometimes there are people talking to themselves, sometimes they’re loud or upset, sometimes they’re yelling at each other. But today, even when people are nearby using drugs, I’m not worried. Perhaps it is a combination of both the perception and reality that coming to help rather than to judge puts things in a different perspective for all of us. For example, I notice that aside from those who might suspect I’m about to quote bible verses to them, having food seems to reduce suspicion. People aren’t particularly talkative but they’re not looking at us strangely.
Once we’ve talked to everyone we could find in the park we still have a bag and a half of burritos left. We head across the street to a homeless shelter. There are a number of folks hanging out outside. About half a bag are given away.
Despite the day being really sunny and perhaps one of the last warm days before autumn and winter fully set in, there aren’t so many people out. We go around the corner to a safe injection site.
I know I have a number of readers outside of North America and perhaps they aren’t aware of the current epidemic of opiate use we’re currently experiencing here. For a long time, opiates like heroin and prescription opiates like morphine have been a problem. However in recent years, the number of prescriptions increased – many believe this to be related to shady pharmaceutical marketing practices designed to increase sales. You can read a little about this here. I’ve read a number of stories about people who had opiates prescribed for pain – injuries or post-operative – and soon found themselves addicted. Once they could no longer get prescriptions, they went in search of heroin and other opiates. As a result the number of people experiencing opiate addiction is rapidly increasing. I was shocked to see a few of these large safe needle disposal containers in the neighbourhood as we gave out food.
The bad thing about heroin as opposed to prescription drugs is that there is no quality assurance or verification of potency. What you buy on the street may be of normal strength or if you’re unlucky you might get a batch tainted with a stronger synthetic opiate like fentanyl. Or perhaps you just overestimate your dose. In either case you will face a potential overdose. If you are in a corner of the park you will just pass out and your breathing will slow and your heart will stop – and passers by may not even notice. However a safe injection site is supervised by nurses who can administer Naloxone and get people medical attention. It doesn’t solve the addiction problem, but could buy another day in which someone could decide to seek help. And nobody deserves to die a preventable death from neglect.
We ring the doorbell and are met by one of the nurses who takes the last few burritos and thanks us. We say our goodbyes and “See you next month”s before heading our separate ways.
Today seems like a good day for me to do a related project that I’ve been considering for a while and so I walk a couple of blocks to a Tim Hortons. Once there I buy a number of gift cards with enough money on them to get a hot meal and a couple of drinks. I know, having been downtown, that there will be people who need them.
My reactions to panhandlers can be all over the map. Mostly I’m embarrassed. Not for them but for me. I rarely remember to bring money, using a card for nearly every purchase these days. And so I often pick up speed and try my best to be invisible. Recently I realized how crappy it is and at least let them know I have no cash. I do wonder, sometimes, what the cashless economy holds for people in need. When I do have money, I do try to give it to them. But even then I find myself really self-conscious. I’m self-conscious interacting with strangers anyway but add an uncomfortable power dynamic to it and it’s even worse.
I walk about a mile up Yonge Street, running in to several different people as I go. I deliberately force myself to slow down – to not just put the card in a cup, but actually make eye contact and interact. As I do I am embarrassed at the effort it takes to slow down – after all, engaging with another human being is one of the first and most basic acts of respect we do for one another. I am aware that even if in my head it’s about social anxiety and a discomfort that there is such a difference in power and privilege that I don’t know how to fix, people aren’t mind readers and I risk appearing impatient and judgmental.
And so I go, not always being as successful as I might like, but trying over and over – and I think I get better as I go. It feels particularly weird and awkward to tell them the value of the card and I worry that it sounds like an invitation for thanks that I don’t need. I tell them anyway, knowing that it will be helpful for them to know.
I am struck by how many people I see in just a short walk on a single street. I’m struck by the diversity not just culturally but in terms of age. I meet people old enough to be my grandfather, and old enough to be my son. Some are trying to gather money to feed their families, others for food or a bus ticket home.
I walk by a couple with a lot of their things laid out and a cardboard sign saying “Short on money for rent, please help.” I think to myself that they look like they’re doing OK for themselves – as likely to be members of a popular rock band as a couple in need. And I don’t even slow down for them.
And then, a few feet later I stop. Up until now I have thought about how self conscious I felt, worrying that people might think I was judging them even as I helped them. And now, here I am doing just that.
I turn around and give them each a card and cringe a little as I tell them that no, the cards actually have twice what they thought they did and they thank me profusely. I feel very small and give myself a hard time for somehow thinking I could be the arbiter of who does and doesn’t deserve help. But I can’t change the past, I can only learn from the present and do better.
As I walk, I think about them and about Sage and I. About twenty-five years ago we had just moved in to a new apartment together. We had made bad choices – spending money on CDs, and dinners out and were now unable to pay our rent and gas bill. Sage made a collect call to one of her relatives and within a couple of days the money was in our account. Crisis averted. What would have happened had we not had relatives wealthy enough to send us a month’s rent on top of paying their own bills? Did we deserve to be out on the street because we didn’t yet have the wherewithal to make a proper budget and not spend money on things we knew we shouldn’t? Would 48 year old me have walked by 23 year old me had he needed to ask strangers for help?
As I headed further north on Yonge Street, the number of needy people did not decrease. However the number of cars on the road valued at over $100,000 increased exponentially. The man in the Ferrari didn’t even notice the woman with a sign asking for help to feed her family.
At the end of this I don’t really know the best way to address economic disparity. I, or even the Ferrari driver could go out today and in a matter of hours give away everything we own and still have millions of people around the world in need. People are suspicious of taxes and government programs – and some feel that they shouldn’t have to help. Others are suspicious of NGOs and some feel that the proper way to address poverty is to just expect the good-hearted to give.
So for now, I’ve poured the contents of the change bowl we keep by the door in to my backpack. The same backpack in which I carry a Naloxone kit for treating overdoses. All I can do is try to be ready to help in whatever small way I can when the opportunity presents itself. And to keep the starfish story in my mind. I’ll share it with you also – I hope it’s as helpful to you as it is for me:
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”Originally from The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.”