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In a busy city like Toronto, most of us are plugged into our mobile devices listening to music, checking e-mails or texting our friends. We speed walk in our work attire, hide behind our sunglasses, and perhaps, so accustomed to our routine that we beeline it to work while ignoring everyone around us.
During the hustle and bustle, we will pass by them on almost every street corner or subway station in the downtown core. They are holding up signs for a meal, bus ticket home or even, food for their animal companion. More often than not, we will pass by a member of the homeless community without batting an eyelash. Sure, there are times we will give our leftovers from a meal or buy them a coffee. But let’s be honest, we walk past them more often than not.
One evening this past summer, I encountered a young homeless woman with a sign sitting on the floor at a subway entrance. I’m all for providing food, but never money so I offered to take her out for dinner because I wanted to hear her story of how she got to where she was. We went to a patio nearby, and gave her the option of whatever she would like to order. In exchange, I wanted to hear her story as raw and real as possible. Yes, yes.. I realize that this was a questionable decision but despite the risk, I still believe in humanity and trust my gut.
Most of all, I wanted to understand my city better through someone else’s eyes.
Crystal, 31, a mother of a 2.5 year old girl, started her life out in Ottawa before coming to Toronto when she was 16. Grew up in a quiet community while living with ADHD, she was raised by her father who tried his very best to keep her on the right path and away from her mother, an addict with a history of relapses. At 15, she and her mother reconnected for the first time in over 12 years. It was her mother who decided that the best way to make up for lost time was to teach her daughter how to use heroin. I was shocked, given that parents are supposed to love and protect children from the darkness; not lead them into it.
Spending time in the Children’s Aid program, she eventually checked herself out at 16 but did commend Toronto for its infrastructure for the disadvantaged and homeless. The amount of shelters, social assistance and training programs available are incredible but fundamentally, it is the person’s decision to remain committed to the assistance. However, one of the biggest challenges of the system is that it lacks the facilities, community empathy and professionals to properly treat and medicate the homeless affected by mental health issues. Crystal firmly believes that it has increased the number of individuals who self-medicate and self-harm.
Being homeless on 3 separate occasions, the streets hardened her and taught her how to survive. At 16, she spent 2 years addicted to heroin as she put herself in dangerous situations to sedate her from her own self-loathing and guilt. At 26, she chose to be homeless leaving an excessively violent and abusive situation which led her to retreat into Meth. A couple years later, she was pregnant with her daughter and kicked all her vices to live a cleaner life. Unfortunately, due to her challenged history, custody of her daughter was temporarily granted to a family member.
Bringing us to that summer evening, where she enjoyed grilled chicken wings and cider an experience that she never would have never imagined. With her guard slightly lowered, she opened up and said that strangers would normally throw change at her or proposition her with a few bucks for sexual favours, but never dinner just to listen to her story.
What does her future look like? She was expected to get into low-income housing in November, continuing her sessions with her case worker and most importantly, motivated to change her life to regain custody of her daughter.
I’ve been called an idealist, but the reality is that we have the opportunity to be kind, generous and send positive vibes to others; so what’s stopping us? I have no regrets, and would do it all over again. Honestly, her story only inspires me to drive forward with my non-profit initiative, Project #ShowSumLove.
The world is big, but for those of us who have the ability to make choices freely and uninhibited; I will always choose humanity.