Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park in 2019. Image: Paul Sableman/Flickr

There are countless complexities and questions related to homelessness and income inequality. Does a lack of income breed mental illness?; does mental illness lead directly to lack of income?; and, most importantly, does a lack of income make a person inherently bad?

Most regular people would say no. Down on their luck, maybe. Bad things happen to good people. Perhaps their parents screwed something up. The government won’t give them enough money or housing. All the classic colloquialisms. Now think: Are you angry at the guy strung out on your kid’s local playground, or are you angry that you have to see them at all?

I see constantly in Toronto not a lack of concern about homelessness and income inequality, but a sweeping inability to acknowledge it. You can search Trinity Bellwoods on Instagram and see a million pictures of girls doing yoga in expensive outfits and having picnics.

Good for them. When I see them, I’m glad they’re having a good day, and I hope they have many more shareable memories. But why do they always find a spot in the park where you can’t see the massive tent cities behind them? 

Many think homeless people are a threat to their neighbourhood because those people are struggling with addiction and mental health problems publicly, but it’s unlikely you think your beautiful neighbour living in a “cocaine apartment” is an issue because she does it privately and with money. 

Many judge the man who smokes meth on the bench while his family sleeps in a pop tent, but might have a friendly conversation with a work friend who drank a twelve pack last night and terrorized his family. This is all because he did it in his home, and you didn’t have to look at it. 

You may not even know it happened. Maybe he bought some of your raffle tickets or Girl Guide cookies. People have problems. Some are forced to face them in public.

I struggled with the most common addiction on the street: alcohol. I couldn’t get my life in order for a couple years and spent many nights with my thumb out or sleeping in ditches. I’d try to play music in front of the liquor store or just hang out on a median flying a sign. 

I have a great family. I went to school for a couple years. I tried. There was just something wrong with me. And I dealt with it publicly.

If you’ve never been there, you can’t imagine the pain of asking person after person for help and having them stare behind you or past you. They act like you aren’t there at all. The police pick you up and won’t listen to a word you say because they can’t get past your smell and they’re upset that they have to deal with you in the first place. 

Sometimes they’ll put you up in certain hotels or motels if you’re lucky or older. Your sob story doesn’t mean anything anymore because they’ve heard it countless times from countless people. 

You sit on the street, because you can’t sit in the Tim’s anymore, invisible all day until someone gets so uncomfortable with you being alive that they call someone to lock you up. I constantly see and hear people going off about homeless people screaming. I doubt those people have ever known what it feels like to be so deeply dehumanized. They can’t even comprehend why the person would be screaming.

The pandemic has brought homelessness back into view, much to the loud and public despair of many communities. I used to survive on free large ice waters from Starbucks and public washrooms. That’s all gone now. 

I had to rely on the pressure that people felt to be decent to each other in public. That’s also gone in the name of public safety. The parks are filling up. The shelters are full. The corners and medians are full. 

I’m not telling you that all homeless people are good people. That absolutely isn’t true. In the exact same way that not all wealthy people are good people. They’re just people.

If rich people get to be respected despite their glaring flaws, so do poor people. I’m begging those with higher incomes and a longer hygiene routine to please be willing to acknowledge the existence of others without feeling like your lifestyle is being attacked. 

If you feel so bad from having to look at homeless people, please look to yourself first and what you’re doing to help. Ask yourself how much you needed that new game or new dress from amazon. If you really needed it and that’s important to you, that’s great and I’m glad you like it. That’s okay and you don’t need to feel bad for putting your needs first.

Look them in the eye. If they ask for help, ask what they need. If you can help, you can help, if not, it’s perfectly fine not to. They’re just people. 

Yeah, they might be jerks when you say something to them. They might say something crazy to you. They may reject your offer of food or drink. They probably won’t do any of this. If they do, you’re free to be upset about it. That guy was a jerk. Big deal. Don’t bring how much money he may or may not have into it. 

They don’t owe you any more kindness or good spirit than wealthy people. These are all risks you take talking to anyone. The government can’t take care of showing basic respect for other people for you. These are human beings that are part of your community whether you like them or not.

Make eye contact. Face your own discomfort. Be part of your community.

Lisa Lacoste is a freelance writer who grew up in the Prairies and settled in Toronto. She has spent time living all over the country, and has been incredibly inspired by all the amazing and kind people who helped her better herself.

Image: Paul Sableman/Flickr​