I hesitated before pulling in beside the taxi that was parked in front of my bank. From the passenger door a long leg had appeared. Stockinged foot, sock rumpled and unclean. Behind that, a torso slumped over against the dash. The taxi driver ran around to the front of my car and signalled for me to stop. After he retrieved a blue clog from the sidewalk, he waved me forward as he tried to fit the clog on that extended foot.
When I opened my car door, I heard a low growl and saw the owner of the leg. Long grey hair. A flowing beard. As the man stood up, the driver put an arm on his shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t want a ride downtown?” The man uttered a guttural shriek.
I asked the driver, “Do you need help?” He shook his head. ‘No…at least, I don’t think so.”
When I returned to the car, I could hear the man still shrieking. The taxi driver, now placing himself between the man and me, said, “This lady needs to get into her car.” As I passed by, I heard the taxi driver say, “Now you keep that money safe. Put it out of sight.”
The driver took off hurriedly and the man walked over to my car and began to pound against the door and thump on the roof. He leaned toward my window and stared at me, howling. His expression was furious, beseeching, incomprehensible. His blue eyes were intense, penetrating. I remained motionless as the hammering on the roof continued, along with the snarls and moans. It was an inhuman sound, unlike any I’ve ever heard. The closest I’ve experienced are the screeches from the herons’ nests when the eagles swoop in and capture their chicks.
People walked along the sidewalk in front of me. They went in and out of the bank. Most of them stopped for a moment to stare at the roaring man but no one offered assistance. I thought back on times when community members have been moved to help each other. In the last few snowstorms, neighbours came to my door and brought soup. They offered to shovel my driveway. In certain circumstances, people have been moved to step up and offer help. And they felt better for it. But not in this kind of situation.
The man continued to circle my car, again and again, peering in at me, making that unearthly sound, hammering the roof. He was angry. Afraid. Terrifying. I didn’t think it would help if I got out of the car and tried to talk to him. I considered calling for help but was afraid to open the window. I could have phoned 911, but what good would that have done? Finally, I leaned on the horn until the man staggered off, still howling.
After several minutes, I drove to the shopping mall. Surprised to find myself still trembling, I stayed in the car and wondered what I might have done differently. Not far away was the location of the tent city where three hundred people lived until temporary housing was constructed and the tent city was dismantled. The temporary housing accommodated 168 people, and I seem to remember that there was an application process in which the most motivated people with less critical problems were given preference for relocation. Where have the others gone? The ones who whose psychiatric illnesses were pronounced or whose substance abuse was extreme?
Last year, I was one of the people who wrote letters in support of providing temporary housing for homeless people. I helped with welcome packages for the new residents, and had little sympathy for the neighbours of the shelters who complained that they were now afraid to leave their homes. Not surprisingly, there were some incidents when people moved into the shelter. An eight-foot wall was constructed around the compound and periodically people wrote abusive messages on it.
Several decades ago, I was a social worker on the psychiatric ward of our regional hospital. We set up a halfway house for individuals with psychiatric problems. Now there are a number of halfway houses but they are full with waiting lists and they are not designed to provide emergency responses for the growing number of homeless people who, despite psychiatric and substance use problems, are not connected to medical services.
Back when the food banks first began in our community, we social workers spoke out about the need for these services to be offered on a very short-term basis only as crisis interventions. We believed governments and communities could tackle the problems of poverty and homelessness, and that we would not continue to require such patchwork solutions. Now, all across our country, there are local, regional and national associations of food banks that are doing crucially important work to meet an ever-increasing demand. Our local food bank now has hired a Director of Development in order to help find ways of responding to the increasing need.
Some people have suggested that provincial institutions should be set up to incarcerate people with extreme psychiatric and addiction problems, but that only shifts the problem. As a community we need to find ways of supporting people who live amongst us.
At the grocery store, I added extra money on my tab to support the food bank. Then I stopped by the Salvation Army person who was collecting money in front of the liquor store and gave her all my change.
I thought about fingers and dykes. Walls and borders. The passing of bucks. Complexity, and an impossibly divided and broken world. About the new year ahead.