It was early on a Monday morning. I usually rolled into the office around 7:00am. As I exited the transit platform, I saw the same panhandler I always do. This emaciated guy wasn’t aggressive or in your face. He had a weathered cardboard sign that simply said, “Hungry. Please Help. God Bless.” For nearly a year, I walked right past him without a second thought.
That day, for unknown reasons, I wondered why. Maybe it was something about being rammed into transit cars like cattle that left my guard up. Maybe I had hidden assumptions about homeless people and addiction. In any event, this time, I thought – “man, walking by this person every day seems pretty callous; I’ll do something about this.”
So later that day on my lunch break, I decided to go to my bank. I rarely carried cash on me, so perhaps in my mind that was another reason I thought why it was ok to just walk right by. There was a fresh faced teller there and I requested $20 worth of quarters in rolls. The teller was a bit surprised and mentioned that nobody had ever requested that before, in what was likely his limited employment history at the financial institution.
Now, fully armed with change, I was flipping quarters to street characters all over downtown Vancouver. Most were very appreciative. Some were surprised. While others were nonplussed. So what did I learn from this experiment? $10 in change didn’t go very far in downtown Vancouver. The sheer numbers of downtrodden people was insane.
It got me thinking about an ol’ Abe Lincoln story. He was riding on a train and asked the conductor to stop it during one trip. Apparently he saw some piglet struggling in the mud or something to that effect. The passenger he was with later commented on the kind gesture and was surprised that he would go to such great lengths to help an animal. Lincoln mentioned that he mainly did it for himself and couldn’t live with himself if he did nothing.
Was I actually trying to help or was I trying to alleviate my own guilt? Hard to say. In any event, I think that notions of broader social responsibility require greater discussion. The polarization of our urban centres, the winners and losers of the service-oriented, bifurcated high-job/low-job quality economy, addiction, housing, mental health are some of the major themes. Yes, they have all been discussed and analyzed ad naseum yet here we are nowhere closer to any real solutions. The East Hastings situation in Vancouver, for instance, is a complete, and total failure on so many levels (political, social, and economic to name a few).
Maybe it’s time to change it up and try some new approaches. Every once in a while, it’s worthwhile to wake up on the other side of the bed. Like they did for Alaskan rockers, the Portuguese have some answers I hear. Yes, the Portuguese.