Shortly after starting my job downtown last year, I quickly began to learn of the complexities of homelessness and drug abuse. Our office’s main floor washrooms were locked off and made available only to those who worked in the building and had electronic passes to get inside. One of the building’s janitors explained the extra security was added because of what was done in the washrooms – dirty needles, among other items, were routinely left behind.
Today, I ate lunch out with several of my colleagues. Our team manager was treating us as a thankyou for the last quarter. Not long after we sat down, I noticed a young gentleman with his hood pulled up, discussing something with our waiter near the front doors. Unlike others on the busy street outside, he had no winter jacket on top of his hoodie sweatshirt. The waiter moved aside and the young man headed towards the restaurant’s bathroom. This tall young man looked small as nervousness and a question mark covered his face. He disappeared out of sight. Roughly thirty minutes later – by this time my colleagues and I had ordered and had finished our appetizers – he reappeared from the depths of the bathroom hallway and immediately left the restaurant. I pointed him out to my boss who observed the young man stride past the restaurant’s front window and he commented, “He’s high.”
A fancy-looking office building in the downtown was not immune to the problem of drugs or overdosing that was strangling the homeless population in my city, or in other cities across Canada. After my experience today, I quickly realized that a fancy restaurant was not removed from facing the issue head-on either.
Last winter, I entered my office building early one snowy morning and said hello to a poorly dressed and unshaved man sitting just inside the doors of the back entrance. I can’t remember our exact exchange of pleasantries but I do remember he looked so sad and dejected. Later that day, I heard on the news that a homeless person had overdosed in the early morning hours just a block or so away from my office building. I immediately thought of the man from the back entrance and wondered if the two had been friends. When I saw him this morning, was he in the throws of grief? Was he reeling from the loss? Had he been warming up from the cold and yet was unable to rid the shaking of the shock of profound loss?
Working downtown for the past year has provided me with various opportunities of surprise. Only six months before starting my job, I had just moved back from Thailand to Canada with my husband and two children. I had been living and serving in a rural village in Northern Thailand but now found myself parking in a parking garage and working in a tall office building. The two situations couldn’t be any more different.
I don’t pretend to have an answer for the issues of addiction; it was a problem in the communities in which I worked in Thailand, as well. The brokenness around me, whether it be Thailand, or Canada is often confrontational, sometimes intimidating, and usually heartbreaking.
I don’t think that locking bathrooms is the answer, nor is giving access to all bathrooms. But maybe a start is to see the humanness of the gentleman with the pulled-up hoodie getting a high in a fancy restuarant’s bathroom or the dishevelled and dejected man warming himself inside the doors of the back entrance of an office building. Maybe giving people a chance and showing a little compassion is a good first step, no matter where in the world you may be.
Why not reach out to a local organization serving the homeless in your community and ask what you can do to help? What is most needed to help them do what they do well? Volunteer? Give money? Listen and learn from them – the experts for that context.