T&O: Happy Homeless People in Canada

Let me preface this by saying that I categorically know diddlysquat about the specific realities of homelessness in Canada, and I take it as a given that the situation is far from perfect; what follows therefore are simply my PERCEPTIONS as a well traveled individual who has had the “privilege” if you can call it that of having seen poverty in many countries over the course of my 51 years.

So let me give an example. A few years ago I was driving around Shanghai China with my dad and his girlfriend. …
Well, let me back up: At that time I had been working as a professor of Marketing in South Korea for about two years, at Kyung Hee University’s Seoul campus. (Yes my PhD was in anthropology, how I got from that to marketing is a long story.) My dad, who had been a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (he passed away just over two years ago now) had been invited to China in order to give some lectures at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, and he had arranged for his girlfriend (a once upon a time professor of Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University — who had been working as a successful therapist for many years since) to also give a lecture, so that she could come along with him on the trip. This was right around the Jewish High Holidays, so my father decided that I should fly from Seoul to Shanghai so that we could all attend prayer services together.
….. After we’d been there a few days, we were driving around the town and my dad’s girlfriend started to talk about how impressed she was with the affluence of Shanghai. How all the apartments we had visited (both she and my dad had contacts in town) were so fancy, and our hotel (4 star) was so plush, and how everyone was wearing the latest styles of expensive designer clothing, and the expensive jewelry everyone wore (the Chinese love their bling).

To this I responded… “well that’s interesting, because I’m seeing something entirely different than you are. I see all of what you saw, but I also seem to be seeing things you are not.” She of course took offense, and asked me to explain, so I went on… “What I see are fancy apartment buildings that are surrounded not just by gates, but with 12 ft concrete walls that have barbed wire at the top with limited entrances and exits where there are guards that ‘actually guard’ (not just for show), which tells me not only is crime a major concern, but possibly even riots. And while I see people wearing bling and the latest in designer fashions, what I also see are jobs like garbage collection which in western countries would be done with garbage trucks, but here I see people doing them by hand, many of them elderly with hunched backs dragging behind them carts heavy with trash to the dumps, or recycling plants. What I see is a really horrible discrepancy between the rich and the poor, with many homeless, dirty, and miserable looking people sitting around looking unhappy. So while I saw everything you did, I also saw it not as this wonderful amazing thing, but as a problem … and those concrete walls with barbed wire? What they tell me is that the rich elites of this town are very much aware that they are sitting on a potential powder keg that could, if they are not very very careful, explode at any time.”

So… returning to the issue of Canada a few people have asked me what were my major observations of the differences between Canada and the USA… and while granted there are a few… for instance I used the go-along with that statement that EVERYONE seems to say about the Canadians, namely that ‘they’re the nicest people on the planet’… but having spent three months there I have now revived that to, ‘I wouldn’t say Canadians are Nice, so much as I’ve decided that the Canadians are incredibly polite — a bit like the Japanese’… but I’m not going to go into what I mean by that here… it’s too complicated.

What I want to talk about now is the inherent differences I observed on the streets between homelessness in Canada and the way it looks in the USA.

The poor and homeless in Canada just seem… happy, they seem healthy, they even seem, dare I say it…  peppy…

American homeless rarely if ever look any of that, and if they do they usually haven’t been homeless very long. … again, just my perception.

At one point in Victoria, I saw a girl who looked to be in her early 20’s, pretty, but with the sort of ‘dirty’ look of someone who lives on the street, who was sitting on the side of the road in the center of Victoria’s tourist district (between the historic hotel and the bay), with her puppy on her lap, trying to collect funds. So I stopped to talk to her; she started of by telling me that she was actually from Vancouver and had come over as a passenger on the ferry to visit friends (for an adult non student fair it costs just under $18 Canadian, or around $13.50 US for walk on traffic, but I’m guessing her status may have qualified her for some sort of discount). She told me that after having been here (in Victoria) for a few days that she didn’t have enough money left to go back and was just trying to collect enough funds to take the return ferry.

So, like the anthropologist I am, I sat down to ‘interview’ her about being homeless in Canada. I also wanted to bounce my perceptions off of her, to see if I was right about how much happier the homeless seemed here, and my thinking that maybe in Canada dropping out and being homeless was actually a choice people sometimes made, rather than something they were forced into by adversity. She said that she thought that was probably correct, that it was something you could just choose to do and a lot of folks did. She had not been to the US side of the border, but she had heard other kids talking about how being homeless there was categorically different, and a lot scarier. She said that in Canada she gets good health care even though she has no job (and isn’t even looking for one), and that there’s no shortage of homeless shelters that feed her well, and that sleeping in those shelters feels perfectly safe to her… 

Another day when I was walking around I passed a what I’m sure was a little group of three homeless girls, one of whom had really radical colored hair. So I talked to her and I asked her who she would suggest as someplace I could go to to get my hair done. She said that she and her friends would do it for themselves, using cheap stuff they got from the pharmacy. I told her I wasn’t into doing that and really wanted someone who could do it for me, and do it well. She pointed me towards the Aveda Beauty school that is only two blocks from my apartment saying one of the girls who they hang with from time to time, who was not in fact homeless would get it done there and was happy with the results… When I think of homeless youth who are doing things like experimenting with hairstyles, I tend to think England or Germany, i.e., other countries that also have a strong social security net (as Canada does)… not the US.

Finally, one day I had an “interesting” conversation with a homeless guy (complete with a shopping cart full of his stuff) who was all pissed off because apparently the night before he had given CPR to a fellow homeless guy who was over dosing on heroin, and he said the cops, rather than thanking him for saving a fellow human being brought charges against him for having done it (I had difficulty following his logic of why that was). Then he went on to talk about how he was also a heroin addict. Now, granted, the guy struck me as being part of that small percentage of folks who are homeless because of mental issues, but for a homeless heroin addict with metal issues, I have got to say he looked to be an amazingly healthy and well fed homeless heroin addict.

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A Tent City in Victoria: in Pioneer Square, across the street from Christ Church Cathederal
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