Monday, November 16, 2009

This must be what heaven is like

I met a homeless woman the other day. Walking out of Waterfront Station on my way to a workshop downtown, I saw her sitting on the sidewalk reading a book, her back against a bank of mailboxes and a blanket over her lap. This is not an unusual site in Vancouver, where over 2,600 people live on the streets.

I stopped to talk to her. She told me that the shelters were full, that she was trying to raise enough money to get a hostel room. I’ve heard this story before—there are not nearly enough shelter spaces here. As she talked, I looked at the sores on her face, her stringy hair, her bad teeth, trying to judge how old she was. It was impossible; she had an old-before-her-time face that spoke of a hard life. She might have been in her early 20s or she might have been in her late 30s.

She told me that she was cold and hungry, that I was the first person to stop for her in two days. And then she broke my heart. “I’m pregnant,” she said, moving the blanket and showing me the outline of her belly.

We talked about the book she was reading—it was one her mom had loved—and about other authors she liked. She told me that she was seven months pregnant, and she smiled and ran her hand over her belly just like any mom-to-be in the suburbs would do. I have no idea what she’s been through in her life. Her current circumstances are vastly different from mine. But, like me, she’s somebody’s daughter. And she’s going to be somebody’s mother.

By the time I came back to Waterfront Station on my way home eight hours later, it had started to rain and the woman was gone. In the two days since then, the rain has not stopped. The stormy November winds have kicked up. This is not a pleasant time of year in Vancouver. The dampness seeps right through to your bones and the cold wind hurts.

I’ve been stopping during the day and waking up in the middle of the night, wondering where she is. Where will she go once her baby’s been born? How will they cope?

Last month, I spent most of Thanksgiving week volunteering downtown with Gratitude Week to End Homelessness, an organization raising money to restore two residency hotels on the Downtown Eastside. I had the good fortune to be assigned to the Gratitude Wall, where we invited passersby to make signs celebrating something they were grateful for. And they did, even in the wind and pouring rain—over 600 of them.

I talked to more people in those few days than I usually do in a month: business people, homeless people, whole field trips of school kids, tourists who were shocked to see people sleeping on the sidewalks in such a beautiful city. I talked to a guy with a huge smile that showed the single tooth clinging to his bottom gum. A woman on welfare dug her last 26 cents out of her pocket to put into the collection bucket, proud to have something to give. A man who has struggled with mental illness was grateful that his wife had proposed to him.

One homeless guy gave us a dollar. He said that it was an investment in his own future. If he gave a dollar now, it might mean that he would have a place to stay someday.

A man who used to be homeless made this sign:

He told me he had been lost for a few years but that he now had a home and a good life.

A developmentally disabled man and I had a long talk about the need to help hungry children right here in Vancouver. He was also grateful for everything:

An old guy with a smile that lit up his wizened face stopped at my table to see what it was about. He lives in a residency hotel and spends his days walking downtown. He was full of stories of the hotel and the streets—stories, he said, that no one was interested in hearing. Well, I was, so he came back on another day and hung out with me again. He had come to the Gratitude Week site to sit in the heated tent where speakers gave lunchtime talks about mental health issues. He wasn’t there to listen so much as to sit. He wondered why nobody set up tents like that for the homeless on cold winter days. A chair, a roof, a heater: “That must be what heaven is like,” he said.

On my way home from the site one day, I went into the mall. As my fingers and nose started to thaw out, I was aware of the fact that because I have clean clothes, a place to shower every day, and some money in my pocket, I was welcome to come inside to warm up and use the washroom. Later, when I stopped in at our neighbourhood grocery store, I saw a sign on the community bulletin board advertising a Botox party—get rid of your wrinkles with your friends in the comfort of your own home! I wondered how two such different worlds could exist at the same time, so close together.

So here I sit in my chair, with a solid roof over my head and a furnace pumping heat through the vents, wondering and worrying about that pregnant woman and the thousands of other people who might be out in the rain today, unwelcome in the warm places. In the world I live in every day, we complain about what we don’t have, about our wrinkles or our slightly out-of-date electronics or our couches that are not quite the right colour. But to many people in that other world, this just might be what heaven is like.


Changes in the wind said...

Thank you for being you and caring....we need it more now than ever.

SANDY said...

Please keep up the good work, homeless people populate every city; pretty cities, big cities...matters not. Like you I worry about the cold, the rain, the snow, the sleet. We all must do what we can to help our fellow man.

I'm happy to be able to help through my knitting and crocheting; happy to have others help me with their skilled and caring hands and hearts. We've been able to warm many a homeless and hope to help many more. Please check out My Bridge and Beyond Project/blog

Sandy said...

Me again popping in, wondering why you don't visit or blog anymore.

Merry Christmas.

if you get back into blogging, please please let me know so I can re-add you to my blog log.
Maybe you'll swing by the Bridge Project, or my regular blog, or even the travel blog to let me know.

Peace and Love

Sandy said...

WOW, just noticed the last time you blog was on birthday.

Winging in again, wondering why you don't visit.