Assignment 2d. Through His Eyes: My Interview with a Homeless Man


A young homeless man

A young homeless man. Click photo for photo source.

Searching

I spot several homeless men within meters of each other as I walk down University Avenue in Toronto. Most homeless men I see hold signs made out of cardboard. One reads ‘Homeless and Hungry, every bit helps’ next to a sleeping man with his hat held out from his arm.

A typical homeless street sign.

A typical homeless street sign. Click photo for photo source.

I see a homeless man with a long, scraggly beard alone on a wooden bench. We glance at each other. I take a deep breath. I cross the street, only to sit down again to mentally prepare myself. I glimpse at him again. He lies down on the wooden bench.

The Interview

I get up and walk over; “Hi…Can I ask you a few questions?” I pause, “You don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to.”

His light blue eyes glance up at me, “Uh, yeah, sure I guess.” He gets up.

I sit next to him and  he shakes my hand, “Hi, I’m Helmut,” he says.

What are some of your daily struggles?

He softly laughs, commenting how my very first question is so forward. He answers anyway.

Bad weather and winter are Helmut’s biggest obstacles, though he adds this winter wasn’t too bad. He braves the nights in his sleeping bag. He doesn’t like sleeping at the homeless shelters because there are always fights erupting, usually because of drug-addicted homeless men. Helmut doesn’t do drugs or even smoke but he enjoys an occasional drink. One of his main daily struggles is loneliness.

What led you to homelessness? 

Depressed man

Depression

“Depression,” he says.

Helmut, 25 years old, has been homeless only for a year now. Helmut explains how everything fell apart at once, avoiding going into detail as I am still a stranger to him. Trying to battle his depression, he went to a doctor who prescribed him experimental drugs. The experimental drugs only worsened his condition.

“I had nightmares” he adds.

Helmut lived at his parent’s house for a while (and he had his own place and a well-paying carpenting job before his depression) but it got “awkward” after a while, he admits as his parents mentioned how bills were adding up.

“If you approached me a few months ago, I probably wouldn’t have talked to you.” Helmut admits.

“So you’ve been battling your depression all on your own?”

Helmut explains he has gotten a lot better now. He is planning to start working again soon, as he is working it all out. He doesn’t want his life to pass him by.

Are you usually able to have three meals a day?

“Yeah, three, sometimes even more.” Helmut answers. At first, he used to eat whatever came his way but now he can make healthy choices as he knows the streets more. Helmut shares how Toronto has “amazing resources” for the homeless, stating how food is not a problem. Helmut gives me a paper outlining places that provide food for those in need. Originally from Burlington, Helmut feels there are a lot more resources available in Toronto than other cities.

Do people treat you rudely?

“No,” Helmut says, adding how he doesn’t beg which could be why he hasn’t had any bad experiences involving passerbys. Helmut explains how he has been approached by strangers before, mentioning the time two strangers asked him if he wanted a job.

What do you think is the cause of homelessness?

Helmut gives three main reasons:

  • Divorce
  • Addiction
  • Mental Health (In Helmut’s case, it’s depression)

Helmut acknowledges there are other reasons depending on individual circumstances. He mentions the story of a homeless woman who suffered years of abuse as a child by her own family member. She became a prostitute to support herself at one point in her life and resorted to drugs to cope. Helmut adds how he’s lucky, as things can always be worse.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the homeless? 

Helmut elaborates how there are also intelligent homeless people. He explains how the homeless are also regular people. Talking to Helmut, I also felt he was just a normal guy. What I learned from this experience is how anyone can end up homeless- things like depression can easily worsen due to unfortunate circumstances.

Observations

Helmut shares how I am the second person to ever interview him. He was approached before by a Ryerson student. He asks me if it is my first time talking to someone homeless. It is. Our conversation felt natural and easy. I felt silly for being so scared to approach him in the beginning. After the first couple of questions, I put away my notebook and stopped taking notes. I just listened.

Helmut’s friendly demeanor and positive outlook masks his depression and loneliness. Beneath the surface, I feel like homeless people are also just like us. Each one has a unique story to share, so why not ask?

What do you think? Are homeless people just like us? Feel free to comment and share!

Assignment 1e. Homelessness: Looking Below the Surface


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7742877@N04/

Wednesday, May 16. I call my sister, expecting to reach her voice mail again.

“Heey! I’m in Toronto right now, wanna hang out?”

“I’m volunteering for something, making sandwiches for the homeless. Wanna join?”

Sandwiches for the homeless? Homelessness? I’ll admit, I don’t know much about homelessness. I guess you can say I’m a middle-class university student who complains about tuition, debt and lack of rewarding student jobs out there. I always wondered how people became homeless though.

“Sure, I’m down.”

The volunteers assemble cheese and ham sandwiches, fruits and juice boxes into brown paper bags. First stop? The Salvation Army.

“Guys, feel free to talk to them and ask questions. If you don’t know what to say, talk about the weather or something.”

I squeeze the brown paper bags in my hands.

“What am I supposed to say though?,” I whisper to my sister. I was never good at small talk. Besides, there’s only so much you can say about the weather.

“Just say hi.” she shrugs.

“And remember guys, don’t say ‘Would you like some food?’ because food means drugs on the streets.”

I walk up the narrow staircase clutching onto my two sandwich bags, following other volunteers. There were two middle-aged men playing chess to the side, a young guy in his 20s playing with his phone and a few men watching TV. I hand out my sandwich bags within a minute.

After leaving the Salvation Army, we split up into groups of twos and threes to pass out the remaining sandwiches. After roaming the streets of Toronto for about an hour, we stop in front of Nathan Phillips Square.

I spot an elderly man sitting on a bench next to a shopping cart, his gray hair disheveled and his clothes ragged. I stroll by with the last sandwich bag in my hand by my sister’s side. He notices my gaze from across. He smiles warmly.

A smiling homeless man.
A smiling homeless man. Click photo for photo source.

“Would you like a sandwich?”

He toothy smile widens, “Juss?”

“Pardon?”

“Jus..Jus.”

Oh. Juice.

“Oh yes, there’s juice. Here you go!”

“I keel her”

“Pardon?” I glance at my sister. She looks just as confused.

“I keel her. She left.” he laughs wildly.

“Okay. Have a nice day.”

We return to the group of volunteers. We don’t exactly feel frightened by the man but rather, a bit frustrated that we couldn’t understand him much. We figure he’s probably mentally ill.

“So what did you guys learn from this experience? Anything from your interactions?” The volunteer co-ordinator smiles.

“This one guy we talked to at the Salvation army had an Ipad!” a girl excitedly exclaims, “I don’t even have an Ipad!”

“Yeah, and this other man used to be a biology professor back in his country…when I asked him some questions about cells and stuff, he even corrected me.”

One of the homeless people we encountered chose to be homeless. They were in a transitory phase in their life. Others didn’t have much of a choice.

I feel a tinge of  disappointment sweep over me. I should have gotten over my nerves and interacted more. All the volunteers had different experiences.

There’s so much I want to know. What challenges do they face everyday? Do they feel lonely? Are they afraid? Rather than just  research on the internet, I wish I received answers from a real person, face-to-face.

A v0lunteer’s question flashes in my mind again; “What do you think is the solution to homelessness?”

I know there can’t be just one answer to this. There’s so many possibilities why someone’s homeless. But why not ask the homeless themselves what the solution might be? Who can understand the struggles better than someone who’s been there? Maybe this is how we can look below the surface of what it is to be homeless. Even if it’s just a little, I want to gain more insight from someone who’s been there.

Keep your coins, I want change. Click photo for photo source.

My plan? Ask the homeless. Any ideas or suggestions how I should approach them? What type of questions should I ask or avoid? Feel free to comment and let me know!