Assignment 1e. Homelessness: Looking Below the Surface

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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?”



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!