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.
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.
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?
“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:
- 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.
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!