December 07, 2015 Alex (an update)
I always feel fortunate running into Alex as I go about my day. I've written about our conversations a few times now. Alex is one of the funniest, most gregarious and outgoing #notastranger's that I've met. He loves telling jokes.
Tonight as I was walking home from the grocery store, I saw Alex walking towards me. He was carrying a fast-food pop container in one hand. It was dark and at first Alex didn't recognize me. He peered a little closer, and said "Oh hey!" I still politely reminded him of our conversations, and my name. He told him he knew all that, and I don't doubt him.
I've always appreciated the honesty that strangers present when sharing their stories with me. Alex is no different. He has told me about being an alcoholic, all the while holding down a job in camera repairs for 20-odd years. He lost his job when digital technology shrank the industry of real cameras. In turn, he lost his apartment of almost twenty years. His life turned around.
Alex has been happy and for the most part, content, living on the street. He would spend his days binning. He had a regular route. Regular folk that left their empties specifically for him. He built friendships with those he saw regularly, the same way he has with me. With his humour, good nature and sincerity.
I guess it's been quite a few months since I last saw Alex. "Oh, I'm doing okay. Well no, I'm not really. Things are slipping, and it's going downward," he said, gesturing with one hand, lowering it toward the sidewalk. "I was better when I lived on the street. I was healthier, happier and felt better too. I slept at night," he said.
Alex got into a 'temporary' housing shelter. It's essentially a halfway house for people looking to turn their lives around. It was supposed to be a transition for Alex from the street, to this temporary accommodation, then to a permanent housing solution for Alex. That was eighteen months ago. "The place I'm still in, isn't good for me. I rest, but I don't sleep. There's so much noise there, and drugs, and alcohol and fights. It's a nightmare. I don't want to risk moving to another shelter and being surrounded by a bunch of kids on top of all these things. I was better on the street," he said, slowly shaking his head. His aim is to hold on where he is, in the hopes that things will happen sooner, now that he has waited so long.
"It's really been worse for me staying there. I'm not out binning anymore, so I'm not getting that exercise. Even if I did, The way things are now on East Hastings, I don't have anywhere to go to sell the things I've always found in binning. The say they've cleaned it up. They moved everyone into a fenced, vacant lot between two buildings, and there's no room for everyone. It's like being in a jail," he told me.
Whenever I share stories about people I've chatted with, who are homeless, people send good wishes to that person. The kindness, compassion and care from those reading these stories, always touches me. Yet, I'm also keenly aware that for most people, the bar is set at having a 'home.' It doesn't seem that living on the street would be an option, let alone one that someone would choose, willingly.
I asked Alex if, looking back, he would still prefer to live on the street. "Most of the time, yeah, I would. I only went here because I was told it would be a few weeks before I'd get a room to myself," he said. We chatted about society's determination that people have to live in houses to be happy. "I'm not a guy that wants to have to fit in. I'm not a conformer. I want to make people laugh. That's all I want. I like to see people smiling!"
Of course I asked if I could take picture of Alex and post an update. He seemed a bit hesitant, and I told him he could say no. He asked if I would buy him a beer. I don't usually have cash on me, and I almost never give money on the street. I told him I wouldn't be buying him any beer, but I would buy him something to eat if he wanted. "Nah," he said. "I'm okay. Would you like this pop?" My phone was full (note to self. Again.), so I couldn't take a photo of us. I asked Alex if I could use one of the photos I had of him from a previous chance encounter with him. He was fine with that. "What happened to the two peanuts walking down the street?" asked Alex, always with a joke at the ready. "One was a-salted!"
We said our goodbyes. As I walked towards home, I thought about how my perspectives have shifted, since starting TSP2014. While living on-the-street homelessness is not a situation that I'd thrive in, nor even want to experience, who am I to judge? Why wish for someone a home, if that's not what they desire.
Do we have to think less of a person because they live their life differently than us? I was homeless myself, about twenty years ago, at the height of my alcoholic drinking days. However, I never had to sleep on the street. I couch-surfed for months.
While that was a low for me personally, I recognize that my experience is mine. Being 'homeless' might be a choice someone makes. I have no right to judge others for their choices in these situations. By reaching out and connecting with people, without any judgment, we can all make a difference. In doing this, I've also changed my perspective, and my life. #notastranger