That Could Have Been Me
Sunday, December 20th, 2020 - 8:42am
I had an unfortunate case of my bad day making another’s worse day even more dreadful. I came upon the front door of my business, and when I faced the alcove the door resided in, I was struck by what appeared to be a person without a home in the throes of drug addiction and a needle in their arm. The day prior, I had come to the same destination and found that someone had defecated in the doorway. I had to clean it up. I’m not trained to deal with biological waste, let alone in the middle of a pandemic, and I worried about disease, as well as the disgusting job laid out before me, so to speak. It upset me to no end.
“Hey!” I yelled aggressively, “you can’t do that here!” As most people suffering from mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness or free market capitalism do, the person lied;
“I’m not doing anything, Man.”
“You HAVE to get out of here. Get lost, NOW!”
"You don't have to be so aggressive man.”
"I'm not being aggressive, I have a business to run, and my customers need to be able to come inside. So get lost!”
“You're being really aggressive. If you don't want me to be a hassle, well, I'm gonna’ be one now. “
I stood over the person, watching them as they cleaned up their mess. Their garbage was everywhere, food thrown about. I could also see needles on the ground, not just in their arm. I also saw the person wrapping up their heroin, or meth or whatever the hell it was, in their fragile piece of torn apart tin foil. I didn't say anything, I just watched them and felt sad. I hated the fact that we had to keep going through this.
When I first moved to London, I was astonished at the homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction that I saw. I felt sorry for everybody. I just had so much empathy and sympathy and I wanted to know what I could do for everybody. I thought it was terrible. How did the city get this way? But at this point, empathy fatigue had sunk in…
I stood in silence as the person packed their bag, and I felt like crying. Finally, I spoke up;
"I'm sorry, you're right, I was aggressive. I feel bad it's just that…I don't know what to do, I'm trying to run a business and make a living so I don't become homeless myself.”
"Well la di da, “ they said, "I wish I had your problem.” Again, they were right. What an insensitive thing to say. Or was it?
"I'm sorry. I feel bad, it won't happen again, I'll learn to check myself.” As the person collected their things and started walking away through the parking lot, I entered our business thinking about how that could've been me.
To point, I haven’t been self sufficient in 16 years, and my success has been on the back of family, friends and loved ones supporting me all this time. I could’ve been this person. I have done a lot in my life in which I was comforted by the idea I did it all myself. But here’s the thing: I came from an upper middle class family. I had support growing up and a family who loved me. When I moved away and attempted to pay for everything myself, my family was there to help me in times of trouble. In times when I couldn’t find a job. Times when there were no movies being made.
Movies. Ha! I’m an artist, a filmmaker, and I have been able to explore that because of the generosity of others. There have been many times when work was thin. But my family could loan me some cash, or a partner believed that ‘we’re in this together,’ and supported me. Sure, there were times I helped support them, too, but what if they weren’t there when I needed help? What if I had come from a shit family? And I’m not saying these facets are a universal fact for people addicted to drugs or unable to hold down a home. I’m just saying, that without partners, friends and family, there were times that I would’ve ended up on the street. Or in a gang. Isn’t that what broken down people with no support system but at least have their mental health do? I could be a Hell’s Angel. But if I had ended up on the street, how would I have gotten out? I have no goddamn idea. So many of us are steps away from being homeless. Addicted. Losing control of our mental health. How close have I been, so many times, from being there myself? A lot. But there was always someone to help me out, get me through the tough times, and support me, because they loved me. An argument could be made that I would have stayed in certain jobs, just to support myself, instead of being all “I’m unhappy here, I’m an ARTIST, I need to go be one.” What a fucking luxury. Most people don’t have that luxury.
What would I have done if I couldn’t make a car payment? What would I have done, when stressed and sick and just diagnosed with a severe medical condition, if I didn’t have a “home” to go back to? What would I have done if I didn’t meet someone who loved me enough that they didn’t judge the fact I lived with my Mom...albeit to help support her after my Father died...and wanted me to move in with her? What would I have done all those times I couldn’t help pay the mortgage, but she got it? I’d be homeless. I’d be hunkering down in some alcove doing who knows what.
Well, I know what. If you take a look at how much I drink and smoke in good times, I’m sure I would do anything I could to numb the pain of being outcast and dejected, living under society’s strict gaze and harsh judgment. I’d be a junkie in a heart beat. I know it. In some ways, I’m a junkie now. But one that society is cerrtainly okay with, because I live in a house, earn money (occasionally,) and spend it. I contribute to the 'economy.' I live in a house and have internet access and accountants who are able to help claim a CERB cheque from the government. But what if I didn’t have that? What if I grew up in a home that didn’t care, that just told me to pull up my bootstraps...hell, that’s better than what some of these people have had. At least I had a home to grow up in!
Some, perhaps most, perhaps few, have had awful families, if any at all. Most suffer from severe mental health issues that, thankfully, I’ve never experienced. That’s not due to some great way I’ve lived my life...it’s just the luck of genetics. Most suffer from severely addictive personalities. This latter case, I’m extremely thankful I haven’t adopted from some in my extended family. The way I drink sometimes, it’s amazing I’m not an alcoholic. Or, perhaps I am one, just a functioning one. When does it become a problem?
That could have been me. But I got angry. I cursed this person. I looked down on them. Even when I had realized the error of my ways, I STILL stood over them, watching them collect their garbage...which, to be honest, I didn’t expect them to do. I just wanted them to leave. I just didn’t want another shit in my doorway. But truly, if I was without a home...where would I shit!?! I’d find some isolated place where no one would see me, with a modicum of privacy, and drop a deuce. How sad is that? What else are you gonna' do, shit your pants?
I should feel empathy for that person...but I have empathy fatigue. Empathy fatigue is itself a goddamn luxury. Empathy fatigue comes from a place of privilege. I acknowledge that...I co-own a business we’re trying to survive with. Why don’t they respect that!?! Well, boo-fucking-hoo, you capitalist creep. Why would they care?
Yet, there is a middle ground that can be met. We need to have full empathy for the downtrodden, unlucky and stricken, and we need to understand that most of us could be in their situation if not for the grace of God go I. And, if we’re going to continue to support this free market economy bullshit to keep the majority afloat, we also need to have empathy for the hard working people who do have jobs, as well. Yet, how is one supposed to attract customers in their front door when there’s a giant pile of human excrement in the way? How do we support both these demographics?
First of all, I’m going to leave the unlikely idea of UBI (Universal Basic Income) at the door for this piece of writing. But that alone should tell you how much help I think it and it alone could provide.
Besides that, or without it ever happening, I think business owners and the middle class working folk need to accept higher taxes, for one. No one wants more taxes, but ideally, taxes provide services. In Canada, we get free health care, roads rebuilt every spring (something a lot of Americans in warmer climes don’t have to pay for,) a vast (though admittedly, very flawed) social safety net, oversight of the health and safety of the populace, relatively cheap driver’s licenses, health cards, outdoor sporting licenses, etc. A lot of people think we pay too much in taxes, but the more your taxes cover, the more you get. Perhaps not proportionately, and this is the ideal, but think about how Canada has served it’s lower and middle class during the Covid-19 pandemic. I ain’t gonna’ argue about that...it’s kept us afloat. But how is a homeless person with no access to services supposed to get that help? We need to raise taxes, and take ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of those raised taxes to create housing, and ensure it all goes there.
And where is this housing going to come from? Building buildings is expensive, a mere raise in taxes ain’t gonna’ pay for that. Yet, how many abandoned buildings do you see in the OEV, the downtown core, etc.? How many of these are owned by Farhi? I happen to have heard, told to me by an esteemed councilman of the city, that property owners and landlords get massive tax breaks for having empty buildings. Oh, the poor financial strain they must be shouldering for their empty buildings. The tax breaks they receive are more beneficial to them than having loyal, paying tenants. How messed up is that? And to be true, I didn’t hear it from the grapevine, that just sounds more salacious and interesting. But you can check out the truth at https://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/refund/plt/vacant.html.
Repeal these laws, these tax breaks, however that needs to happen. Create new laws or by-laws or whatever it takes to incentivize these landlords to have tenants. Especially if they are landlords with street front retail properties. Give them a timeline. If they can’t get a tenant in a year or so, create a law that allows the city to buy the property at a premium price, with the acknowledgment the property MUST be refurbished for one purpose. I give you:
Whatever domiciles are located within a building, go over to those in need. Create offices for case workers, mental health and addiction professionals. Each of these professionals has no more than four people in their case load. This will ensure that everyone who needs help gets a personal touch, while at the same time ensures these professionals themselves are not overworked and burned out. Pay them well. This will establish London as an attractive place for professionals to come work, because of the great working conditions and great pay. And because they care, I guess. I think we’d see an influx of them, while previously, we’ve had a glut. The storefront retail spaces will be part of the project. The people living in that particular building will be responsible for coming up with a storefront, what they sell, and will be responsible for running and maintaining the business. There should be enough people within the building that no one is overwhelmed, and the case workers and other professionals working in the building will help maintain the business initially, but gradually back off. The time will come that the residents in the building will be earning enough to dress “professionally,” whatever the hell that is, feed themselves, and will have learned the necessary skills to join the workforce. Anyone who refuses to participate, does not get this FREE housing. If the rules within this housing are not followed, they’re never allowed into the program again. Gone. Banished. There’ll be no vandalism, violence or vacuousness here, no Sir.
Is this mean? Perhaps. But people need structure. Of course, there will be leeways and methods of forgiveness. You can’t expect someone who’s a junkie to become John Q. Businessman overnight. The professionals who are much smarter than I can create whatever parameters they deem are needed, and which will be most helpful. The idea is to heal people, love people, support people, care for people and give people the services and lifestyle they need to be what this enterprise...that they have chosen and designed themselves...requires, so that they can learn and move on into an endeavour, and a home, all they’re own. When they transition out of this place, there will be further mental health professionals and case workers that will continue to support them as they become individualistic...just what a free market capitalist economy needs! More individuals to do as you say.
Eventually, I suppose, there will be enterprises in certain buildings that are more attractive than others. While some buildings may create an awesome record or book store that every potential candidate will want to work in, (what are we, teenagers?) the reality will learn folks that even out of poverty, you can’t always get what you want. They may join a co-op that isn’t their ideal place. But the striving to get into an ideal place is often what drives the working instinct of the human being. That will be their goal. And believe or not, dear privileged reader, there are people out there who respect all types of work. It’s called purpose, and we all need one.
How much will all this cost? Plenty. Millions upon millions. However, I posit the way it helps those most in need, getting them out of the ghettoization of their lives and away from the downward glances of judgmental holier than thous, will be worth it. The businesses created will be worth it. The cleaning up of our city streets will be worth it. The dignity that it gives people will be worth it. The business people it creates for our questionable economy (hey, it’s all we got,) will be worth it. And if it works, it will only be costly for so long, as it will go a long way towards not necessarily eliminating these problems, which will inevitably be impossible, but greatly mitigating them. Patrolling of the streets will be reduced, the need for certain social services will be reduced, the cost of health care will be reduced.
I truly believe people want to feel useful in their own way, want to contribute to their own lives, and don’t want to be looked down upon. No one wants to be without a home, on the street, addicted to drugs. It’s enticing and attractive at first, I guess. Living like an outlaw or a hobo riding the rails, or becoming a Hell’s Angel, intimidating all the stiff jackets who scoff at you. But that’s not for everyone, and in situations like that, your lack of mental health or drug addiction will kill you faster on the rails or on a bike than they will in an alley way. Like I said earlier, I would be there without the grace of others. But no one wants to live this way once they’re in the throes of it. They just need family, friends, partners…and an empathetic social whole…to love them enough to help them out. Even if we’re all doing it to help ourselves. I mean, I have a business to run.
End of line.