The Scream In The Night – And The Day
On a city sidewalk – a busy sidewalk – where passersby go to extremes to avoid eye contact, rests a homeless man. Some cross the street to circumvent the man. Others hold their purse, phone or child’s hand just a little tighter as they walk past. Senses are heightened. Ironically, it’s the homeless man who should be most afraid, he’s more vulnerable, no matter the time of day.
Broad daylight robberies and brazen attacks on people who are homeless are regular occurrences but the general public doesn’t always hear about them. Many incidents go unnoticed, under-reported and unbelieved.
Sadly, when people turn a blind eye to homelessness, an opportunity presents itself for others to go on the attack. It’s often about easy money, hatred, spite or revenge, and dark humour.
“The worst part of homelessness is feeling invisible.”
A late-August 2021 news story out of Vancouver reads, “A homeless man was shoved to the ground and kicked in a violent, unprovoked assault.” The “vicious attack” was even captured on video. Following the crime, it took a month for the story to be made public. In an age when news is immediate – as it happens – through social media platforms like Twitter, a month feels abnormally long to wait for such a story. Is apathy to blame?
Attacks on the homeless have been happening for years, even decades, and possibly for as long as there have been people who are homeless.
In the States, a homeless man was beaten and stabbed over forty dollars. A homeless man in Canada was left with potentially life-threatening injuries after being targeted, run over, and pepper sprayed. A homeless UK man was paid to be spray-painted – the stunt showcased on social media – after which the homeless man died by suicide due to the humiliation. These are daytime incidents. Imagine what takes place under the cover of night.
When you see an elder homeless man sleeping during the day and you are quick to think the worst of him, remember that he may have stayed awake through the night in order to stay alive.
While there are alternatives to life on the street, like living in a shelter, they can come with greater risks and be even more dangerous.
In a 2012 interview with NPR, a once homeless David Pirtle said, “I became homeless in 2004 as a result of schizophrenia, untreated schizophrenia. It caused me to lose my job, and I wound up on the street.” When asked if he ever considered staying in a shelter, Pirtle replied, “You hear a lot of terrible things about shelters, that shelters are dangerous places, that people will steal your shoes, and there's bedbugs and body lice. Unfortunately a lot of those things are true.”
Pirtle continued, “I don't want to say that all shelters are like that. But there are a lot of big warehouses that are just places where we stick people at night and we really don't have any regard for how they live there.”
“My fear of the unknown, of what might be waiting for me at that shelter, was worse than my fear of the known risk of staying on the street,” Pirtle added. “Not being in a shelter during the coldest nights is just fear of not waking up in the morning. It's fear of freezing to death.”
In Canada, the average age of a homeless person at death is between 40 and 49. Compared to counterparts in the general population, homeless men live half as long and are nine times more likely to be murdered.
If neither living on the street or living in a shelter are safe options, what are the alternatives? What needs to be done?
In a 2014 article on Homeless Hub, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, then a Research Coordinator at York University, wrote, “Those of us who recognize that people are usually homeless because of structural barriers or system failures rather than personal issues or failures need to educate others.”
“We need to speak up and speak out,” she continues. “We need to point out the injustices that exist. We need to stop the bullying and we need to demand action and justice.”
“Smile and say hello to a homeless human.”
Gulliver-Garcia concludes, “And we need to end homelessness. We need to recognize that being housed is an inherent part of human dignity.”
On any given night in Toronto, there are ten thousand people who are homeless. Upwards of 85 percent are men. Earlier this year The Toronto Star reported that “Toronto’s shelter system had its deadliest year on record in 2020” – “The highest annual total since the city started tracking the issue in 2007.” The number of homeless deaths in Toronto in 2020 doubled over the previous year.