Today while I was at a street vendors, I had a chat with a fellow in his ’60’s who lives off the streets. This was not obvious as he was clean and carried new shopping bags rather than the ubiquitous shopping cart. He gets the very modest government dole, enough to cover a sleeping room in a run down part of town, overlooking one of the worst places in the city. The alley were the most lost addicts end up. Hell.
He doesn’t spend much time there as he finds it depressing. Instead, he “shops” the garbage of the city. He had an assortment of finds he was showing us. A CD he said was the biggest seller of all time in Britain. A half used jar of some strange coloured salt that looked like bacon bits. A shopping card with $25 on it. And so on.
On weekends, he sells jokes – 3 for a ‘twonie’. He gave me 6 for mine, all on a theme and all I’d never heard before. I suspect they were his own.
His parents, he tells me, worked for Philips in Holland. We traded products they’ve made – radio tubes, light bulbs, shavers, TVs. In fact, he was full of facts and observations.
I commented that the city was looking into getting rid of commercial garbage bins, like another city had. He didn’t think it would happen as the garbage companies make too much on them.
He estimated that he gives away about 50% of the food he finds. Indeed, while we were chatting, he gave a hamburger to a passing man who was most appreciative. He was eating what looked like grilled chicken, neither of what the vendor was serving.
He told me he loves the lifestyle. No boss to control him. No rules – he walked straight out into traffic when he left.
In recent community discussions around providing housing for street people, this detail had become clear and was not what social services were offering. Street people often value freedom, don’t want bed begs, and want to keep their stuff with them. The shelters were the opposite so they actually feel safer on the street. The excellent recent film The Soloist certainly gives you another look at why.
He did however have 6 rules of his own he lived by. The first was be kind. The last was be happy. He said he was happy, mostly because he felt free. He saw many people as trapped in their homes and lives, the rat-race.
When I worked in the rough part of town many years ago, the street people I knew ended up there after catastrophic change. Their lives fell apart and they lacked or resisted the support of family and friends. Some worked their way out. Some adapted and thrived in this semi-nomadic lifestyle. Many ended up on a slide into oblivion. It takes a great deal of creativity to live successfully like that. And not fall into addictions, although that’s what got many of them there in the first place.
It’s interesting to consider how our choices take us down paths that always fork forward, never back. Even if we somehow manage to circle back to where we once were, it is never the same.
Making major changes in reality – ending up on the street, getting off the street, or awakening – are often precipitated by crisis. Some people describe this as being the purpose of pain, to push us out of a rut. To be willing to make changes.
Once you’ve made those shifts, there is no turning back. There can only be a looking forward. This is all much easier when we’re doing it consciously. But it is still never what we expect.
Fortunately, we can find freedom anywhere. No need to live as a renunciate on the street.