Once there was a man who pushed a shopping cart down the street where I lived. He collected bottles. Sold found objects for a profit. Cleaned up the garbage on the streets and all in all took care of his life in simple ways with simple means. His name was Dave.
He told me his name the first time I saw him pushing his cart past my house and asked him to stop, I have a shed full of bottles, I told him. Would you like them?
His glee when he saw my bottles was contagious. Not only did he clean out my shed of bottles, he also cleaned it up. Took apart the boxes waiting for recycling, packing them up in a neat stack. He swept the floor, threw out the garbage and when I introduced myself, he told me his name. He used to live at the shelter where I worked at the time but had found an apartment on his own that he could afford and was never going back, he told me. No one should live in a shelter for long, he said. It isn’t healthy. There was pride in his voice. Pleasure in how he was taking care of himself. He hadn’t quit drinking, but, he said, it wasn’t getting him down like it used to. “I get by,” he told me. And getting by ‘on the outside’ [of the shelter] made Dave happy.
Yesterday, I sat in a meeting with co-workers to discuss a client who has been lobbing complaints into every camp they can find in order to get some attention to what they consider ‘unfair, unjust and probably illegal behaviour’ on the part of the foundation I work for. Our conversation wasn’t about ‘What to do about ________.” It focused on how to protect the individual from further spiralling into paranoia. On how to ensure they got support they needed as they journeyed through the mental health issues that were at the core of their unease. They were a human being whose life was in turmoil and needed support and my co-workers were intent on finding a path to supporting them no matter how challenging their behaviour had become. And, they were also a human being whose name we refrained from using as much as possible because of Canada’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Now, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it is vital that every citizen, me included, know that their personal information is protected and that those in positions of ‘power’ take care to protect their privacy. And, I admire my co-workers for being so judicious and considerate in how they protected this individual’s identity, and how hard they worked to find answers that respected not just their identify, but their human needs.
I also remember Dave’s joy when I used his name the next time I saw him after our first encounter. “You remembered my name,” he commented when I greeted him. “That’s nice.” It felt good to know I had given him a small measure of joy through the simply act of remembering his name.
It was the same for a young woman who used the services of an outreach bus that travels our city streets at night, handing out comfort kits, hot chocolate, condoms and other things that street engaged teens might need to stay safe on city streets. I was out with the group to learn more about their work and the lives of the young teens they support. This young girl tottered onto the bus in her six-inch stiletto’s, slipping them off the moment she sat down. A worker stepped up and, noticing the blister on her heel asked if she would like a band-aid. “You remember my name,” she said when he greeted her. “Nobody remembers my name.” And she smiled. real big. A tear formed in her eye.
What ‘s in a name?
So often, for street engaged individuals, their name is the only thing they can cling to, hold onto, carry with them. Their name is the last possession they have that speaks to who they were, how they were, where they were before the street took over. Their name connects them to a past that, no matter how painful, reminds them that they were someone else before they picked up the label, homeless, junkie, prostitute, drifter.
A name is important. Especially when others use it not to call you down, but to lift you up.
As we sat around the boardroom table yesterday, I remembered Dave and the young girl on the bus. I remembered their joy in hearing their names spoken. I remembered the joy I felt in being able to give them something so simple that touched them so deeply and connected us so easily.
It is a delicate balance to walk when working with people whose lives have been torn apart by homelessness, poverty, mental illness and the host of other factors that have taken away so much of what they care about, so much of what they need to thrive in our societies.
What does someone on the street need? What do any of us need? To be seen. To be heard. To be known. To be visible — not as the label we carry but rather, as the human being whose name means something more than just being an unnamed figure drifting amongst the masses.