Several years ago, while working at a homeless shelter, I gave a talk about homelessness to a group of 4th year University students. “The challenge for many of individuals experiencing homelessness is that depression is pervasive,” I told them. “It settles into your pores like soot from a chimney, clogging your mind to the possibilities beyond where you’re at. It limits your thinking to being homeless and inhibits your actions to a narrow corridor of activity because in many cases you can’t afford to venture far beyond the confines of the shelter, beyond the limitations of the labels you carry when you’re homeless. ”
One of the students asked me about why so many clients remain in the building during the day. “Don’t they want to get out and at least get some fresh air?” she asked.
Sure they do, I replied. However, when they leave our building they are at risk. If they have an addiction they’re trying to keep clear of, they risk running the gauntlet of dealers standing on the other side of the street, eagerly waiting to lure them into ‘feeling no pain’. They risk condemnation from passers-by who feel it is their right to comment on their obvious lack of economic well-being, and, they risk getting ticketed for a host of infractions that end-up making being homeless criminal.
I shared the story of a young man, who, while trying to evade a $50 fine for riding the transit system without a ticket, ended up receiving $695 worth of tickets when he was caught by the police after trying to run away. At the time, a co-worker said he hoped we could advocate on this young man’s behalf, (he was 18). “The tickets seem excessive and he cannot pay. He’s a nice kid and feels this [the tickets] will set him back awhile”, he said.
While the tickets do seem excessive, we can always fall back on ‘the law is the law’ to explain away their nature. The most costly fine he received, is a $395 fine for having an expired driver’s license in his possession. Who knew that was illegal? The co-worker didn’t. Neither did I. For the kid, the fact the license was stashed away in his underpants, speaks to something much bigger than an expired piece of ID. In a world where lost ID or no ID is commonplace, it speaks to wanting to retain some personal piece of ID that would identify him, just in case. Just maybe. It speaks to wanting to hold onto some hope that someone might want to know who he is, if something happens to him. (I should mention that the police got this ID by searching his body on the street — which is a whole other issue.)
For me, advocating on his behalf has to include a piece wherein the opportunity to learn and grow away from where he’s at outweighs the penalty imposed. If this kid started living at a shelter by the time he was 18 something is terribly wrong in his life. It’s pretty obvious that he’s lacking in a whole bunch of experience that should have given him the tools to live his life where he belongs — not in a homeless shelter.
The question is, what is a young guy of 18 doing living at a homeless shelter in the first place? Where have we [as a collective, as a society that states ‘our children are our future’] failed him and the hundreds of other youth who crowd our system? Where are we letting them down?
This post appeared originally on my old blog, Recover Your Joy. I am being interviewed this morning about Alberta’s new changes to Alberta’s laws that changes enforcement of minor offenses. Last week, it was passed into law that the government has put an end to the practice of issuing warrants for unpaid fines for minor infractions such as not shoveling a sidewalk or not paying a transit fare. It is a step in the right direction. I am in favour.