When I go home from work every day I spend some time waiting for the bus at the corner of Ste. Catherine and Pie-IX. And there, I see them.
By Colin McGregor
They weave in and out of oncoming traffic, often with a cup in hand. They approach each car or truck at the stoplight and ask for money. Sometimes, they don’t bother to leave the road when the lights turn green again, going up to the driver’s side of moving cars, asking for charity. Sometimes there is just one of them, sometimes more. They are men, and at least one is a woman. They are clearly in some distress.
In all the months I have observed them darting in and out, on and off the street, in good weather or in bad, most drivers seem to give these beggars nothing at all, except sometimes a signal meaning “go away.” And yet they come back, day after day, some with no shoes on their feet.
They are honked at, waved away, but they continue their work, with little regard for traffic lights or their own safety.
Talking to them is easier than one would think. Barbara, a young woman with a bright smile, stops her begging for a few moments as she answers my questions with a childlike innocence.
“I’m all alone,” she says. “The rest of my family are in Haiti.” There is a $20 bill in her cup.
When asked about Covid, she says it doesn’t worry her. She is not wearing a mask: “Soon they say we will all get to remove our masks.”
She pays her rent with “money from the government” supplemented the cash she collects darting between the cars, trucks and buses of Pie-IX and Ste-Catherine, she tells me.
I talk to her the next day. It is 1 p.m. “I haven’t eaten yet today,” she says. “I need to get enough money for a sandwich.”
It is cold and blustery, but there she is, strolling slowly between cars, her cup out.
They do this dangerous panhandling a handful of metres from where last year a large itinerant village was set up, topping out at a hundred tents in a long thin local park along Notre Dame Street East. That tent village is no longer there, with its makeshift hospital and restaurants, its charitable souls handing out bagels and other foods, its media glare, and its places for the homeless to congregate and get advice.
Most North American cities have their own tent villages. They get dismantled, and then pop up again. They ebb and flow like the tides.
In front of the Metro a few blocks away from the intersection, Nelson sits on the sidewalk. It is a sunny yet chilly afternoon. Squatting underneath a blanket, he shrugs at me when I ask him what he’ll do for winter. “I’ll just try to stay warm,” he says. He will go to a shelter if there is room. But usually they are full, he says.
“I don’t ask anyone for money. I just put my cup out and wait.”
He has been homeless for 6 months, after being thrown out of the YMCA on what he calls a false accusation of theft. “But you can’t throw me out, I have nothing,” he pleaded. Out he went.
I ask him his age and he says he is the same age I am – 59. “I know my white beard makes me look older,” he laughs, “but I can’t cut it off because winter is coming. It’ll keep me warm. But when summer comes again, off it goes!”
The Cold Sets In
Two weeks later I meet Barbara again. She is weaving in and out of traffic, but this freezing cold Friday morning she is not her usual smiling self.
“I’m hungry,” she says. “I haven’t eaten yet today. I need money for a sandwich.” The same cry as before, but this time she is in some distress.
I give her a Loony and wish her well. The biting winds drown out my words.
I go back to Nelson’s usual spot, the place where he sets up his “camp.”
He is not there.
I walk beside Sebastian, a thin, fast-moving, sociable man in his 30s. He is one that takes the most risks of people I have seen on the street, darting in front of trucks at the local service station to ask for money or a cigarette.
“I eat about 5, 6 times a day” he says, walking briskly. “It’s tougher when the cold weather comes.” He breaks off our conversation to run towards a pedestrian, his hand out. Afterwards he comes back to me with a smile and asks if I have a cigarette. Or a beer.
No, I say, I neither drink nor smoke.
“Oh well, have a good day,” he says, turning around to run towards other people, hand outstretched.