Complexity? Begin at the beginning. And don’t make assumptions.

IMG_0384Here it is…..the SUV that was parked on a street beside our hotel. The notices on the windows are a little hard to read. They invite anyone passing by to take shelter in the SUV which is unlocked, contains a blanket and pillow, and is free.

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We were unsure how to respond to this….at first we were skeptical and checked to see if the SUV was really unlocked. It was. Then were there really a pillow and blanket? There were. The steering wheel was locked, presumably to prevent theft. We also saw a small bible and a cross hanging from the mirror, and later noted a schedule of services stuck to the front window. Now we thought we understood the spirit of the idea, at least.

We walked away excited about possibilities. This seemed to be an innovative, original approach to providing shelter. People using the car could lock themselves in, and feel safe from intrusion. They wouldn’t be vulnerable to the issues of sharing space in shelters: to theft, to assault, to noise etc.  They could use the shelter on their own time, in their own way.

What if every city had a network of cars open to those who needed shelter? It seemed a great tie in to the sharing economy. Maybe the cars could be part of a city program that was recognized by those who need shelter, and those who didn’t need their cars all the time?  Instead of little notes stuck to windows, there could be a network of cars with recognized markings to indicate they could be used as shelter, so those who needed it could feel safe and secure? Of course, we knew there would be some issues, such as cleaning the cars, helping those who need them know where they would be (this SUV was on an obscure street and unlikely to be stumbled upon by someone looking for shelter). An app wouldnt do, as that would not be available to the using population.

But we were excited….and headed out to dinner. It struck us as we walked that we could intellectualize what we thought was a great idea, but would we want to sleep in someone else’s car, potentially vulnerable to the owner who could open the door anytime? or, to a hostile neighbour? What really are the issues that those without shelter face?

We continued to talk while seated at the bar (where we like to sit so we can watch the action). And, then a man walked up and asked how much a beer would cost. The waiter answered and the man (we soon learned his name is Bill) said he couldnt afford it. But, he announced, its warm here so I’m just going to stay a bit and tell you some stories.

Well, Bill had some good stories, and we offered him a beer and pizza. He was slow to accept — the beer was not his usual brand, and he wasnt sure about it.  We chatted with him, as did the staff. We were pretty impressed with the staff — they treated Bill as any other customer, even though he wasnt buying, and he had a particular odour about him. But, as he proudly told us, he’d just had his beard shaved off in return for singing and dancing at the barber shop.

We decided to tell Bill about the SUV up the street. And quickly learned how little we know. Bill said thank you, but that wasnt for him. We asked why. He said he didnt have to tell us. It just wasn’t for him…it might be for another homeless person,  but he likes to sleep in the open.

After finishing our pizza we left and walked up the street to another restaurant bar where we’d struck up a conversation with Javier, the bartender, the night before. We ordered drinks and half an hour later, who should walk in but Bill. He again asked for a beer, pronounced it too expensive, so we treated him. Again, he wasn’t too fond of this beer either. He’s a Bud Light man — none of this fancy, craft stuff for him. He had a few more stories to share and his new year’s resolutions. He had resolved no longer to wake in his own waters,  to wash once a month, and to be the best panhandler in the city.  He seemed to want to shock us, but we’re not that shockable.

However, as we left, we realized that we are full of assumptions. In our short time with Bill we learned that just because you live on the street doesn’t mean you cant make choices (in the beer you like, for instance). It doesn’t mean that you want charity — you want to earn your keep (Bill did that through story and singing as he panhandled.). It doesn’t mean you will take just any shelter. And it doesn’t mean that you owe anyone else an explanation for your choices.

That SUV that had excited us was firmly rejected by Bill. We can’t solve other people’s problems without involving them explicitly in the design of the solution. We can’t assume that just because people have few material resources, that they have relinquished the right to make their own choices and decisions.

What we can do is learn, engage, and begin at the beginning. With an open heart and an open mind, we can address complex problems, such as homelessness and poverty, as we walk alongside those less fortunate than we.

Thank you, Bill, for helping us to understand your dignity and your humanity. We’ll keep an eye out for you.