The Walks, the Pavements, the Categories and the Statistics


Twenty five years ago a man strolled by me on Viger Street in Montreal. I figured he was a drifter. He looked straight ahead through his round John-Lennon glasses.  He had a slight stoop to his walk. For a split second, he had looked at me and I had looked at him, as well. His long hair had been cut in awkward clumps and it seemed like they had just fallen off. He had a straight line walk. He did not look to the side. He did not want his eyes to meet anyone else’s. His shoulders drooped. Very little of his cheeks were visible.  His black and white beard hung down to his chest. His jeans were dark and tattered around the edges and at the knees.  He wore a dark jacket, whose pockets were weighed down by stuff that he had put in, in plastic bags. I noticed all this in the few yards that we passed each other by. Something about his eyes and his face, however, made him remarkably familiar. I turned around and looked at him and he kept walking away towards the east and I kept turning around to see if he would stop and turn around and he did not and he kept getting smaller and smaller in the distance.   I could sense that he was getting swallowed by the huge structure that was the Jacques Cartier Bridge in the distance. His face kept haunting me. Unlike the folks, known as panhandlers,  around Viger who perform silly antics to draw attention, do a little jig, or make strange faces and put their hat out, this man kept walking, never looking sideways.

I saw him again about a week later at another spot, near Chinatown. This time he did not see me. I was determined to see his face in an unobtrusive manner. He sat down after about five minutes of my following him, at a bench in a park built by the city on top of the Ville Marie tunnel. I stood in a bus stand and watched him. Doves, seagulls or pigeons were flocking around him. He took bread crumbs out of his bag and threw them around. He watched the birds for a while and then he sat up straight, pulled his hair back and stared out. I recognized him then. I could not quite figure out, whether I should go and talk to him. After all, this was a guy who hung around a group of students who went to McGill in the mid seventies. He was doing his MBA in Finance and he was a lively, cheerful guy, who always had some nasty humour to share with the whole gang. I did speak to him a few times and I knew he had a huge crush on one of the women who was also in this rather talkative and disco-loving group that I had run into.  He was possibly from Bombay, the old name for Mumbai.  I asked a mutual acquaintance about him and she said that he had either had some psychological problem or he had an affair that had severely traumatized him. He left his academic life, walked out of his apartment and had simply started walking the streets. His parents had tried to find him and they never did. I saw him a few times later and then never saw him again. He disappeared and was never heard of and seen again by anybody. What is remarkable about this young and bright man, as I was told later by others who knew him, was that he came to do graduate studies in McGill, submitted his thesis but never came back to see his professors or pick up his degree. He came from a fairly well established family and refused to recognize anyone from his past. While he was seen taking meals at the Old Brewery Mission, he did not panhandle and did not ask for money. He did not also talk to anybody.  He left no trace. No address.

A few years ago while on a trip to Kolkata, where I was born and lived for twenty years, I headed up to the main street from the side street where I had lived, and I realized that the long time rag pickers there had become pavement dwellers. They had not only taken over a large section of the main pavement along the main thoroughfare, but they had built shacks, tea stalls, erected a small temple-like obelisk, where people gave donations and a small TV set was also tucked away in one corner, under a tent-like structure. This was their home. They were no longer homeless. They were pretty vociferous, confident and did not care about the fact that the bus stand was no longer usable, because they had used it to build some structures and had created a variety of sleeping arrangements in and around the bus stop. As much as one could be disgusted by the squalor and cockiness of these people, you would realize after some reflection that after more than sixty years of India’s independence from the British Empire, 38% of India’s population live in extreme poverty. They mostly come from the rural areas, running away from drought and starvation, looking for work, either as rag pickers, cleaners or resort to begging. And when they come to the city, they learn to hustle, because as they are mostly minorities or people belonging to the lower rungs of the caste system, they cannot even be considered for all of the jobs that they are prepared to take. There is however a perception amongst those who walk by them, holding their noses, that they are born smugglers, thieves, crooks, prostitutes and petty criminals. The police constables are frequently seen taking bribes from them, so that they can store their rag baskets in huge mountains in various stretches of the pavement, never mind the illegal structures on the pavements themselves, for which the local councillors are reportedly taking the “licensing ” fees. Years ago, on that same pavement, I met a nearly blind man, who sat down on the pavement with his arms outstretched. The pavement was then clean, no squatters, no pavement dwellers. I had gotten to know the blind man. He was always well-dressed, clean shaven and he wore a pair of dark glasses. Sometimes I had helped him cross the main avenue. From time to time people walking by would drop a few coins into his palm. He would give them a salaam and smile. He had a Bachelor’s degree, but could not get a job, so he had learned welding. While working at the docks, he got blinded in an accident and had no option, other than to beg. He told me his story and I listened. There was nothing I could do, other than introduce him to my friends. He remained well shaven and well dressed always, sitting on the pavement. Two years ago, I found out that a taxicab had run over him. I asked around where he had lived and found out that he had no home. He slept on the ramp to a garage, along an edge. He washed himself clean every morning, put on the same pair of clothes and sat down all day in the sun, until he had enough money for a meal.

All the hype, all the rockets in space, all the software sexiness and all the corporate posturing cannot fig leaf the nakedness of India’s poor. All the tall claims of growth, the technical arrogance, the rising number of Indian billionaires, the nuclear powered attack submarines and still some 297 million people, in a study done recently by a committee commissioned by the government, live in absolute poverty! 

A news story now. London, July 24: More than 20 people aged between 5 and 74 slept rough on paving stones and gravel outside a park at Hampstead in the UK capital and raised 8,000 pounds for a Kolkata based charity.

People slept at Rosslyn Park Unitarian Chapel to “experience” what homeless in Kolkata feel like. ‘Kolkata Rescue’ provides healthcare, education and vocational training to homeless in the Indian city.

American-Dutch businessman Glen Kendall, who worked for a year as the administrator of the charity, decided to raise funds for the organisation by planning the “Big Sleep in Hampstead” to mark the 30th anniversary of the organisation.

Kendall said they wanted to build a ‘bustee’ for the Big Sleep, but realised that they could not source authentic materials to make such a ‘bustee’ in London.

He said the volunteers, in the age of 5 to 74, braved cold wind, discomfort and noise on the pavement along with worrying about police asking them to move from the pavement. End of Story.

Canada? Well, here is the end section of a rather informative piece in Wikipedia.

“Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a national housing strategy (United Nations, 2009). Many of the federal governments’ expenditures are cost-sharing, one-time only funding initiatives that lack long-term leadership on homelessness. The United Nations has also noted the lack of information on these expenditures, including the number of houses produced. Housing has been declared a fundamental human right. Canada helped to draft the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights that includes a right to access housing in Article 25. Canada also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1976, which recognizes an adequate standard of living, including housing, in Article 11. Currently, there is a court challenge stipulating that the crisis of homelessness violates the right to security of the person and to equality for disadvantaged groups under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” 

The debate about homelessness, as also about poverty, can go on forever. There are those who feel that it is only individual actions and “misfortune” that cause homelessnes and therefore it is only individual remedial actions and charity that can resolve a part of these situations. It can never be resolved totally. There are others who believe that the concept of a society includes a provision to care for and take responsibility for the disenfranchised and impoverished. That social safety net is fundamental to the concept of a caring society. This is as opposed to a society where only the highly aggressive and competitive can survive. Without government policy firmly in place for low cost social housing and redistribution of wealth, without a fundamental belief that having a home is a constitutional right, in this fast changing economy, homelessness is inevitable.

Rana Bose is a Montreal writer and Serai editor