Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Bums in T.O.

My British friends have commented to me on the surprisingly high numbers of homeless in the city, and on the - to them - surprisingly relaxed attitude taken by the average torontonian towards this 'problem.'

Sure, we've got lots of homeless. We also pay a lot of taxes, at least some of which go towards shelters and other programs, prompting an "I gave at the office" attitude towards panhandlers. It doesn't help that virtually every vagrant I've encountered fits into one or more of the following categories:

1. crazy
2. native
3. drug addict (in which I include winos.)

While I have sympathy for the first group, the next two get none. Natives, in my opinion, are lucky to be alive. Wiping them out entirely would have been effortless for our ancestors, and the fact that they instead set aside land for them, gave them tax-free status, and then lavished public funds on them to build houses, schools, etc., all this speaks to their highly developed sense of fair play. In return for this largesse, we get petulant guilt trips (the white man stole our land!) and imperiosu demands for more money. To which I say, fuck that. Let them keep tax free status, let them keep their reserves, but for the love of the Invisible Hand cut them off fromt the public feed. A little forced self-sufficiency and, hey, who knows: their economies might outperform the national economy on a per-capita basis.

Instead we pay them to do nothing, with the predictable result (well, predictable to anyone who has ever lived as a student, whom the government also pays to do nothing) that they all start abusing substances.

Which brings us to the junkies. Why do I have no sympathy for these benighted souls, enslaved to one chemical or another, wandering through life in a haze? Why do I ignore them as I walk by, refusing to part with even the most modest amount of pocket change? Simple, really. Money's tight for me too. I need whatever excess I have to buy my own drugs.

There's actually a fourth category, that of the Unlucky Street Kid. I've had some bad experiences with these; back in Kingston, high school kids who still lived with their parents took to panhandling when they discovered that their multiple piercings and ripped jeans were capable of eliciting from passersby on the order of $100/day, which paid way better than any other job they could get.

Still, some are legit, so every once in a while, I give a little. Particularly if they have a funny sign:

Karma, $0.25; Good Karma, $0.50
Need Help to Become Jedi Master
Enron Relief Fund
Will Kick Self in Head for Money
Why Lie? I Want Beer, Too

These people, I give money to, because they provide a service: they make me laugh. Sadly, few of the more, er, 'experienced' bums do this; mostly, they just make me cringe and breathe through my mouth. I do not offer them financial support; hell, I don't even offer them 'reality support' (ie, I ignore them.) Does this make me a bad person? Perhaps. But I'll lay odds that you do the same thing, too, because no one likes seeing another human being in a self-inflicted state of such utter dissipation. It arouses disgust, not pity ... and we all instinctively know that they use that to try and extract money from us, their very appearance is an implicit condemnation of those who shower and work and at least try to contribute something besides bodily fluids to society. There but for the grace of god, and all that.

Allow me, however, to relate a story. Two years ago, some friends and I were hanging out in Denison Square Park, - near Kensington market for those not accustomed to Toronto - stoned on mushrooms and playing on the swings. A trio of young men approached and randomly started engaged us in conversation. They seemed nice fellows, so we remained. At some point, another man approached us, an older guy; he mumbled something about needing money, and not having eaten for three days.

I would have just ignored him, that being my way. One of the guys there, though, turned on the middle-aged individual and gave him an earful. "You're either lying, or stupid," he said, "I've been on the streets. I was there for years. There are soup kitchens all over this city; if you haven't eaten it's your own damn fault. Now fuck off."

He fucked off.

So you see, even those who have been on the streets don't necessarily have sympathy. So the next time you pass a panhandler and you decide to keep your change in your pocket, ditch the guilt trip. Food and shelter are available, often for free. All they need your money for is drugs.


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