A Tuesday Morning in Downtown Winnipeg
A Tuesday Morning in Downtown Winnipeg
Recently, I had an opportunity to battle and conquer an underlying fear within myself that many Winnipeggers hold. While blissfully strolling alone on the wild and windy downtown streets of Winnipeg, specifically on Vaughan in front of The Bay, there appeared to be a homeless man. It seemed he was desperately struggling to remain balanced in a sitting position on the ledge of a flower bed. On approaching closer to this man, I had considered crossing the street to avoid the common occurrence of being asked for money; however, I chose to stay on course. He did in fact ask for money, in which I replied I hadn’t any, and offered a cigarette instead. He accepted to receive my offer of the smoke.
Prior to digging out my cigarettes I requested permission to sit beside the man on the cement planter which he permitted, while looking through my bag for the nicotine fix he seemingly desired. I introduced myself to him while shaking his hand and learned his name was “Jaylo”. There was an obvious stench of alcohol and the wobbling of his body led me to believe he may have been slightly intoxicated; however I decided to sit beside him nevertheless. I asked a few questions, but mostly just listened. The conversation had not long started before Jaylo proceeded to express that he had just woken from a nap and his bed had been the flower bed where we were sitting. Pressing my hand on the soil I zestfully proclaimed how the flower bed was so much cozier than the sidewalk! With this risky joke, he laughed and in that moment he allowed himself to share intimate details with me, a complete stranger.
These are the stories he shared:
He had begun by stating that “I was not always this way” as he gestured towards the flower bed. He continued by communicating that he once had a job, house, and family. Jaylo furthered his thoughts with claiming that his family is now fellow homeless people who he has met whilst living on the streets of Winnipeg. He expanded upon his story by stating that he was of a Pentecostal faith. With that disclosure he talked about how sometimes at night, when he is alone walking, he becomes frightened. He did not elaborate on why or where this fear came from but stated that he is able to overcome this fear due to feeling a presence with him, walking at his side.
He sat silently for a moment, then with a keen eye Jaylo noticed a hair elastic uselessly resting around my wrist. He inquired as to what it was and asked if he could have it, I agreed handing over my ONLY elastic. (A note to the reader: I have lushly long hair and it was a blistery windy day!!!) Immediately after bestowing upon him my stretchy piece of comfort, he began vigorously pulling at his ponytail while he conveyed that the elastic he had in his hair hurt. As he obviously struggled with swaying and grunting while he attempted to pull out the rubber elastic, I decided to stand up and assist with the removal of the old elastic. Subsequently, my fingers were intertwined amongst his matted, tangled, and unwashed hair. Consciously I did not glance directly at his scalp with suspicions of actually witnessing tiny life forms that are unwanted by most humans in their hair… you know those crawling, itchy bugs that typically are seen in elementary schools. Anyway, with my feet planted firmly on the cement I aggressively pulled determinately against his mane, as the mission became to aid Jaylo from his uncomfortable distress. Sadly, an apparent awareness had struck that I may not have been helpful after all. Perhaps unfamiliar noises may have led to this insight as the sound of my success echoed with the reverberation of Jaylo’s “ughhhhh!!!” Finally with that moment, the realization had occurred that I was in fact inflicting further pain and likely was not a beneficial hair defender. However, regardless of his suffering I was determined and carried forward. Eventually, I was able to successfully win the fight with the tangled rubber opponent as the elastic flew out of his hair, which did end his suffering! Once this feat was completed we settled on the planter once again.
Jaylo, I presume, decided that I was safe to disclose more details about his personal life. Maybe this was due to the fact that I had exposed myself so intimately with handling his hair? With such he divulged that he has many health conditions, but spoke of one in particular which was that he experiences seizures. He proceeded into a story in regards to when a common, yet “annoying seizure” occurred in the middle of the day in front of the University of Winnipeg. He mentioned that he was standing on the sidewalk when a seizure had began to overtake him, which resulted in Jaylo falling forcefully and smacking his head and face on the ground. He had obvious contusions above his right eye and right cheek area that could verify his story. He continued and stated that after the seizure had passed he remained on the sidewalk because his head was “bleeding just like crazy, eh.” I took an opportunity to question if anyone helped him. To my naive surprise, he gazed despairingly at the ground, his shoulders slumped and he dejectedly declared “no, but so many people walked by.” I opted to express an apology to him for all the people that were absolutely uncompassionate towards him when he was hurt. He stared deeply into my eyes and uttered “don’t worry, someone did eventually help me” and then reminisced about how he received help at a time of need.
Somewhere within my optimistic soul I was waiting for a grandiose tale of a heroic and kindhearted humanitarian who had approached a medical situation, regardless of the outside appearance of this dirty and somewhat scary looking homeless man; however the rescue was not so newspaper-worthy. Interestingly, Jaylo himself gratefully explained how extremely fortunate he was. He continued and elaborated on how a woman phoned an ambulance and that she actually waited for the ambulance to arrive prior to going on with her life. She did not offer to help him up, give water, or even speak to him more than stating that the ambulance was on route. To Jaylo, that help which offered a tiny bit of human consideration seemed to be insurmountably significant. As he finished his story we sat in silence once again.
The silence in that moment was a peaceful comfort as I was trying to be present with Jaylo, yet I needed to emotionally check myself as I wanted to cry for him. I attempted to look around at people who walked by to prevent my tears being seen showering down my face. Suddenly it had occurred to me, after taking my attention off of Jaylo that many people, who likely would have chosen a different direction to avoid him, were not only walking by but were actually taking note of him. Unfortunately, an utterly heartbreaking comprehension also became bluntly obvious in that moment as well!!! People were likely indeed seeing the homeless man; but more notable they were seeing him with a little white girl (me!!). I am assuming now, in retrospect, that there likely may have been judgmental and negative thoughts of a potential perceived risk for me being harmed by this disheveled man who I was sitting beside on the flower bed.
Eventually, I suggested to Jaylo that I needed to head off on my way and extended my hand out one last time thanking him for allowing me to sit and talk. Jaylo grabbed my hand with both of his, pulling my hand towards his face where he placed a gentle kiss on my hand. He thanked me for my kindness and suggested that I “must be an angel sent from God.”
As I walked away from Jaylo I certainly did not feel that I was an angel sent from God as all of the negative assumptions of homeless people began to re-flutter throughout my thoughts. Walking briskly away, I had overwhelming notions that my hands were disgustingly filthy. (Remember, I shook his hand twice, assisted with the removal of his elastic out of his hair, as well as allowing him to kiss my hand). Purposefully I did not touch my face or hair until I was out of Jaylo’s sight and able to douse my hands thoroughly with hand sanitizer (please remember I have long hair, it was a windy day, and I gave my only elastic to this homeless man). In retrospect, the guilt was overbearing to me due to allowing myself be overcome with the need to ensure cleanliness after partaking in physical contact with Jaylo. Conversely, I do acknowledge that infection control does need to be a consideration particularly when permitting physical contact with a homeless person.
Reflecting back on this encounter with Jaylo, I have been solidified with an understanding that many people in society, including myself, are able to easily put blinders on in an attempt to avoid the fact that homelessness is prevalent within our community. Life is much easier when we overlook uncomfortable people and situations. However, there is a fine balance between ignoring the existence of another human completely in order to ensure that personal safety is met.
The lesson that this writer has learned is that there is definitely room within all people, when considering the homeless population, for safety as well as empathy. It is possible to simultaneously demonstrate compassion to another (even questionable looking) person while ensuring personal safety. Although sometimes vagrants may seem to be “loaded and obnoxious” on the streets of Winnipeg, in truth those streets are the actual residence of the people that society finds problematic and are fearful of. If someone selects to deliberately live or work in a vagrant populated area, then acceptance should be given of the reality that homelessness, at this point in time, is an inherent component to the downtown experience!
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