Some people believe that homeless folks are just lazy and don't care if they work or not and would rather do nothing. But those who condemn with heartless jokes and ridicule along with the condescenders base their assumptions on a visible landscape and often hesitate to empathize with a deeper level of neglect and isolation, to a humanity fraught with diminished self-esteem, or to appreciate physical and emotional differences that have potential long-term negative consequences.
Indoor malls offer a unique opportunity to observe one's surroundings and others. One afternoon I sat near a thin man wearing a faded jean jacket and blue jeans sitting motionless with his head and baseball cap lowered, rendering his face unseen but he was far away in sleep. If you are regular mall visitor and management notes that you are a habitual sleeper they might get your attention and give you the warning to stay awake or you could get the "boot."
In this situation, the man (call him Gary, not his real name), appeared as a newcomer to the mall community with its curious eyes including mine. I began sketching his hand draped on the edge of the sofa. Tanned with prominent veins and large, it did not move for thirty minutes. Later he would pose for the above drawings.
Finally, he raised his head, flashing a small bony face with eyes magnified behind thick-narrow-framed glasses peering at me first, and almost immediately, a mouth packed full of white teeth smiled at me. I had no idea of the outcome of this encounter. Over the course of a few weeks, I remained interested because here was an elder soon to be eighty-three in relatively good health and spirit in spite of his past. I showed him my drawing, and he looked pleased, though I sensed his worry. Noticing his hearing device for which without he was deaf, his speech was affected so that his words sounded different than the way we pronounce them. I remained aware and alert to his presence without occupying his space. Never knowing his father, his mother left him to live in a school for the deaf during his childhood, teens and early adult life. When hearing devices came along, he was able to find work and integrate into society.
Now having been evicted from his rented house on the pretext of imminent renovations, he resorted to charity which included a sleeping bag and safety on the floors of churches where he slept gratefully during the winter. The shelter program was over at the end of March, so he hung around McDonald's until their nightly closing. Hiding his pick up in the shadows unnoticed behind some buildings he waited for the 5:30 AM restaurant opening. Doing shut-eye Gary was cramped behind a rigid steering wheel and tired of his life style. Lamenting about an impatient friend who did not have time help him find a place with reasonable rent he was quite aware of other homeless men looking to rent leaving agencies swamped.
I had the technology to look for a suitable home for Gary and was able to contact a landlord in Toronto who expressed interest in renting his renovated apartment to my friend. It was touch and go and even without a phone, Gary attended the meeting for the lease signing, and he did this independently.
Gary dropped by for a visit after he got settled. He looked alert, happy and worry-free, his self-worth restored, and a brighter future ahead. I felt special too to be part of the changes in his life experience.