I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.
We met George between an underground shelter and an alleyway cluttered with what some people call hobos. “It’s a good life I’ve got,” he announced as a greeting, “I’ve got it really good” he repeated as he puffed his chest and shoved his hands into the first layer of jackets he was wearing. Like a cowboy in some cheap imitation film I thought him then—A man posturing as a shoot-em-up star in a Hollywood blockbuster. I mean, I saw him as a homeless guy: someone I should pity. The good life? It had passed him over and stomped on him a couple times.
I was walking the streets with a “sandwich patrol” when I met George. My teacher program at OISE requires me to do charitable work in the city to expand my awareness. The unspoken aim of the assignment is to make us teachers compassionate people: to make us better at pity.
Are the Homeless Spoiled?
George has a theory about teachers and “other folks like us,” and it does include compassion. More important, though, he sees teachers as a key link in the chain of tax payers who pay for his room and board. He told as much. Without us, he explained, he couldn’t eat broccoli soup on Thursdays or rent a room in a homeless motel. He’s a great orator. Listening to him, I wanted to leave to Sweden and cash in on my first social assistance check. The drama of his speech was amplified by his yellow eyes darting from one person in his audience to another– Us do-gooders stood dumbfounded as we watched this social-theorist-homeless guy punctuating his sentences with side-grins and tongue clicks.
Secretly, we all wanted to figure out what in God’s name was going on, and we hoped he would tell us. The homeless people we’d seen so far didn’t seem miserable: a few had cell phones, others were clean-shaven, some proudly showed us their own room keys, and most seemed to have shelter dinner plans. We had expected a pity party, the kind that makes us feel compassionate. To our surprise – or was it disappointment?—we found optimistic and talkative people populating the streets.
The Truth behind the Talk
As George continued his story, we began to see the dark undertones of his talk and the deep scars on his face. One of the few Asians born into a small town in Northern Ontario, George always was an outsider. His community and family had little to hope for—not much to do in the small town, not much to see, and certainly not many jobs to be had. Oxycotin and other drug addictions were common among the townspeople. Had George become one of these drug addicts? Beaten by his parents? Neglected? Sexually abused? George didn’t reveal as much, but studies of homeless people show he likely was. He didn’t mention a rough past or seek out our pity, though he well could have. He insisted that he had a good life: He had food. He had clothes. He had an Avon clip-on attached to a Sherlock-Holmes- style hat lending him “an air of authority.” He had his eye on a cute Christian charity lady and was “active in the chase.” In his estimation George has a good life.
Challenging Ideas of Poverty
George doesn’t have a good life as understood in our terms of material success. He has barely enough money to rent a closet and feed himself. His health is bad. But George has something which makes him a success: a contented soul. He and his friends clearly cultivated a deep sense of gratitude, dignity, and friendship. Their strength reminded me of the weak relationship between happiness and things. Socrates said it best: He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.
Who was poor on the streets that night? It was us patrollers. We can tell our students the story behind the homeless’ lives; we can encourage them to support charities giving the homeless food and shelter; and we can help the homeless find work. But we should never encourage the self-gratifying pity for the homeless. To do so suggests our superiority. George and his friends were my teachers that night, so I can never pity them. I respect them instead.