Ian is 24 years old. He is as good looking as any Hollywood star; similar to a young Brad Pitt with beach tussled hair and hazel eyes, a charming smile with a far off gaze perfect for the big screen.
I came upon him on the corner of Denison and Queen, tucked into the alcove of a building entrance, the building for lease. He would later tell me that he chose that spot because it ensured no one would move him along. As I write this I understand that sitting outside in the streets is not uncommon; for surely, he would have had to experience being shooed along before.
I am happy to have met Ian, young, well spoken, seemingly intelligent and willing to share. So I sat down on the ground next to him. He asked me for water, which I shared, and he proceeded to guzzle like a thirsty man arriving at an oasis in the Sahara.
Today is the first day of the ONEXONE participation in the Living Below the Line Challenge. We have joined the challenge to raise money and awareness for hunger and poverty around the world. For me, it was also about highlighting the vision we have at ONEXONE; simply, if we cannot feed our children properly and with the best possible nutritious foods, we are doomed to keep them in the cycle of poverty. Good, healthy food allows children to learn, and from there the sky is the limit. Millions of children in North America go to school hungry, every single day.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Ian, who is from Victoria, British Columbia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. His parents split up when he was young and his mother moved him to Winnipeg, one of the not so most beautiful places in the world (sorry to my many friends in Winnipeg). He has a certificate to teach English as a second language to immigrants. He went to college; however, something was missing and what he really wants to do is be a musician and entertainer. We exchange heights (Ian is 6’1”) and he advised me that my perspective is different from his, thanks to the one foot difference. I realize right there and then that he has a sharp mind, yet not really totally here; Perhaps another young person who has been left behind or misguided by an education system without an ounce of creativity. He doesn’t want to be a teacher -he wants to be in a creative field.
We are sitting on the corner and watching the world go by. Few people look at us. Fred (my unassuming security man who my family and team insisted I share the experience with) is sitting next to me under the sleeping bag. We are on cardboard boxes and the cold is permeating my bones, especially all those old injuries that have turned into arthritis; the ankle, hip and knees. My body is crying out for softness and my stomach is hungry as I am maintaining a diet based on the threshold of $1.75 per day.
Today I have eaten 1.5 bananas, a few sticks of carrots and celery, three peanut butter sandwiches and water. Flying into Toronto I came face to face with the restrictions of no Starbucks, as $5.34 is over 60% of my total food budget for the week. On the flight I asked for water and the realization was powerful; at least here water is accessible, in the rest of the developing world it is not a given. The lack of protein is affecting me and now, in the middle of the night as I am writing this, I am fighting to stay awake.
While we were sitting on the corner, Ian lit quite a few cigarettes and offered, I declined and watched him smoke. He explained that he was waiting for a friend. Where do you live? “I’m waiting for my friend who is meeting me today to take me to his house.” I am not sure of this as his knapsack (which he used as a seat) is old and seems worn.
I asked him if he wanted to use my phone to call his folks. He agreed and I dialed his mom first in Winnipeg, he is a sweet boy. He asked how she was, he did all he could to comfort her and give her the peace that he was in a good place. He explained the strange area code and who I was and that he had borrowed my phone. His parting words were: “I love you mom.” His next call was made to his girlfriend, and then his Dad in Victoria. They spoke for what seemed a long time. After the call I noticed a text on my phone from what I quickly realized was his father. “OLD MAN LOOK AT MY LIFE, 24 AND THERE IS SO MUCH MORE.” I see that the first few words came from the Neil Young song, the rest seemed to be a message from father to son. I sent a text back saying I was the person whose phone his son had used to call him, and I believed Ian would like to go home. I also said I would help Ian get home to Victoria if the father thought it was the right thing to do. The father answered; “Wow, you are so kind, why thank you. I am about to start a yoga class so can’t text right now. My name is Lindsay what is yours? Ok thanks again.” I answered him, but hours later there is no response.
Maybe I am being judgmental, perhaps there is more to this story and it is not my business.
We spent some more time; what perturbed me as I sat there were the multitude of people who walked by and did not give us a second look. One or two came by and gave Ian a sandwich, threw some change at Fred, gave Ian cigarettes. For the most part we were invisible, completely and utterly inconsequential. I mentioned this to Ian who said the following. “People are busy, they need to do, do, do, do, always on a schedule, always coming and going. Me, the only thing I know is that I know nothing at all.” Quite prophetic words. He summed up the world today. We are constantly feeling like we have to do; if we are not obsessed with running here and there, we are failures, maybe just maybe stopping is facing reality and running means not seeing the truth. Either way, he has perhaps figured it out. Maybe he has seen that sitting on the stoop smoking, playing his guitar and watching the world go by is ok for him. He thinks he knows nothing and his smile is quick and endearing and whatever ails him doesn’t change his deep perception that as humans we have lost our way. He may be physically homeless and we may be spiritually homeless; I am not sure which is worse.
It is late and Ian wants to go to the park to sleep. Fred and I decided to walk around some and maybe catch up with him later.
Meanwhile, on Facebook I see that I have been contacted by one of my MBA classmates. She has much experience with homelessness and has told me she will be driving in tomorrow to spend the day and night with me on the streets. I know her to be passionate and also lovingly scattered – so not sure if she will make it or not. I continue on my own if need be. All in all, social media has been an incredible bolster to our mission and as I hide my phone under the sleeping bag I am able to keep people in the loop.
The streets are empty and clearly the cold has pushed those who would normally be on the streets into shelters. I am cold and hungry. For the first time in my life I feel my age, maybe older. Fred is not prepared for this and so I call it a night with him. After he leaves I spend some time experiencing the silence of the night, feeling like this is not really how I imagined this to be. Soon after, I come off the street for the night and I continue to write this blog while everything is fresh. For me this is a finite experience – for those on the street there may not be a finish just a process of one day and one night at a time. Tomorrow should bring more experiences to share with everyone.
I do not know how to describe the feelings I experienced today. All I can equate it to is the sense of nothingness; meaning nothing else really existed today other than the street. Places and buildings, which I have come to know so well, took on a completely different perspective. Walking down Queen past the Four Season’s performance center, a ONEXONE venue in 2007, something I will always remember with a variety of emotions.
Yesterday it meant nothing but another building I didn’t belong in. Walking with nowhere to go is truly a very weird feeling, maybe a little surreal, maybe a little like I was two different people. Let me reiterate that it is not the same thing. I am not homeless, I am an observer and a conduit of a message and so I do not want to disrespect those who struggle everyday to feed their families, or who work and cannot afford housing, or the young like Ian who are disenfranchised and cannot find peace other than the street. I discussed the notion of some modicum of peace for those who find themselves on the street; my dear friend Paul who I share all with says no, I am not sure. Again I have a choice; how those without options feel, I cannot imagine.
There may be a sense of freedom being on the street, and in a way I got that from Ian. The kind of acceptance of whatever arrives, the cold, the good, the bad and the sad. Sad that he was here and that his Mom was worried about him and disappointed that his Dad was seemingly disengaged, perhaps not totally willing to commit to his son.
Ian was exactly the person I was hoping to meet. My journey in the last two years has shown me that we are all children, irrespective of how old we are, we are forever looking for validation and love from our parents and Ian was clearly looking for that as he spoke to his. Maybe it was ingrained in him that he simply was never enough. That and the inability of our education system to identify and nurture those children who may be facing difficulties at home or are passionate about a different path, helped drop the ball; then the prophetic words, on the text from his dad to my phone: … “24 and there’s so much more.”