I had an interesting conversation the other evening.
A good friend of mine is an officer-level social worker in the Canadian military, for both the army and the air force.
Needless to say, he has an interesting perspective on life. He has seen a range of issues which most of us could not even imagine.
Having myself lived in Lebanon from 2006 to 2008 when I was posted abroad with my former foreign service government job, I can sort of relate to some of the events he has to deal with on a daily basis.
Those two years in Lebanon included the Israeli air bombings of Beirut, two years of constant car bombings, and topped off with Hezbollah’s seizure of Beirut (this latter night-scene link was filmed not far from my house, and that’s how it sounded from inside the house… It was quite a night to remember, to say the least).
Part of the latter happened right outside of my front door with machine guns while I was at home, causing Lebanese friends to be trapped inside my house for a few days. When one lawyer-friend down the street did try to get through the blockades to go home, he was gunned down in cold blood by Hezbollah supporters, only 2 blocks away from my door. The week of May 8th, 2008 is one I will never forget. This video was also filmed just down the street from my house.
It’s strange because this is perhaps only the second time I have spoken of this event in the past five years. It’s rapidly becoming a very distant memory, which I suppose is a good thing. But when I have returned to Lebanon on vacation to see friends from that period, there has always been a silent mutual understanding from having lived through this experience together – without having brought it up again.
All-in-all, after witnessing events similar to what our own military sometimes has to contend with, it gives me a lot of respect for Canada’s forces and their various intervention units. I’ll leave it at that.
But maybe this also gives some perspective of why I sometimes write with a bit of a sarcastic streak when it comes to our politicians who make petty politics and cheap political shots on the Canadian and Québec home-front. Petty politics and cheap political goal scoring, on so many levels, can demonstrate a lack of “big-picture perspective” on the part of our politicians (and even on the part of portions of the public who they are pandering to).
Some of the issues they endlessly squabble about, in the big picture, are so insignificant and unrelated to people’s lives.
So back to what happened with my friend who is a social-worker in the military, and what he just experienced — something which I believe is significant … …
The reason I mentioned the above is because my buddy deals with major crisis in the military, he is used to dealing with major and traumatic events, and he intervenes when he believes there is a major crisis which needs intervention (the above was an example of how major some of the events can be. Soldiers witness these types of traumatic events regularly, and sometimes they carry they carry the emotional impact with them back to Canada. In my case, I suppose I am lucky in that I never had any PTSD, I never had emotional trauma from my experiences, and I never needed to talk to anyone).
But as you”ll read below, my friend felt that Québec’s squeegee kids constituted a significantly large enough crisis which merited a small personal intervention and his attention on his own personal time.
He lives one of those types of 24/7 on-call jobs, never knowing when the phone will ring, and what sort of personal or professional crisis he may have to respond to.
Because of this, when he does have down-time, he tries his best to completely “detach” himself from work. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes take the initiative to drive out to the base, pull him away from it all, and just head out for an outdoor BBQ, hiking, or a day trip somewhere. We have become quite good friends as a result.
The two of us were chatting the other evening and he told me about a more-than-interesting encounter he had with a group of Québec squeegee kids (this also highlighted the fact to me that my friend can sometimes have a very difficult time turning off the 24/7 social worker in his head).
For those of you who are not aware, squeegee kids (or “des squeegees” as they are known in French) are scrubby-looking young guys and girls — often with a dog in tow, often with spiked punk hair and cargo clothes — who stand on street corners and will “squeegee” (clean) your car window for a dollar or two.
This is a phenomena which “generally” is restricted to Montréal, but is also found in Québec City, and Ottawa (which I consider to be half-within Québec’s-cultural sphere).
These “kids” are generally Francophone.
You will sometimes encounter them elsewhere in Canada. I can remember having seen them in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in small towns along the Trans-Canada highway, holding cardboard signs saying “Travelling from Québec to Vancouver – will wash your car or window for donations”.
This is mostly a Québec cultural phenomena. There is even a Wikipedia article on it.
My friend is Francophone, from Québec. Last weekend he was in Montréal. As he was walking down the street, he crossed a group of squeegee kids.
After he walked past them on the sidewalk, he stopped, turned around, looked at them for a few moments, went into McDonald’s, bought a few combo meals, went back out, sat down beside the squeegee kids, gave each of them a combo meal, and engaged them in conversation.
My friend said to me “You should have seen the look on their faces – it was like Christmas had arrived!”
The Squeegees immediately opened up and started to tell him their stories.
They were all between 18 and 22 years old. Some had been beaten by their parents since infancy, some had been sexually abused by relatives their whole lives, others had been in the foster-care system their whole lives and could never quite settle into the school system, eventually dropping out.
All were homeless, with no families to fall back on. They had, by default, become each other’s support group (a de facto street family). None were life-long habitual drug users, but some had got caught up in drugs an alcohol at one point or another by simply having found themselves on the streets. However, in this particular group, all had gone dry and were trying to resist falling back into the drugs and alcohol trap.
Christmas and other holidays are spent on the streets. During birthdays there are no phone calls or gifts from family members.
All of them unanimously said that they were looking for ways to get off the streets, but they knew it would be difficult because it is a viscous cycle. With no fixed address, it is difficult to qualify for various programs, let-alone secure employment. A couple of the Squeegees in the group were planning on setting out for Vancouver to spend the winter, raising money for the bus along the way by offering to clean windshields along the way (the phenomena I described above). They were planning to return to Montréal in the spring.
During the winter, they sometimes resort to sleeping beside parked cars to benefit from the heat given off from recently shut off engines.
My friend talked to them a bit about various non-profit and governmental programs available to them, and the importance to take advantage of such programs. He told them that it is not important that they fully throw themselves within the net of these programs, but just to begin to slowly take advantage of bits and pieces of these programs, one small step at a time.
He offered advice on how to climb out of the viscous cycle they had fallen into.
He also emphasized the importance of concentrating on the here-and-now, and to look for what things they can do in the future to improve their lot, rather than concentrating on the past. We cannot re-write the past, but we can write the future.
He said they lapped up every piece of information as if it was something they had been waiting to hear for a very long time.
He spent over a good hour with them, and they had no shortage of questions for him. It became obvious to him that these kids were desperate to improve their situation, and they knew full-well that if things did not improve, this could quickly become a life-long trap of homelessness.
In the end, when he left them, he was very moved by the whole experience. It gave him a perspective of a situation of a particular group of people he had no previous idea about. Like me, he saw Squeegee kids on a regular basis, without ever knowing the story or the situation behind the face.
He suggested to me that the two of us should make a weekend trip to Montréal and perhaps do a weekend of volunteer work with organizations helping these kids, or if for no other reason, to even just lend an ear.
It’s interesting, because I’ve often wanted to ask panhandlers about their stories. But I guess I have always been a little chicken to do so.
I do volunteer work when I have the time, and I do donate to certain charities, but it has never directly been related to the homeless.
Yet, my friend’s experience emphasized the fact that homelessness can often start right at the time when youth are becoming young adults, and that is the key moment for intervention.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have been cynical in the past with respect to some aspects of Canada’s homeless problem – often assuming that people beg for money for alcohol or drugs.
Perhaps part of the skepticism came from the failed “food coupon” program (a project a number of years ago in which Edmonton grocery stores sold cash-value coupons to customers. The customers could give the coupons to Edmonton’s homeless when they begged for money. The coupons were redeemable at any grocery store for anything except alcohol or cigarettes. But Edmonton’s homeless overwhelmingly rejected the coupons when offered the coupons in the street. Only a small fraction of them were ever redeemed. Within a year, the program was cancelled as a failure).
Perhaps another part of my skepticism subconsciously stems from my overseas experiences.
I regularly saw real-life “maimed slum-dog” children when I worked in India, or adult “handlers” in China standing at one end of a street as they forced maimed children to beg for money at the other end of the street. The children would then hand the money to the adults afterwards.
I remember one incident in particular in China. A child, about 5 or 6 years old (perhaps a bit older, but maybe looked younger owing to malnourishment), was begging for money as I was getting into my car. I refused to give the child money. Yet the child pushed his way into my car. I tried to push him out of my car, but he crawled right in and would not let go until I gave him money.
I had a friend with me who was visiting from Canada. My friend wanted me to give money, but I refused because I knew these children were being “used” by adult “handlers”. Sometimes the children were kidnapped, and often they were purposely physically crippled by their handlers to evoke an emotional reaction to get more cash.
My friend did not believe me when I told her this. So to make a point, when the child refused to get out of my car and started to scratch us, I purposely started to drive several metres down the road with the child in my car.
Just as I knew would happen, two adult ladies came running after me, only to start beating the child for not succeeding in getting money from me. My friend and I had to pull the ladies off the child and I grabbed a lady telling her I was calling the cops. The ladies did everything they could to run away. But 10 minutes later, I saw that they put the child back “on duty”, begging for money again.
Here in Canada, when I host friends who are visiting from developing overseas countries, they often refuse to give money to Canadian beggars, saying that people in Canada have all the opportunities in the world, and this is not an environment or society in which people should feel they need to beg for money (I have one good overseas friend in this category who is financially quite successful – a multi-millionaire. He came from an extremely poor background. He was penniless when he left his parent’s home in rural China as a young adult. With only about $20 to his name, he left rural NW China to find a job in the city so as to be able to support his parents in their village. He actually had to sleep in a park for the first two weeks in the city because he had no money… but he worked his butt off, and made it – never begging once. 20 years later, he now does what he can to support the down-trodden where he lives in China – even going so far as to sponsor poor youth by paying their university tuition, or giving money to elderly without pensions – yet he views Canada’s homeless problem as something completely different).
Since moving to Toronto, I have become more aware of the fact that a portion of the problem has to do with mental issues and perhaps institutional discharging in the 1990s as a result of health-care restructuring (the rapid en-masse closure of mental institutions without half-way house infrastructure having properly been in place for economic and social re-integration).
Having also grown up near reserves in the West, I am also aware of the aboriginal component – the effect of social ostracization and cultural displacement – and how this has contributed to homeless issues in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Regina.
But, with all that said… my military-social-worker friend and his experiences with the Québec squeegee kids has put everything in a whole new perspective. It made me stare at my own prejudices straight in the face, and it hit me.
Frankly speaking, I will never again look at Québec’s Squeegee kids, or this problem in the same light.