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Henry takes his Christmas holidays seriously

December 22, 2014


My homeless binner friend Henry has now been in Prince George, British Columbia, for nearly a week. He left Vancouver last Monday evening aboard a Greyhound bus in order to spend a few weeks with his family. From what he told me it sounded like his family was really looking forward to seeing him.

It’s important to note that Henry has been living out of a shopping cart on the streets of Vancouver for quite a few years now and two months ago, after being told to look for work or else, his monthly welfare benefit of $235 was unceremoniously cut off.

Many homeless people would rant and scream at such a loss of entitlement. Many other homeless people have successfully played the system by finding doctors willing to medically certify that they deserve a level of disability benefits that can’t be cut off.

Henry doesn’t roll that way. He shrugged and got on with things.

He especially refused to use the excuse of his welfare being cut off to scuttle his plans to spend Christmas with his family.

Last year, even with welfare he failed to pull things together to make the trip but this year it was going to be different, welfare be damned!

How many pop cans is it to Prince George?

Like many people living on the streets of Vancouver, Henry supports himself by binning — collecting returnable beverage containers wherever they may be, in recycling bins or garbage dumpsters, in order to collect the five or ten cent deposit per container.

And for a few weeks, Henry binned especially hard; pulling successive all-night runs until he had saved the $110 cost of a bus ticket to Prince George.

And as soon as he had that ticket in his pocket he went right back to binning the back alleys until he had saved enough for the return ticket.

I gave him all the encouragement I could and one day I even gave him a quarter! Otherwise, I just held on to his two tickets. He trusted me to keep them safe and dry just a bit more than he trusted himself not to lose them, or trade them for “magic beans”.

Really though, 100 percent of the credit goes to Henry, with maybe an additional 5 percent going to crystal meth for helping him stay awake and focused for the sustained all-night binning.

Last Monday evening at 8:30 p.m. was when his bus was scheduled to leave. I made sure I was where he could find me so he could get his tickets but by 6 p.m. Monday evening I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him for three days — I’ll admit that I was concerned.

Henry dressed up and with a clean shave

Finally Henry bounded up to me at 7:30 p.m., admitting with a big smile that he was “cutting it a bit close”. I handed over his tickets and after firm handshake he was gone, dashing for the city transit bus that would take him downtown to the Greyhound bus station.

I noted at the time how “normal” he looked. It had little to do with him being clean and tidy — that wasn’t unusual for Henry. It was simply that without his loaded shopping cart to mark him and set him apart, he kind of blended in with the crowd;  just one more person running to catch his bus.

Homeless people can be a piece of work all right

Someone reading this tale of accomplished resolve could be forgiven for thinking that welfare knew what it was doing kicking Henry off the dole — surely here’s a man who can hold a job and then some!

He certainly could hold a job but only if he had the job on his own terms because that’s how he’s learned to live — entirely on his terms.

Henry’s been left to his own devices on the street long enough now that he’s very effectively adapted. He’s what you might call a very high-functioning homeless person.

Trying to suddenly force him into the square peg of a regular job would be disastrous all the way round.

No one knows this better than Henry.

For starters, while he successfully kicked his crack habit quite a while ago, he still uses crystal meth — it helps him in his binning and I guess he likes it fine but it doesn’t help his temper much.

And if Henry’s is really unhappy with something a person has done to him, he won’t hesitate to have it out with them — immediately.

He may be louder about it than he needs to be and chances are he’ll be too up front with his displeasure for the comfort of most regular folk but he’ll just be doing what’s right, so far as street life is concerned.

In my experience homeless people try to settle disputes with their peers quickly — while words will generally still suffice — on the shared understanding that the truly dangerous thing is to let disagreements, resentments and, often as not, misunderstandings fester into hard hatred.

The non-homeless world appears to prefer the different strategy of silently nursing grievances while plotting passive-aggressive acts of revenge.

At least that was how it looked to me, the homeless person, working at my last full-time job nearly five years ago.

I was frankly baffled to find that my healthy approach to up front dispute resolution actually scared some of the ordinary folk I worked with, particularly those who preferred to air their issues behind-the-back rather than face-to-face.

I wasn’t good at tolerating that kind of weasel gracefully before I was homeless and after a five years spent living on the street I especially didn’t hesitate to be honest with such people.

None of this, I’ve been led to understand, is the proper way for a good employee to act. But it is most definitely the proper way for a homeless person to act.

Some homelessness people can get too good at it

In failing to see how homeless people have recognizable barriers to regular employment, welfare is ignoring a fundamental truth of human behaviour.

Humans successfully adapt to meet environmental pressures; it’s kind of our “thing”.

To be as good at living on the street as they are, the really successful long-term homeless people, like Henry, have had to adapt to their irregular environment and — no real surprise — this means they have diverged behaviorally from the mainstream population to some degree.

I’m not saying a so-called chronic homeless person can’t transition to employment. They certainly can, with the right personal motivation, incentives and available services (which I don’t think exist by the way) but the key words are “personal motivation”, ‘incentives” and especially “transition”.

People who have gotten good at being homeless didn’t get that way overnight and it’s a bit ignorant of anyone to think that the learned pattern of years can be undone overnight.

Trying to force someone so comfortably adapted to homelessness to accept the confines of a 9-to-5 job would be like making a successful Arctic explorer work in an office cubicle.

And kicking Henry off the pittance of welfare he was receiving can only reinforce his stubborn insistence to be self-reliant outside of mainstream society.

But at least not beyond the reach of his family.

Merry Christmas Henry. I look forward to seeing you in the New Year. Click the image to enlarge it.

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Nice……. Thanks for the tellin’ 🙂


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