COLUMN: Looking for an excuse not to care
Earlier this summer I met a 29-year-old transient worker named Adam Hutchison. He was wearing a green John Deere baseball cap, board shorts and a Metal Mulisha tank top featuring an ominous-looking silhouetted skull on the left breast. He kept his beard closely trimmed, his septum was pierced and he spent most of our conversation hiding behind a cheap-looking pair of baby blue sunglasses.
“I don’t really look like a homeless person, right?” he asked me at one point, with an uncomfortable laugh. I didn’t know how to respond.
Adam was hunched against a brick wall outside the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen. His dog Duke was contentedly sleeping beside an overloaded backpack, complete with a battered-looking Nalgene hanging from a clip and a soiled sleeping bag rolled up in the top.
“I slept beside the highway last night,” he told me, knuckling his tired eyes. “I was afraid to put my tent up because I didn’t want them to take it.”
The day before Adam had been evicted from a homeless encampment on the outskirts of Nelson that some estimate had been there for as many as eight years. It had become a wildlife attractant and public safety issue. I’d already spoken to a number of the evictees and, from what I was hearing, it wasn’t the first (nor would it be the last) time a camp like this had been broken up.
I spent less than five minutes talking to Adam. Essentially he told me the story of the eviction, filled me in on the superficial details of his current circumstances, and then I took his picture. He asked me whether I could send him a copy, and then told me how to find him on Facebook.
Afterwards, as I was quickly double-checking how the images turned out, I asked Adam about his dog.
“Aw, Duke’s fine. He’s a big guy, he loves it. He chases deer, bear,” Adam said, scratching at Duke’s neck scruff. “I don’t have kids, so it’s kind of like he’s my kid, you know?”
I knew exactly what he was talking about because I too was a 29-year-old pet owner. We were both reasonably healthy blond Canadian dudes, but I had a house and he didn’t.Turns out Adam had left a lucrative job somewhere in Alberta when his girlfriend “kidnapped” Duke and took him to Vancouver Island. When he pleaded with his boss for a few days off to retrieve his canine progeny, he was given two options: quit or give up on the dog. He chose the former.
By the time he met me, Adam had been living in the Kootenays for four months, trying to scrabble together enough money by picking cherries in Osoyoos and washing dishes in Nelson.
As I turned to head home for lunch, where I knew my partner was waiting with a meal prepared, it occurred to me that it was within my power to help Adam. He was standing right in front of me, within arm’s reach, and it wouldn’t take much to shove a hand in my pocket and produce a fistful of change.
I felt that instinctual, gut-level kick of human empathy that makes you feel like you just chugged Pepsi on an empty stomach. But I successfully ignored it. My mind instinctively compiled a lengthy list of reasons/excuses why I didn’t need to care about Adam’s problems.
“Good luck with everything,” I said. Then I left.
Nearly a month later, I’m still thinking about that situation. I’ve been debating writing this column for weeks, but I keep circling back to my own human failure in that moment. I’m not the Good Samaritan; I’m the priest who crossed the street to avoid helping someone in need.
And I’m not alone in this regard, apparently.
The day we published our stories about the eviction, one from the authorities’ perspective and one detailing advocates’ displeasure, Adam’s picture ran with the second one. Within 20 minutes one of the first Facebook comments popped up: “You look like your [sic] young an healthy, why don’t you go get a job an earn your way in life like the rest of us have to do.”
A few things struck me about this comment. First, it was clear this commenter hadn’t taken the time to read the article before posting a response (this is not uncommon) because it clearly stated that Adam was employed. This particular sentiment has been parroted endlessly by generation after generation of conservative patriarchs, so perhaps I should’ve been accustomed to it, but what was most alarming to me personally was the casual, underlying message: I don’t have to care about you.
And he’s right. You don’t have to care about those in need, and nobody is going to force you. I’m not going to be punished for failing to give Adam some change, and mansion-dwellers are not going to be held accountable for having more than their share. There is no easy (or permanent) solution. Fatalism is an entirely understandable stance. I get it. But what else is there? How else could we approach this problem?
When the annual report card on homelessness came out earlier this year, I covered that fact that the homeless population now consists of an alarming number of seniors, youth and young families. Advocates have been very vocal about how dire the housing situation is in Nelson, and everybody knows how difficult it is to find a job. But the knee-jerk response to struggling fellow citizens continues to be skepticism. Repeatedly I hear people question whether or not “they” actually deserve our aid.
In the newsroom, one particular quote in my eviction story inspired a spirited debate on this topic. A young man I interviewed named Lando Dallamore complained that the housing situation was hopeless, and that “if you smoke like a human being does” it’s even worse. Some in our office felt that this demonstrated his culpability in his current predicament, and opined that if he wanted a home maybe he should quit wasting his money on cigarettes.
Point taken. But here’s my question: what does it take to disqualify someone from empathy?
I’ve interviewed approximately 15 homeless or nearly homeless Nelson residents over the course of the last month, and without fail all of them have made decisions that have contributed to their circumstances. They’ve made bad decisions, irresponsible decisions and unfathomable decisions. One woman bankrupted herself with credit card debt. One man I chatted with spends his time collecting returnables to feed a heavy cigarette addiction. Others can’t maintain employment due to substance abuse. Mental illness is readily apparent everywhere.
But does that mean we’re allowed to not care?
Does that give us an excuse to check out, morality-wise?
As I’ve interviewed members of the community — including city councillors, the mayor, the police chief etc. — the point I keep hearing over and over is there has to be a two-pronged approach to ameliorating the homelessness situation. The first prong consists of helping locals who have fallen on hard times, the other prong seems to be finding efficient ways to hurry undesirables back to where they came from. I understand why this distinction is being made, but it brings me back to the same question: why do we care about one person, and not the other? Where do you draw the line? If Adam’s been in Nelson for four months, is he less worthy of concern than someone who’s been here for four years? Or 40? When does he qualify for our kindness?
I understand that it’s hubristic to try to summarize a situation as perennial and multi-faceted as homelessness. The situation is unlikely to radically change without an epic overhaul of our current society’s guiding ethos, but in the meantime there are tangible and obvious solutions within our grasp. Incentivizing the construction of affordable housing, funding our social services, and finding it within ourselves to care — all of these things seem like a good start to me.
Amidst the cavalcade of angry comments our homelessness story received was a simple message from one of the young women I interviewed the same day as Adam at Our Daily Bread. She was shy, a little nervous talking to me, and seemed near tears. I ultimately only used one of her quotes, effectively granting her two paragraphs of space to tell her story. I’ve seen her a few times since, usually carrying unwieldy bags and looking exhausted. I don’t know what her background is, or why she ended up living in the bush.
“Thank you all of for the chance to say what needed to be said,” she wrote.
You’re welcome, Jade. Perhaps now some of us will listen.