Story from the street: Homeless and alone

You may have seen Margot on the streets of Chilliwack. Or maybe, like so many, you looked right through her. The second in a series...

You’ve probably seen Margot dozens of times as she’s rolled her baby stroller or shopping cart around Chilliwack’s downtown core. But the homeless woman often feels invisible or unwanted as she travels her route, trying to scratch out a meager living.

You’ve probably seen Margot dozens of times as she’s rolled her baby stroller or shopping cart around Chilliwack’s downtown core. But the homeless woman often feels invisible or unwanted as she travels her route, trying to scratch out a meager living.

Rarely has Margot had a better 12 hours than she experienced one day last week.

It started the night before when she discovered a new place to sleep, bedding down at the skate park beside the Landing Leisure Centre.

It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t too cold or too hot and the sky was clear enough for her to sleep under a blanket of stars.

“Nobody can see you down there and it was awesome,” she said with a smile. “I slept on an incline and I was thinking, ‘I have the best skylight in the world.’”

The next morning she was pushing a baby stroller loaded with cans and bottles down a side street when she spotted several pieces of blue paper fluttering around on the ground. Margot pocketed $50 in crisp five dollar bills, which meant she didn’t have to spend the rest of the day rummaging around for cans and bottles.

For lunch she enjoyed a Sprite and a small turkey dinner (with extra cranberries) at the Royal Cafe. It’s her favourite item on the menu because it’s real turkey and even the small portion is huge for her.

It’s also a luxury she can rarely afford.

In the early afternoon, Margot planned to swing by Dairy Queen for a strawberry milkshake.

She loves those.

In Margot’s world, it doesn’t get much better. But sometimes it gets a whole lot worse.

Most days it’s a struggle to survive as she travels her route in search of cans, bottles and anything else that might be of value. You could technically say Margot is a binner, a kinder-gentler street-slang term for dumpster diver.

“Except I’m not a binner because I can’t get into the bins,” she clarifies.

Margot is maybe five-foot-four or five and appears shorter because back pain forces her to walk hunched over. When she finds a bin she peers over the edge and uses a pokey stick she made herself to spear an item and pull it out.

Some days, hours of searching in bins and garbage cans will produce less money than she found on that street corner.

It seems to get harder every day as more and more trash bins are  sealed up with chains and padlocks.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?

Only if you can get at the trash.

“It’s almost like, as silly it sounds, they’re trying to force me to be a thief,” Margot complains. “So you don’t want me to get bottles? Then what do you want me to do?”

“They’re making it almost impossible for me.”

Margot’s story about how she became homeless is a consistent one with details that never change.

That means it’s probably true.

That, or a well-practiced tale.

Margot says she had a roommate skip out on rent and clean out the place they were living in.

She says all her stuff, including her ID, was stolen, she couldn’t pay the rent and was evicted.

She’s been homeless since.

Margot does live inside sometimes, staying with a friend on Wolfe Avenue whenever her weary legs can get her there.

But she says she suffers from a list of ailments long enough to fill a Merck Manual cover to cover — chronic-obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), fibro-myalgia, scoliosis and crushed discs in her back to name just a few.

She’s on disability and says she can’t work.

“The warranty ran out on my body and I crapped right out,” she laughs.

It’s a long trek from downtown Chilliwack to her friend’s place, so when the weather isn’t horrible and she just as often curls up where she can.

Because she’s so slight, she can hide and sleep where others can’t.

The skate park for one and not long ago she found a little cubby-hole outside a local shopping centre that suited her well.

“It’s maybe five-by-eight and they can’t see me back there,” she said. “They should be able to see me, but because they don’t think anyone should be there, they don’t. They walk by and you wouldn’t believe the things I hear.”

Invisibility.

It’s a word Margot likes and loathes.

It works in her favour when she can sleep in plain sight.

But when people pretend she doesn’t exist as they pass her on the street, it cuts her to the core.

“You’ll say hello or good morning or whatever and they’ll act like you’re not there, like you’re invisible,” she said. “It’s so bloody rude and what I should say is, ‘You’re a rude asshole. Smarten up.’

“I don’t but that’s what I think. What does it cost somebody to say hello?”

Margot literally says, ‘Hello dear’ to everyone she meets.

But rarely does anyone respond.

Instead she gets looks.

Mostly curious, but sometimes someone will glare at her with contempt, like she’s unfit to share the same space.

“Maybe they’re scared of me or think I’m going to ask them for something, but saying good morning or good afternoon, last time I checked, really doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“They think they’re better than me, but maybe I’m better than them.”

If someone ever took the time to chat with Margot, they’d find her to be an intelligent and articulate woman.

She likes to read true-crime novels and would happily ride a horse if one showed up.

She gets the biggest smile on her face if you ask about her passion for motor racing and the time she drove Denny Hamlin’s 2009 NASCAR at the Las Vegas Motor  Speedway.

“They just poured me into that car and I was going 180 miles an hour,” says Margot, the most unlikely adrenaline junkie you could ever meet. “350 horsepower and it felt like it was alive. A better feeling you couldn’t have in your entire life.”

At different points in her life Margot has owned a 1980 Camero, and 1970 and 1973 Dodge Challengers. She would probably know what’s going on under the hood of your car/truck better than you do and maybe better than your mechanic does.

But no one ever asks her what she’s interested in.

She is lonely and depressed.

Can you blame her?

These days Las Vegas may as well be on Mars and she’s got as much chance of having a nice car as you do of flying to the moon.

What keeps her from killing herself, and she’s thinking about it more and more these days, are the people around her.

Margot is what is known as a ‘street-mom.’

Wherever she is, young people gravitate to her because she gives off a motherly vibe and is willing to patiently listen to their problems.

It doesn’t hurt that she often lugs around Pixy Stix, plastic tubes filled with flavoured powder.

On the same day she found those $5 bills she ran into one of her ‘street kids’ outside the courthouse on Yale Road.

To the world he looked like a young man, maybe 18-22 years old. But in that moment he was like an eight-year-old boy as he flagged down Margot to tell her he was checking into rehab.

Margot saw him at his drug-addicted worst and helped steer him into treatment once before. This time, he wasn’t going into rehab because he had a habit to kick. He was going because the night before he was tempted, and he remembered a promise he made to her.

“When he got clean he promised me he would never use a needle,” Margot recalls. “I don’t know if it’s the bite of them or what, but they’re addicted to the needle as much as the drug.”

“As long as he doesn’t use a needle he won’t use at all, because he won’t smoke it or snort it.”

“So that’s the promise he made me and he stuck to it. He’s a good boy and I’m so proud of him.”

He called her “mom” as he waved goodbye.

But for every story that makes her happy there are 10 that make her sad because kids make the wrong choices over and over again.

She hears dark things.

Girls being beaten or sent out by their boyfriends to earn money on the street. Young men spiralling into addiction and, too often, death.

“More of those relationships make me sad then happy,” she admits. “But that’s because of the kids who choose me.”

“They aren’t kids who go to church every Sunday and don’t touch liquor. A lot of them have grown up in a violent or abusive home and it’s all they know.”

“Somebody has to help them, and most people don’t give a shit.”

“So I help them, and they love me and I love them back.”

A psychologist once told Margot she was a chronic-carer, which is why she can’t turn away from these youths even when she’s got so many of her own problems to deal with.

But in a way, they help her as much as she helps them.

“If I’m around them I’m not lonely and I have a purpose,” she says.

They are the reason Margot keeps soldiering on when hope seems to be in hopelessly short supply.

She doesn’t think her circumstances will change.

“Do I wish people cared?” she asks. “Sure. But they don’t.”

“I don’t have anybody.”

Which makes her more likely to meet the same sort of fate that Red did in part one of this series.

As the world marches on she fades away, alone and unremembered.

Except by the people who call her mom.

The first in this series can be found here: The long way home.

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