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The homeless experience in North Perth – an introduction

As Red, a member of Listowel’s homeless community, joined in a round table discussion to share his experiences he kept himself busy drawing in a sketch book which had been water damaged in the rain. He said starting to draw after many years has been a good way to focus his attention. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

This is the first in a series of articles allowing local homeless people to discuss their experiences in the community. For their protection aliases are being used. Some language may be offensive to some readers.

This article is an introduction to their experience; future articles will deal with their experiences with physical and mental health supports, police, and their own suggestions about what can be done to help.

As the population of North Perth grows, issues many residents associate with urban centres are starting to be noticed close to home. Homelessness is an issue which is not new to Listowel but until recently it was easier to overlook. It is now a visible aspect of the community, even if some of the homeless living here wish they could remain invisible.

Andrea Charest, executive director of It Takes A Village, the free store in the heart of Listowel, arranged a gathering of some of the people dealing with homelessness. Sitting around a large table in the back, they enjoyed pizza and talked about their perspectives of what is referred to as the “homelessness problem.”

Ichabod was quite open about his experiences and opinions. As he will tell you, he’s not one to shut up. Red kept himself busy drawing in a slightly water- damaged sketchbook as he shared his life.

When Monica arrived late, Charest asked what it feels like walking into town from where their tents are set up.

“It can feel awful,” she said. “Why do you think I’m an hour late.”

It’s not easy for any of them to pinpoint the moment their life turned upside down and they ended up living in a tent.

“You try to figure out where the point it all started to collapse is. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, I’ve had everything and I’ve had nothing.”

– Ichabod

The area where several of them camp is not far from many of the new housing developments on the south side of Listowel. Charest asked them how they feel when they see those expensive houses each day.

“You daydream and start backtracking through all the choices you made,” said Ichabod. “You try to figure out where the point it all started to collapse is. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, I’ve had everything and I’ve had nothing.”

He listed everything he had before. The things most people strive for. He said he had a house, wife, kids, two cars and a big yard.

“It had its own set of stresses and problems to deal with daily,” he said. “I’ve also had nothing… At the outset of last winter, I had nothing but what was on my body. My tent was burned to the ground, everything gone but I’d still choose this life – maybe I’m broken.”

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Ichabod said his family tried to be there for him but they got sick of it after a while.

“They try to help you mould and conform but after a while, they either give in and accept you or they cut you from their life completely,” he said. “We weren’t a real communicating type of family growing up. We were like boys don’t cry, suck it up. That was my old man.”

Now Ichabod says he just lies to his mom any time she asks him where he lives.

“I’ll make something up,” he said. “She worries and she doesn’t need to be worrying all the time but she isn’t stupid either so she knows. She hears things from people. She knows.”

Red said he couldn’t be dishonest with his mom about his situation. She was young and it was like they grew up together.

“See I was the youngest of three and my parents were already old and jaded and bitter by the time I was born,” said Ichabod. “I’m the different one of the family. For Christmas dinner, we just all fake it at this point. I’m there for the pie.”

It’s hard to estimate how many people are homeless in the area. According to Red, there are only a few people who will stay outside all the time but there are a lot of people who are couch surfing.

“That is basically what most of the people do,” he said. “They mix it up so they move from this place to that place and back again. They’ve got something to offer this person for a week so they can stay on the couch for a week until they start getting squawky.”

“I can’t stand having to walk on eggshells around people. I’ll go out to the forest. Set me up there. I’ll be comfortable. I’ll have my entertainment. Nobody will bother me and I don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass.”

– ‘Ichabod’

He said he was lucky because he didn’t have to resort to giving sexual favours in exchange for a place to sleep. This comment changed the course of the conversation because Charest pointed out that having to trade sexual favours for a place to sleep is much more common for women.

Monica said it was an awful fact of life and she was almost in tears speaking about it.

The consensus around the table was couch surfing is an easy way to ruin friendships.

“I can’t stand having to walk on eggshells around people,” said Ichabod. “It’s not your space. I’ll go out to the forest. Set me up there. I’ll be comfortable. I’ll have my entertainment. Nobody will bother me and I don’t have to kiss anybody’s ass.”

They have all seen close friendships fall apart over small irritations.

“It’s happened to me and it’s stupid stuff,” said Red. “The way they do dishes or something.”

Shoplifting is part of how they survive but theft is not something they speak proudly about.

“You try to remember, don’t steal from people,” said Ichabod. “For one, that’s a dick move. They don’t have insurance like a big conglomerate does to cover losses.”

Red said they try their best to keep theft low key and not go overboard because that will get them caught.

“There’s a whole barter system there but it’s a small town, it’s only a matter of time,” said Ichabod. “You cannot do that very long. I’m banned from Wal-Mart. I can’t even go in there wearing a mask.”

The North Perth homeless community is large enough to have several smaller communities within it, with different levels of function among the people.

“For lack of a better explanation, we still have our faculties about us,” said Ichabod in reference to the people at the table.

He told a story about a friend of his who is starting to become a common character in Listowel.

“He knows what he’s saying but nobody else does,” he said. “He’s highly schizophrenic.”

Last year Ichabod found this man camping right in the middle of the community trail.

“Someone called the cops on him because he was peeing in the middle of the trail,” he said. “His explanation was he did not want to accidentally pee on a bug’s head. He’s like a monk that way but he did not know to just get off the trail because he doesn’t think that way. He doesn’t think ‘oh I might get robbed’, because he would never fathom to do that to someone else.”

Temporary housing is available for them but they have to go to Stratford –and temporary means two weeks.

“That would be the Rosecourt Motel and honestly, I’ll stay in the bush thank you… at least out there I stand a chance,” said Ichabod.

Red described his two- week stay in Stratford as ‘brutal’.

During that time away from their tent in North Perth, all their personal belongings are unwatched and unmaintained for two weeks.

“What do you think is going to be there when I get back?” asked Ichabod. “Not a damn thing and whatever is left is going to be rotten and destroyed by the elements. It does not take long.”

Whenever Red gets offered temporary housing now he refuses to go.

“I’m OK,” he said. “I don’t want to go for 10 days and be stuck again.”

Since Charest has started sharing stories on the Village Facebook page, there has been more community acceptance for the local homeless community.

“It’s noticeable,” said Ichabod. “But it’s not by any means where it should be. From my point of view, I’m a person. The only real difference is that your walls are harder than mine.”

He said just like anyone else living around here he cooks food, eats meals, does chores, cleans his dishes and tries to keep his area tidy.

“Well, maybe not as tidy as it should be all the time but I know some bachelors who have what they call houses and my stuff is in better shape than theirs,” he said. “I do everything they do regularly. I’m no different than them so I don’t think there should be any stigma but that’s a dream world and this, of course, is the real world.”

“That’s the biggest problem, a lot of us don’t know how the hell we ended up like this, let alone which way to go to get out, so screw that, sit down, start a fire, you are going to be there for a while.”

– Ichabod

Ichabod said if he knew how to fix the homeless “problem” he would not be where he is in life.

“That’s the biggest problem, a lot of us don’t know how the hell we ended up like this, let alone which way to go to get out, so screw that, sit down, start a fire, you are going to be there for a while,” he said.

Red said after living outside for a while people adapt to it.

“You get used to the weather a bit more and when you go inside it’s like you feel almost claustrophobic,” he said.

After he thought about it he said some people don’t adapt well and can’t catch onto what they need to do to survive. There is at least one member of the homeless community who Red and Ichabod are worried about because they don’t think he will be prepared for winter. They check in on him and give whatever advice they can but they are worried.

“But he doesn’t have a choice,” said Red.

Ichabod said mental health issues are the primary reason people are ending up homeless.

“One of the best things I have ever heard, it’s an idea I had never been able to put into words, ‘you can have a mental health issue and not have an addiction but you can’t have an addiction without having a mental health issue’ because there has to be something which is driving a person to want to alter their perception of the world around them,” he said. “There’s got to be something and chances are they don’t know what it is but there has to be something that makes them not like experiencing the world without some sort of buffer.”

In his experience, people with addictions aren’t using drugs for fun, because they are lazy or for pleasure.

“In my experience, I have yet to meet a single person who is homeless without some sort of underlying mental health or addiction (problem).”

– Ichabod

“It’s not like that,” he said. “Most of the time it shuts off some sort of pain or something that is bothering you for a while. It’s not about seeking pleasure, it’s about seeking relief.”

Everyone around the table agreed that the conversation around homelessness needs to be a conversation about providing mental health supports in the community.

“In my experience, I have yet to meet a single person who is homeless without some sort of underlying mental health or addiction (problem),” said Ichabod. “You don’t just wind up there because you are an asshole. Assholes have houses all the time.”

Red laughed out loud, “sometimes they do.”

Charest sometimes hears the argument that homeless people are being invited to this area.

“We’re not inviting homeless people here,” she said. “Just because you say it out loud it doesn’t mean you are walking with your sandwich board saying – ‘hey all homeless people.’”

“They were already here, you just can’t ignore it anymore and now you are angry about it,” said Ichabod. “We just want to be able to go to the places that everybody else can go to without being looked at like you are a piece of scum and I choose those words very carefully because I was referred to as a piece of scum.”

Charest asked where this happened because she wanted to go into the store and give the person who said it a piece of her mind. She is very protective of the vulnerable population in Listowel.

“We’ve learned this,” said Monica. “That is why we tell her the story but we won’t tell her where it happened.”

Ichabod said usually he can dismiss comments but that time it stung.

“She didn’t know I heard it,” he said. “So that’s how she feels.

“It’s not something she said just as an attack just to hurt me in an argument because people will do that, they’ll say things intentionally to hurt and for some reason that doesn’t bother me at all but she feels that way and she has never met me or spoken to me… they think I’m scum. Why? I don’t get it.”

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.