Here in the mountains the days stretch out longer. There’s an evening now.
As the winter sun flashes all scarlet, pink and orange on the horizon, I feel myself contented, safe and ensconced comfortably in a home it’s taken years to achieve. Sometimes, the languor can make me forget the struggle, the ease can erase gratitude and things get taken for granted.
I’m not alone in this. Everyone who works hard to erect a home around themselves and their family is susceptible to taking things for granted. It’s almost a right. Most certainly it’s a conceit, given the effort it takes to establish a home and a sense of community.
So as I stare out across the lake and watch the world change into its evening clothes I remember how things were for me once. For instance, in the winter of 1974 I lived for 30-some days in a nativity scene outside a church. There was straw there and floodlights that gave off warmth and two plywood walls to cut the wind.
I couldn’t find work. Without an address I couldn’t get welfare. So when I saw the nativity scene it seemed a good place to bed down. I went there late at night when the mission closed and crept under the straw with my sleeping bag. No one ever bothered me. I must have looked like a lump of straw from the street scant yards away. Every morning I crept out long before anyone could notice me.
It took forever to find a job. When I did, it was a minimum wage job in a hide-tanning factory. My job was to clean the hides when they arrived. That meant scraping flesh and removing hair. It was stinky, foul, nasty work and I earned two dollars an hour. Once I’d fed myself there wasn’t enough left over for a room. It took me 12 weeks to save enough for rent and a damage deposit.
The room I could afford was one of twelve in a three-storey rooming house. It was just about the size of a jail cell with a small window looking out over an alley. The floor buckled in the middle and the furnishings amounted to a wooden chair, a bed, a lamp and a busted-up armchair. Still, it was a home and I was grateful.
I can still see that room. I can still smell the bad feet, cooking grease, urine, spilled wine and old cigarette smoke that made up its ambience. I spent many nights tossing and turning while someone shouted drunkenly, radios blared tinny country music and the pipes clanked loudly. Still, it was a home and I was grateful
I thought about all of this recently. I’d been asked to present a keynote address for a national conference on homelessness in Calgary. There were more than 600 delegates in attendance. The majority seemed to be academic sorts, researchers, report givers, study organizers and journal writers. The actual homeless were limited to street artists selling their work in the lobby.
None of the presentations except mine were led by people who were, or once were, homeless. I found that odd and unsettling. Instead of genuine voices, there were workshops and seminars led by people who earned their livings by virtue of other people’s misfortune. None of the panel discussions had a homeless voice. It struck me that homeless people and native people were strikingly similar - we both have industries built up around us.
Both native people and the homeless employ government departments, social agencies, social workers, police departments, academics, hospitals, media and the odd film crew. If either group were to actually disappear, thousands of people would be out of work. But the conference was deemed a success and plans were begun for another.
I find that odd too. Having been around native issues for 30 years now, I’ve seen how often we’ve been researched, studied, royal-commissioned and reported on. The end result of all that paperwork is more paperwork. It’s only the fairly recent development of native people speaking for themselves that has resulted in any ground gain at all.
Similarly with the homeless. It sometimes seems to me that folks are so concentrated on the issue that they forget the people caught up in that issue. Homeless people need to have a voice in any developments that affect them. It’s not enough to have an academic survey of things and call it adequate.
When I slept in that nativity scene I didn’t need a professorial voice speaking for me. I needed someone to hear me. Maybe, in the end, that’s part of the answer - employ homeless people to find strategies to solving homelessness. After all, they gave native people degrees of self-government and look how far we’ve come.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at email@example.com