Not your typical post

Posted by Robert N Pruden on Dec 11, 2005

This write up is not a typical post. This is my gift to y'all for Christmas 2005.

Paul’s Story (or is it mine?)

The first time I spotted him was on 76 Avenue and Calgary Trail near Tim’s. He was pushing a shopping cart along the road filled with all of his worldly belongings. His coat was too nice for the streets with its red leather sleeves and felt jacket: the same kind of jacket I once wore while at the University of Alberta. He had good flesh on his searching face that was always scanning the ground for anything of value. His body seemed strong and energetic despite his unhurried gait. I could see that he was strong and probably capable of doing what he chose. That time was two years ago during the month of June.

I have always been curious about the street people. I have always wondered what separated them from us: myself. In time, my curiosity got the best of me and I began chatting with any of the seemingly wandering homeless that I steeled my courage to talk to. I learned that the homeless are just as I am: human, thinking hopeful beings with dreams and desires. Most of them arrived at their difficult station in life through hook or crook and of the dozens I have spoken to, only one seemed to want to be there.

I cannot name all who I have spoken with – there are too many. Paul was one who I came to know but only during 2005. Often, I have stopped these “pickers”, street lingo for any homeless folks who pick through garbage to find items of value which can be traded for cash used to purchase daily necessities. I have offered them garbage bags full of empty soda pop cans, juice containers and, of course, Guinness cans. I have been thanked in various ways. One ancient slow moving oriental man, who could not speak a word of English, got down on his hands and knees and bowed before me repeatedly after I handed him five huge bags of empties. Another group of 6 natives, probably pure-blood Crees, held an impromptu prayer meeting to give thanks and bestow blessings upon me for my generosity. Others simply shook my hand and thanked me profusely.

I have spoken with many of my friends about the homeless. I have heard their uncertain sense of fear and felt their negativity towards the homeless. It is understandable that to clean, hardworking folks, the dirty scruff of the homeless seems like a state to be avoided. I have heard too many times that if the homeless truly cared about themselves, then they would not be in the position that they are now. I have urged my friends to stop and chat with them from time to time: get to know them by name. Ask them if there is anything that can be done to make their day easier. I do that and I do it relatively often, especially during our harsh winters.

Getting back to Paul. I kept my eye on Paul and watched his physical health decline over two years. His hale appearance gradually diminished to be replaced by that typical street folk look: red-faced haggardness, deep lines etched into the facial skin around the eyes by the inescapable exposure to harsh weather, graying hair, slumped shoulders, wandering downcast eyes, footsore limping and slow non-determined walking. He was losing his health right before my eyes. He appeared to be dying at a rate much faster than my middle-higher income essence.

I began talking to Paul one day when I arrived at Tim’s. I spied him sitting on a curb in the parking lot and decided it was time for me to humanize Paul by talking with him. I began by offering him a coffee, which he gratefully accepted. I invited him to sit in the Volvo with me where we chatted with few words. I learned how he came to Edmonton and confirmed that he lived in the river valley, the very valley where I spent so much time paddling the VJ Guardian Spirit. I told him that I would keep an eye out for him and buy him whatever he needed for food if I could. I would see him there a few more times before my marriage fell apart. I bought him sandwiches and coffee and gradually learned more about him.

During July, I spied Paul near Tim’s and noticed a dramatic downturn in his health. We chatted over coffee and I learned that he had been beaten near to death by a group of thugs because of his homelessness. He had a severe limp that was painful to watch. I decided then that if I ever got my business off the ground that I would get him working for me if I could find a way to make it happen. I didn’t see Paul again for some time.

Fast forward to December 07, 2005. I was on my way to work on a major house renovation project. I spied Paul and surprised myself by smiling while feeling my heart lighten. Paul was pushing his cart along, which was filled with non-descript worn and punctured garbage bags. I stopped my van and called over to him to come over. He recognized me and immediately crossed over the roadway with his cart. I asked him to jump in to chat. He peered over to his cart and expressed concern that it might be stolen. I relieved his concerns by telling him that I would keep my eyes on it while we talked.

I asked Paul where he had been lately. He stated quite simply, “In the hospital.” I learned that he had been picking garbage cans one morning at 0500h and was approached by a car. One youth called out to him and offered him “something” if he would come over. Paul, thinking he was being offered empty bottles, went over. He was summarily punched then stabbed in the left side of his chest, whereupon his left lung collapsed. His ensuing hospital stay lasted three weeks. The prognosis on healing is uncertain. Apparently, these two thugs have been committing the same despicable act upon other homeless folks. Police are aware of them but haven’t found them yet. Right then and there I decided that I had to act on a dream I have harbored within my mind for years: I hired Paul on the spot to help me with my business.

Paul has worked for me now for three days, has earned a fair wage for good work and will stay with me as my employee to learn the renovation business. After a time, it is my hope that Paul will be able to get a good job in the booming Edmonton construction industry where he will be able to support his Cree girlfriend. I learned just two days ago that after a long effort with the system, Paul and his girlfriend qualified for welfare and will be living in a proper apartment on December 19. Paul informed me that with the money he is now earning from me, he and his girl will be able to stay off the streets and build their lives in safety and peace.

I am relating my story, which is Paul’s story, to you in the hopes that the next time you see a homeless person, you remember that we are all one step away from being where they are and that we are all in this life together. There is nothing more important to the homeless than to be treated as human. A simple greeting is enough to brighten their day. The offer of a cup of coffee is a genuine offer of friendship. I have learned through Paul and others that the streets are meaner than anything us normal people have to experience. This Christmas, or any day that you walk towards a homeless person, stop, greet them and ask them if there is anything you can do for them. Most importantly, first ask them their name and tell them yours.

You will be surprised at how little they will ask and how good you will feel inside for asking.

Robert N Pruden December 11, 2005 0003h



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