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|Written by Heather Gilberd|
|Monday, 31 December 2007 19:00|
Kindness. How do we give kindness to those we fear, disgust, and avoid because they are the incarnate representation of the ills of our consumer-driven society? We would rather cross the street or look the other way than confront such ruptures within the capitalist dogma that declares everyone creates his or her own circumstances. Mayor Larry O’Brien has a solution; he calls it the “kindness meter”. You may have seen these so-called kindness meters in the Byward Market area; they are former parking meters painted white and slapped with a logo declaring them symbols of goodwill.
The kindness meter project was launched on Dec. 13th and serves to provide a way for individuals to express their charitable inclinations by donating money to organizations that work to help homeless people rather than giving money directly to the people themselves. The Municipal Information Network describes the initiative as a way for people who wish to donate to “ensure their money will be going to the proper resources… (It is) the best way to give money that truly helps the homeless.” It doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. However, in the spirit of critical reflection, it is important to unpack the conceptual baggage which underlies and informs the development of such facile solutions to complex social problems.
Part of the problem with the “kindness meter” program is that it presents the issue of homelessness as one-dimensional, and persons who are homeless as the scraps left over by a system that, for the most part, is working as it should. As a result, homelessness is conceptualized as a problem that can be fixed rather than as a symptom of larger social, political, and economic disparities and stratifications. Viewing homeless individuals as a homogenous group who largely share the same circumstances (i.e. plagued by mental illness and addictions which prevent them from responsibly using money that is given to them), enables simplistic social programs and policy implementations to sound like good endeavours. The effect of such over-simplistic definitions is that the homeless stereotype is written on every homeless person regardless of the individual and unique life experiences that lead to, and create barriers to overcoming, loss of housing and poverty.
In a society that often obscures the complex social forces underlying a particular social phenomenon, such as homelessness, how can we begin to unravel stereotypes and give a voice back to the individuals who the stereotypes render invisible? One way is by enabling people to tell their stories and to share their individual experiences and life histories.
It is a particularly acrimonious winter day as I crouch down behind the Chapters in the Byward Market to listen to Dave’s stories, a slight feeling of guilt nagging at me as I become increasingly aware of the numbness settling into my fingers and toes. “Crazzy Dave” is no stranger to the media as far as coverage of homelessness in Ottawa is concerned. He is a homeless poet who, rather than panhandle, sells poetry written on pieces of cardboard. He seeks to use these scraps of poetry to dismantle stereotypes of homelessness which serve to reify homeless individuals as scraps of society.
You can’t miss Dave. He is always in the same spot. He has a graying beard, is draped in blankets to subdue the harsher elements, and has a box of cardboard poems at his side. He often greets passer-bys who avert their eyes as they pretend to walk by without noticing him. At times, he recites his poetry to entice curious onlookers. For Dave, his poetry is both a result of his homelessness and a vision of hope that it will one day lead to his path out of it.
He tells me that the most prevalent stereotypes he encounters are the “why don’t you just get a job?!” (mis) perception and the “All you want from me is my money which I’m not giving you because you will just use it to buy alcohol and drugs” (mis) perception. These types of comments hearken to the commonly held view that people who are in situations of homelessness choose to be and all that is required to overcome it is a little will and hard work, and that all people who are homeless suffer from addictions. As with all stereotypes, there is some truth to such claims, however they ignore the multiplicity of other factors – physical limitations, lack of education, childhood circumstances, physical and emotional abuse – that may play out in any one individual’s personal history.
Such stereotypes not only affect our interpretation of a person who is homeless, they also narrow the parameters of the way we respond to him or her. The typical responses are: fishing in pockets for change, giving dirty looks and insults, crossing the street, or pretending not to notice. Dave believes these parameters are largely misconceived. He explains, “Giving isn’t always about money. But the one person that just stops and acknowledges me is just as valuable. But usually when people are approaching me, they have already made up their minds about me before I have even said a word.” The result of such pre-established interactions is higher, stronger, and more impenetrable barriers. Such barriers are solidified by simple solutions such as the “kindness meter” which further separate “us” from “them”.
Through his poetry, Dave is attempting to break such barriers, to create dialogue, and to deconstruct stereotypes – “when you stereotype me, you take everything I am away from me. I am no longer an individual.” Dave is partnering with a local photographer to create a book of his poetry which he hopes to publish. He is optimistic that it will help lead to his path out of homelessness. At the very least, his poetry is an important force for breaking down our social barriers and for revealing cracks in the façade of a social system that often glosses over problems rather than addressing the ways they point to multi-faceted and complex social and political issues.
Here are some of Dave's poems: