Social Justice

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star’s Life Section on Saturday, November 19, 2005.

Giving A Loonie, Finding A Friend

Slice of Life

By Miriam Porterallan.mirAllan, Sasha the Dog, and Miriam at Centre Island – 2004

 

I met Allan Kennedy during a freezing winter and buried him during a steamy summer. That’s fitting, because our friendship turned my perspective around, from shallow concerns to a heartfelt understanding of the life-and-death struggle for survival that plays out daily on Toronto’s streets.

It was a winter morning in 2003 and so cold that I ran the last few steps into the warm coffee shop – but not before I noticed aman huddled in blankets with a duffel bag beside him on the wet ground. Living in Toronto, this was an all-too-familiar sight. Sometimes I parted with spare change or food for people living onthe street, but other times I hoped someone else would help them. It didn’t occur to me that day I was the “someone else.”

Back outside with my steaming java, I noticed the man carefullyplacing an upside down baseball cap in front of him for coins,only to see the wind blow it away. A black dog peaked out from inside the duffel. I smiled at the man and his furry friend, but walked away, telling myself it wasn’t a good month, financially, to help others.

Days passed but the severe image of the man and his dog didn’t. Guilt at not helping him haunted me. It didn’t seem fair that people are starving and sleeping on city streets when my apartment has central heat, a bed with blankets, hot water and food in the fridge – not to mention a television, radio and computer.

I went to the nearest variety store and bought a bag of healthy groceries and some cans of dog food. There was a blizzard that day, making it difficult to find the man I had disregarded the week before. I was nervous. What if he remembered that I didn’t speak to him last time? What if he didn’t like the food I chose? Worst of all, what if he wasn’t there to accept my help?

But he was, sitting in the exact same spot – in front of theSalvation Army on Eglinton Ave. near Yonge St.

“Hi, I’m Miriam,” I said timidly. “I thought you might like some food and here’s some stuff for your dog.”   He stared back at me with the saddest marine-blue eyes I had ever seen and smiled sheepishly, politely extending his hand.

“I’m Allan. This is my dog Sasha. Thank you so much.”

And that was the beginning of not only a wonderful friendship but also of my personal journey of growth and a perspective on the world.

I never expected to become friends. I thought I knew what people living on the street were like and didn’t anticipate that changing. I only intended to bring Allan food and see if he needed help.

He was there at his “spot,” with Sasha, every day, all year, any weather, smiling. I didn’t always have money to give him but we always spoke – often about his past life, the home and family he used to have. After we became friends, he actually refused to take money from me even though he was constantly struggling to survive and slept most nights in an underground parking garage.

I slowly learned the importance of acknowledging the existence of those whom society calls “the homeless.” The label blinds us to their true personalities. If they are homeless, are the rest of us “homefull”?

I began to think of Allan and others like him as people who happen to be living on the street right now. Chatting with people who have fallen on hard times can be more important than giving a loonie or even a sandwich. Food keeps you alive but being acknowledged as a fellow human being feeds the soul.

Everyone who met Allan liked him and he ended up introducing me to others in my neighbourhood. Dozens of people, including police officers, brought food for Sasha. On Thanksgiving Day, a woman cooked Allan a turkey dinner.

But loneliness haunted him, as it does others who live on the street. “Sasha gives me a reason to live,” he often said. Sasha adored him and never left his side. Allan was a natural leader. On summer evenings, he organized Frisbee games with other street people in a back alley and Sasha played, too. It was no different than a bunch of”homefull” friends meeting to play sports in the park.

Allan’s kindness affected many, particularly street youth. He was like a father to a 14-year-old boy who lived in a shelter in the west end but liked to hang out with Allan and share his meagre food.

Allan was born in England and wanted to go back to visit one day. He came to Canada at a young age. He loved music, especially playing electric guitar. He once owned a business that designed upscale kitchens. When he was younger, before booze took its toll on his body, he used to rescue rodents and injured birds and nurse them back to health. Even as he made a life for himself on the street, he stayed in touch with his mother, who lives in the city.

Like me, Allan liked to write. Quite often, he would be at his spot, a pile of books next to him, energetically working on a book. It was about life on the street and talked about panhandling, friendships and how to get through a night without a sleeping bag. He said there was going to be an entire chapter dedicated to me, and I felt honoured.

But there’s so much I don’t know about his life. I had many questions I never asked, wanting to preserve his dignity and respect his privacy. How, for instance, did he end up on the street? Was it a series of unfortunate events – did his business go under, was he evicted from his apartment, did he lose the love of his life? Did alcohol play a factor? Did he feel he had no other options?

I know that he told me life on the street was no way to live and he wished he was not out there every night, but how does someone with his talents, his skills, and his great personality end up there in the first place?

Allan lived an extremely tough life and dealt with issues I cannot begin to imagine. In December 2004, he spent six weeks in a residential program attempting to overcome alcoholism.

Entering the program was an act of supreme courage. Alcoholism had always been a millstone around his neck. When he told me he was going into rehab, he looked terrified but determined. He stopped drinking for 50 days straight.   It worked, but only for a while. His eyes had a look of fierce determination on the day he told me he’d had a slip.

“But I am not giving up,” he said. “I am back on track again and I am going to Alcoholics Anonymous twice a day. I am also going back to detoxification and I will try again.”

He never got the opportunity. On Sunday, July 17, Allan Kennedy died of a hemorrhage. He was 42.

Even in death, he brought people together in an extraordinary way. Flowers and cards began to accumulate at his spot. More than 100 friends and family came to a memorial for him at the Salvation Army and clutched a pamphlet with a picture of Allan and Sasha (now under the care of Allan’s mother) and the words, “A Celebration of the Life of Allan Kennedy.”

That day, materialism didn’t matter. Neither did race, culture, ethnicity, background or religion. In front of me sat two well-dressed women, next to them a young man in a three-piecesuit. To my left was someone who, moments before, was on the street asking for spare change. A prayer book temporarily replaced his worn-out cardboard sign.

“I used to have little compassion for people in Allan’s position, but Allan changed that,” a tearful Phil Shropshall, a Salvation Army co-ordinator, said during theeulogy. “I could have easily been in his shoes. He helped me reconnect to humanity. He was like my brother.” Allan’s sister described him as “the kindest man I ever knew.

“He was like a bird with a broken wing.” Allan defied the stereotype of the “homeless person.”

Like him, people living under bridges or sleeping in cardboard condominiums or lying in our path on a Bay St. sidewalk also havedistinctive personalities, some with rich histories, creativity and a passion for life.

Allan, one of the most courageous people I ever met, was kind, funny, caring, loving and always gracious. I miss his smile and laughter. His determination to fight, struggle and persevere was an inspiration.   I see the world differently because of him – especially thebeauty. I will forever feel fortunate that he was in my life.

Miriam Porter is a writer living in Toronto.