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There but for the grace of God

Six stories my Facebook friends shared about their encounters with the homeless

By Anne Bokma

“This story goes back many years to a time when I was a young, single mother with two children, putting myself through school.  I didn't have two nickels to rub together.  When I went grocery shopping at the local A&P, I often noticed an older gentleman who panhandled outside the store.  I don’t know if he was homeless, but he was dirty. He never asked me for money and I never offered. One particularly cold day in December, I saw him in the snack bar of the grocery store having a coffee and, I'm guessing, warming up. My six-month-old daughter was asleep, lying wrapped in blankets in the child seat of the shopping buggy. This gentleman came up to the buggy and started to pull her blanket away from her face and he told me what a sweet baby she was. I jumped up and fixed her blanket and told him that the draft from the door wasn't good for her. Inside, I was screaming, "Leave my baby alone!" After I tucked in the blanket again, he tucked it in as well and told me I was a very good mother. He then told me to be sure to buy a nice Christmas present for my beautiful baby and to tell her it was from him. Needless to say, I grumbled all the way home about how I wasn't going to use my hard-earned money to buy presents for my daughter and then tell her it was from some strange homeless man at the grocery store. I arrived home, put my daughter on the couch and unbundled her blankets.  As I was removing her bunting, something fluttered to the floor.  I picked it up and it was a $20 bill.  Darn it if that old man hadn't given me the money to buy my daughter a present. I used that money and I bought a gently used child's table and chair set for both of my children.  And you can bet your life that I wrote, "From the angel at the A&P" on the gift tag.         

—Kimberly Jonasson

“My brother passed away three years ago this Christmas. He was 49 and lived on the streets. He was a kind and caring person. Because of him, I never judge anyone who I see panhandling. In honour of my brother, every year at Christmas my daughter and I do something to help the homeless. Last year we purchased tons of warm socks and walked all through the downtown area, in places my brother sometimes used to go. When I gave an elderly lady a pair of socks, she broke down and cried and gave both of us a hug. If you could have seen how emotional she was over two strangers taking the time to give her a pair of socks, it would have brought you to tears.”                       

—Mary Ceretti-Snow

“I recently met an old boyfriend for coffee in the Yorkville neighbourhood of Toronto, someone I'd seen only one other time over the preceding two decades since our relationship reached its rocky conclusion. Our conversation was short and pleasant. Walking back along Bloor Street toward my office, I succumbed to some of that girlish insecurity that only an ex can trigger: "Oh gosh, I hope I looked okay," I thought. A few steps later, I came across an older man asking for spare change. There are panhandlers everywhere in this neighbourhood; sometimes I give out a dollar or two. He watched as I fished my wallet out of my purse. Then he said, "You're a very pretty lady." I smiled widely — and gave him a $20.”       

—Jocelyn Bell

“There was a guy sitting outside one very cold winter night, and I deliberately crossed the street to avoid having to deal with yet another beggar — there had been several in a short time. But I felt so badly at my lack of generosity that when I came back up the street, I walked to where he was, gave him some money and then I did something I’ve never done — I struck up a conversation with someone begging. I squatted down to his level and asked him what his story was, why he was on the street on such a cold day. I’d read somewhere that the lack of human contact is the hardest aspect of being homeless. He wasn’t homeless but he was struggling and he told me about it. We exchanged first names and he reached out and we shook hands. Every time I saw him again we exchanged greetings and I was able to ask specifically how he was doing.”                                      

—Bill Johnston

“When I worked downtown, I often had homeless people ask for money. One morning a man asked me for money. I looked at him, smiled and said ‘sorry,’ and continued walking. I could hear him behind me and felt a little unnerved. He tapped me on the shoulder and proceeded to tell me that even though I didn't give him any money it really meant a lot to him that I actually talked to him. He said most people just ignore him and walk past as if he wasn’t a person. We just never know the impact we can have.”                                           

—Jennifer Purdie

“I had parked my car in a restaurant parking lot to get to a meeting one evening and saw a fellow out of the corner of my eye as I turned into the lot. He looked homeless — old green sweatshirt, dirty hair, really anxious look on his face. I got out of my car and there he was, standing at the back of my car and very much in my face. It was pitch dark and he scared the crap out of me. I jumped back and told him in a nice way that he'd scared me. I had a split second to figure the situation out and I think if I hadn't interviewed so many mentally ill people in my job as a reporter I would have run like crazy. But I could sense he wasn't dangerous, even though he was talking really fast. But it was in an anxious way and I didn't sense any aggression or anger in him though he was quite incoherent. I maneuvered my way around him and tried to be friendly and he just kept talking really fast, holding out his hand and showing me the few quarters and dimes he had. He wanted to buy a sandwich that cost $5 at the restaurant down the street where he always went. He said he needed to buy his food there because other food made him feel bad. As he's talking I'm going through my purse and part of me is thinking that he could grab it. I gave him a $5 bill and his whole face lit up in a big smile and he opened his hand and offered me the change he had. Then he said, "Thank you so much. I would like to give you something back in return for your kindness.” I said, “No, no, that’s fine. Enjoy your sandwich."                                                                          

—Denise Davy

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