Opinion: Putting a family face on homelessness

By Salena Kitteringham, Edmonton Journal July 9, 2013

At the end of June, my dad gave me the sad news that my uncle Roger was dead. He had died in 2010 in Thunder Bay, Ont., with no personal possessions, probably homeless as he had been living transient for about a decade.

As far as my father knew, no one from the funeral home had contacted anyone from the family. I don’t know if that is standard practice when a homeless person dies, but there was no phone call from the police as far as we know. Maybe my grandma had been contacted or maybe she didn’t know.

In either scenario, it doesn’t take a professional psychologist to see Roger’s homelessness as one of the factors weighing heavily on her heart when she took her own life in February 2011.

We only found out about Roger’s death because my uncle Dave had Googled Roger’s name, as he and I and many other family members had done so many times over the years. Only this particular time an obituary actually came up.

No doubt there were many volunteers over the years who served Roger Thanksgiving dinner and I do want to thank each and every one of them.

I would, however, want them to understand that his reason for being was not simply to make them feel fortunate and good about themselves, and that on the other 364 days of the year, when he was out of their minds, pretty much invisible to them, he remained on my mind.

I would tell them that Roger had a big family that loved him. My dad’s half-brother brought together two families. He was my uncle but only six years older than me, so he was more like a big brother.

I would tell them how he loved heavy metal, and even though he was a banger, it was Roger who bought me Madonna’s True Blue on cassette.

I would tell them how he once filled a shoebox with candy for my birthday when I turned nine. Bubble gum tape. Lollipops. Nerds.

And I would tell them how it was with Roger on a cloudy August afternoon on the deck in my parents’ backyard that I shared my first legal beer. Of course that wasn’t our first beer together.

Was he tattooed?

Yes. He had a lot of great art, including a terrifying death metal clown face and a third eye that watched his back from spraying bullets when he turned 19 in Bosnia while wearing a blue UN peacekeeper’s helmet.

I would tell them how in the letters he wrote to me, then a 14-year-old girl in Red Deer, that he said, “There is no telling the good guys from the bad guys in Bosnia. They all rape the other’s women.”

I would tell them that he came back to us a broken man at 20. How he couldn’t hold down a job. That he lived in our basement and slept on our couch for weeks at a time.

Was he diseased?

Yes. When he crashed his motorcycle, the CT scan showed an inoperable tumour.

I would tell them how he refused what little treatment they could have given him and how he just upped and left us, leaving a fully furnished apartment vacant. He just went.

I would tell them how private investigators were hired when the police stopped looking for him, how my uncle Dave once found him living in a park in Calgary.

I would tell them how the police called to tell us his vehicle was left abandoned in Toronto, and how the Salvation Army shelter called my grandma one time to tell her that he was OK.

Was he to blame for his lifestyle? Not unless you can prove heavy metal causes brain cancer.

I’ve decided to share this personal information with the hopes that it might put a human face on homelessness at a time when very narrow perspectives are being shared very widely by Terwillegar residents concerned about an affordable housing complex going into their community.

Homelessness cuts close to the bone for me, even as I sit comfortably in my own affluent home, deep in southwest Edmonton. I won’t sit here in silence anymore about how hurtful, upsetting, narrow-minded and just plain wrong have been many of the comments posted on Terwillegar Speaks concerning the homeless.

What I would like to say to those people is this: The City of Edmonton is committed to ending homelessness in the next decade. It will take more than serving Thanksgiving dinner once a year to make it happen.

If you are not prepared to be changed by new information, open your hearts and community to people who were formerly homeless, people who are turning their lives around, people who are gainfully employed and will be paying rent to live in your community, perhaps it is you who are in the wrong place.

To those of you concerned about the affordable housing project bringing your property values down — you’ve already done a great job of driving perceptions about your neighbourhood to an all-time low.

To those of you who say you are not affluent, I say there are many people in Edmonton who make more money than you do, and plenty more who make less, but if your wealth depends on keeping others poor, then you will never truly be wealthy.

Call me idealistic — I’ve been called worse — but I have to believe Terwillegar Speaks represents a very vocal but very minor number of people’s views in that part of my city.

Salena Kitteringham is an Edmonton freelance writer and regular contributor to the Journal’s Arts & Life section.

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