Who is my neighbour?
As his eyes swept over the filthy mess, amongst which were bodies propped against the building or fully prone on the sidewalk, he angrily spat out, “I don’t know why these damn people don’t go back to where they came from!” The elderly gentleman’s words weren’t directed at me; I simply happened to be standing in his line of sight as he vented his frustration. At that moment, as I gingerly stepped over sprawled figures, trying to avoid their splayed limbs, I fully sympathized with him.
Rideau Street is one of Ottawa’s main arteries, connecting Vanier to the city core, running past the large, upper-scale Rideau Center-Hudson Bay shopping area, and Senate Building of Canada, before morphing into Wellington Street on which is located the National War Memorial, Parliament, and the Supreme Court of Canada. For exercise, it’s a route I walk several times a week through the Byward Market, past the American embassy and National Arts Centre on my way to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.
Fifteen years ago, I lived at the same Ottawa residence as I do now and followed the same route down Rideau. At the time, it was a clean, relatively sleepy thoroughfare lined with retail shops and restaurants. The claim to fame for our end of the street was the Bytown Theatre which played art house films and served the best popcorn in the city.
Things have changed …
The Bytown Theatre is emblematic of the metamorphosis that has taken place. Following its closure during the pandemic, the theatre reopened, but its recessed entryway is often occupied by the homeless – regularly swept away by the city police, but they soon return. The somewhat older crowd who queued for tickets have largely vanished, perhaps no longer feeling safe. On the shoreline of Rideau Street, the flotsam of society lay stranded amidst garbage, the smell of stale urine, and the acrid skunk of pot smoke which hangs heavily in the air. Police officers, with growing frustration as ever more calls come in, try to deal expeditiously with surly, argumentative people, any one of whom could take up the next hour of their shift. Dishevelled individuals wander about on the sidewalk – and sometimes in the middle of the street – gesticulating wildly, carrying on conversations with unseen companions (somewhat akin to those on iPhones using their earbuds). People dart across the road on red lights, cutting through traffic, leaving a wake of unnerved drivers, swerving vehicles and honking horns – an irony in itself as one wonders at the urgency for those homeless and unemployed to get to the other side.
Ottawa is not the only urban area to find its streets awash with homeless people suffering from evident substance addictions and mental health issues. It’s a shocking change that leaves me wondering about its cause and what a compassionate Christian response would be. An immediate disclaimer is that I don’t have an answer. When the homeless put out their hand with a plaintive, and sometimes belligerent, request for “spare change,” I feel guilty for walking past, eyes averted; however, I wouldn’t proffer a beer or a joint in response to their request, so how do I justify giving money that may well be used for drugs or alcohol? Would my giving be to assuage my feelings of guilt and make myself feel better but, in fact, enable someone’s addiction and worsen the situation? I have no training in dealing with mental health issues, so I hesitate to engage in a conversation. What if my attempt at compassion is interpreted as a threat, and I am suddenly at the receiving end of a verbal or physical attack? I can visualize the news headline: “Oblate Brother accused of attacking homeless person.” Is a ‘hello’, a smile, and an interior promise to hold the person in prayer all I have to offer? Do I resort to Scarlett O’Hara’s vapid response and tell myself I’ll think about it tomorrow? I stand accused by James 2:14-16!
As Christians, we have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan possibly dozens of times, and, if you are like me, you felt quite self-righteous when thinking about the priest and Levite: “I would certainly never be so cold and uncaring!” Walking down Rideau Street, however, I feel empathy for them and have gained an appreciation for crossing the road. The right thing, the most helpful thing, is not always as obvious as a simple parable might suggest. (Evidently, Jesus did not live in the litigious society we do. When he told the parable, he wasn’t thinking of the Samaritan’s possible liability for exacerbating injuries by pouring wine on wounds, dragging the poor fellow out of the ditch, lifting him onto the donkey and taking him down the rough, dusty road to an inn!)
I understand the elderly gentleman’s cry, born out of a sense of hopelessness in the face of a seemingly intractable, overwhelming social issue beyond his ability to solve. It would take a tsunami to rearrange the shoreline of this problem; however, it’s possible that my part as an individual Christian is to be one of the small waves that move a few grains of sand. Enough waves, over time, will rearrange the shoreline … perhaps it’s an invitation to Christian hope and further reflection.
No easy solutions here, but I do invite you to read the following from the Centre Oblat website:
By Harley Mapes, OMI