I began my service with St. Mary’s Homeless Outreach six years ago this past September, 2017. My friend who started the service made me a youth leader within my first few months volunteering.
My years of duty to the streets have been interesting to say the least. I’d met schizophrenics, drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and men who’d made more money in a day back in the eighties than the average Canadian in a week today, and lost it all to the bottle.
One of the most memorable characters I’d encountered on the streets was a portly brown man I’d met on the corner of Queen and Sherbourne, right outside the Maxwell-Meighen men’s shelter in downtown Toronto, in late November of 2016. A thick black moustache hugged the man’s upper lip and down the sides of his round face, spotted in stubble. A slight hopeless smile graced his lips and heavy eyes.
I said hello and offered him a sandwich.
“Hi. What’s in the sandwich?” he spoke softly in a thick Indian accent.
“Well, we have beef, chicken and ham.”
“Oh no thank you,” he said. “I am vegetarian. Do you have anything else?”
I handed him a granola bar. He nodded and thanked me.
“My name is Mina,” I said and reached my open palm to him.
“I am Shan Mohammed,” he smiled and shook my hand. His eyes misted and slipped between me and the nameless people that dotted the open streets. He didn’t seem to look at them as much as he looked through them.
“It’s a cold day,” he said, his eyes far from my stare. “Cold and long and the days are getting colder.” He looked at me. “Do you have a jacket?”
“We don’t have any jackets to give away, I’m sorry.”
“I need a jacket. If you can get me a jacket, that would help a lot.”
“Maybe we can get you a jacket. We can try for next week if we see you.”
“Yes, please,” he said, his head jittering from side to side as he spoke. “The winters in Canada, they’re so long. So cold. I came here twelve years ago. I was refugee. Nowhere to live. No family. I slept right there, on the ground,” he motioned his head to the park across the street. “I had no family. No family. And you know who comes to me?”
“Rob Ford. He comes to me. I sleep on the ground in the cold alone with street friends. So cold. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to live. And he said to me ‘I’m gonna find you a place to live.’”
“Yes, and he help me. He found me place in this building here,” he said pointing to the short brown low-income housing project behind him.
“He was a good man. Good mayor.”
I wasn’t sure if this man knew of Rob Ford’s reputation within the city, but he certainly had a different idea of him than the common public.
“Wow, that’s amazing that you met Rob Ford,” I said.
“Yes, he was a good man. He found me a home here. But still I can’t walk outside for long. It’s so cold. Not like my old home.”
“Where did you live?”
“I am from Sri Lanka, but I came to Canada from Malaysia.”
“Oh wow,” I said. “No wonder you get cold so easily. I’m surprised you left. What did you do in Malaysia?”
“I was in medical school.”
“Oh, so you wanted to come to Canada to become a doctor I assume.”
“No. I left after the tsunami,” he said running his thumb and finger through his moustache. “All gone. Everyone dead.” Red lines flowed through the white of his eyes like crimson rivers. Tears welled between his eyelids.
“I was in Malaysia doing medicine, and all my family in Sri Lanka. The water came, so much water. It hit them all. My mother. My sisters. My father. All dead.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to hide my discomfort for male emotion as I searched for words. “I’m sorry. Thank God you were in Malaysia though. Your still alive.”
“For what? My family, drowned. All gone. I live here now. Alone. Rob Ford was my friend. He’s dead. You guys are nice and you help me. Thank you,” he smiled with his tired eyes.
“You know you could still be a doctor here if you want. You can do your equivalency. Get money to pay for school from the government.”
“I volunteer here at the hospital twice a week. It’s okay. It helps me.”
“What do you do?”
“Clean things. Talk to patients. Simple work.”
“That’s amazing. It’s important to find things to keep you busy.”
The man looked away from me and set his eyes to the dirty streets. A cool wind whistled through the alley. A white man with a crooked rotten smile hobbled through the streets in a frantic haze and cursed blacks and Jews. A prostitute stood at the street corner in fishnets and a hiked pleather skirt. She smiled at me. I smiled back and looked away.
“Sometimes I wish the water took me too,” the man said. “I could be with my family.”
“I’m happy it didn’t,” I said.
“This whole thing needs to end someday. I can end it myself.”
“That wouldn’t be good. The people in the hospital need you.”
He nodded. Tears rolled down his stubbled cheeks. The man took a deep breath and shook his head. He rubbed at his arms and shivered.
“I need a jacket. Winter is long and cold in this country.”
“I’ll see what I can do for next week.”
We took the man to a soup kitchen on Queen and Broadview called St. John the Compassionate. I sat and ate with him, but he didn’t eat much. I dropped the man home after we ate together. He thanked me the whole car ride home.
That week, my friend Jala from the service and I went to Wal-Mart to buy the man a jacket. We found one that was warm and affordable and split the price. We took the jacket to the streets the following week. I looked everywhere for the man, but I could not find him.
Week after week, I brought the jacket in my car to give to the man. Week after week, I searched, but couldn’t find him. The cold bite of the winter wind warmed into the fall and rose as heat in summer, but he never showed. I wondered if the good memories the man had of his family were drowned by the thought of the pain they must have felt as water filled their thirsty lungs. The screams he never heard. The bodies he’d never seen, floating atop the calm water as the fury of the waves subsided and land became ocean. The best he could do was synthesize his own death, if only to share in his mother and father and sisters’ pain.
My friend often told me to give the jacket away to anyone who needed it. I refused, hoping to God he was still alive.
My hope, once loud but silenced to a whisper over the months, survived with me until the last Sunday of September, 2017. A few of my friends from the service and I walked the streets of Queen and Sherbourne, across the street from the Dollarama. I carried a bag of sandwiches in my left hand and gave them away to the homeless with my friends. I worked my way up Sherbourne on the opposite side of Moss Park, and found a brown man in black sunglasses, a round face and black moustache, sitting on the concrete ledge facing the streets.
“Shan!” I said. “I hadn’t seen you in months. How have you been?”
“Okay,” he smiled and nodded as he stood up to shake my hand. “Still okay.”
“We’ve been looking for you since December, but we couldn’t find you. Remember you asked for a jacket?”
“We got it. We had it since December. It’s in my car right now. Give me five minutes and I’ll get it.”
Shan nodded. I ran to my car to fetch the jacket and came back. I told him the group had bought it for him. I asked if I could take a picture of him in the jacket to show to my friend who helped pay for it (she moved to Europe to go to medical school). He obliged. The jacket fit. I took a picture and sent it to my friend.
“I was actually worried he had taken his own life,” she texted me. I didn’t want to tell her that I’d had the same fear.
But there he stood in front of me, still breathing. Still searching the streets with his unsettled stare. Still smiling a sad smile for another day. A middle aged man with an old heart the weight of an anchor, weighing him down to a life he never wanted.
But he lived, the persistence of memory still too weak to drown him.