My son and I were at Rigden Park in Ottawa the other day playing Frisbee. A couple other kids who were at the park had joined us and we were all running about, laughing and having a grand time. While we were tossing and chasing to and fro, I noticed the woman lying on the bench of one of the picnic tables appeared to be wearing plastic bags tucked into her shoes like socks. It was a hot, humid day and I shuddered at the thought of how uncomfortable I imagined it would be to have my sweaty feet wrapped up in plastic that way.
I was familiar with the woman – I’ve seen her around town, frequently at Rigden, but also at the community meals served by the some of the churches in downtown Ottawa. She appears to be homeless and suffering from mental illness. That day she had filled the picnic table with detritus: bottles of water and fruit juice, books and papers, and heaps of plastic T-shirt bags of the sort you find in a grocery store. She was talking to herself endlessly, lying there on the picnic table bench. The sight was disconcerting – and as a parent I kept a wary eye on her, almost despite myself – but she seemed harmless enough.
Once, on vacation with my family years ago, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I recall seeing a disheveled man digging through a trash can in a park. Growing up in the suburbs, I hadn’t seen such things close up before, and I brought the man to my father’s attention. And he said to me something I’ve never forgotten: that he could be any one of us. That we were all just a misfortune away from such a life.
Often have I heard the cliché, “people need a hand up, not a hand out,” in the context of discussions on social welfare programs. It is common to hear the sentiment that people ought to work for the things they have, the underlying assumption being that fair wages are always available to those willing to work hard for them. People who don’t work, the logic goes, deserve to go without food, shelter, and so on.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, once wrote, “The poor man's conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed ... He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market ... he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen ... To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.”
I know very well that I can see the woman in the park, even recognize her as a local, and yet she seems to fit John Adams' description of the poor man for the simple reason that I find it impossible to imagine caring for her as I might a family member. And that’s what keeps me up at night: not the fear of lacking material comforts, but rather the lack of human concern.