Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Putting value on the vulnerable

All she wanted was a few coins. Instead, she received a handful of hate

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If laughter usually sings a summer symphony across Winnipeg pub patios, on this night it pierced the ear, garishly out of key.

The guffaws came from a trio of friends, drinking late on a popular patio on a central Winnipeg street. In front of them stood a woman, and to understand this story we must go back to her beginning. We will call her Joan.

Joan has never had an easy life. Long ago, she fled a broken home in a northern First Nation and came to Winnipeg to start over, but the architecture of a city life escaped her. Instead, she bounced from rat-gnawed hotel to collapsing couch, carrying clothes and very little else. She finally found a place of her own underneath the crumbling roof of a rooming house. It's enough to keep her dry but not, in winter, very warm. For that, she keeps a cat.

Joan has a voice that fills up an empty space, an eagerly curated selection of groan-worthy jokes. Her cousin lies in a coma somewhere in a Winnipeg hospital warren, beaten until his brain gave up its grip on consciousness, and it hurts her too much to visit. She loves country music, and will offer you the shirt off her back if you tell her that you like it, too. Really. "I'll come back tomorrow and give it to you," she will offer, and you decline.

This is how Joan makes ends meet: trailing down the summer streets with a hat in her hand, canvassing the patios for a bit of change, a cigarette, or just a laugh. She fancies herself part of the human landscape of the neighbourhood. "Everybody knows me here," she says, and this is a point of pride.

Well, on this night, three people sitting at a patio do know her, and Joan walks up to them with a smile. She leans a hat full of loose change over the rail. But then an arm shoots across the table, a hand reaches into the hat and scoops up every cent and every dime. Joan bellows, to everyone and nobody: "She took my money." The people at the table giggle.

A few minutes later, there is just their laughter and just Joan, standing alone, empty hat hanging at her side, and her eyes are welling up with tears. She opens her mouth, closes it again, and her protests subside. She tried to speak to the pub's management -- "they all know me here," she says, but now it sounds less pride than plea -- but they gently shooed her back onto the street.

In the other woman's pants pocket, loose change jangles, maybe three dollars all told. This is technically a theft, and someone should have called the cops. I accept the shame of admitting: I did not. Instead, I sat there, dug chewed fingertips into my knee, and watched.

 

óè óè óè

 

If there is one general rule in society, it is this: The people that we value, we try to protect. But about the rest...

Outside Siloam Mission, volunteer services director Lindsey Smith has seen cars speed down Princess Street, their passengers leaning out to fling garbage at the men and women waiting to get into the shelter. "It's hard sometimes to even know how often it happens, because people who are in vulnerable situations who get taken advantage of don't necessarily want to tell us, it's so hurtful," she says. "There's such a whole rainbow of abuses, we can't measure them all."

Abuses like that patio theft, abuses like racist insults spat underneath a vicious breath, abuses like the case in Toronto earlier this year, where a video of a young man urinating on a homeless man went viral. The problem, Smith said, is the myths so many more privileged people allow themselves to absorb about poverty and about why someone ends up living, or trying to make a living, on the street.

"If your narrative on your mind is that this person is lazy, that they've chosen this way, then yeah, you'll be upset that they're ruining your evening on the patio," she said. "But if the narrative changes to what is more true -- that this is a vulnerable population, and that there's a lot of circumstances in the way -- then the actions will change."

So it all comes down to who we perceive as worthy in their need. So if I had called the police and reported a robbery, what would they have said? And who would they have believed?

 

óè óè óè

 

Back at the patio table, laughter is still spilling from a middle-aged white man's throat, where his collar is left unbuttoned after a long day at work. The theft, his shaking shoulders attest, is a very funny joke. His friend, pressed by Joan to return the stolen coins, eventually dug into her pocket and flung out a few dimes; this much she admits. She does not regret it.

"It's the only way she'll ever learn," the young woman says, and the table laughs again. "She was all 'everybody knows me.' Yeah, well, nobody likes you."

She was wrong. I like Joan, and I have laughed with Joan, and I have listened to her jokes and seen her face light up at mention of the country singers she admires. And yet I watched as a fistful of dollars was taken from her, and in that moment was stunned to silence.

But still, a question: When we shrug off cruelty and the imposition of power as a necessary lesson, on what ground can we judge others to be less-than?

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 D2

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