Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A true friend to city's homeless

Will be joining sleepout to raise money

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Ari Driver has met plenty of homeless people in the 13 years she's run her Perfume Paradise boutique on Vaughan Street in downtown Winnipeg.

Sometimes, they pop into her specialty fragrance shop to warm up when it's cold or to cool off when it's hot. They'll ask for food, or spare change, even a quick spritz from one of the thousands of bottles lining her shelves.

They'll ask how her day is going, how her family is making out, what her favourite films are. After Driver was robbed at gunpoint about nine years ago, some of the homeless did their best to keep her safe.

"Once word got around in the homeless community, they'd open the door and shout: 'You OK?' " she recalled, beaming. "They'd watch the store and make sure I wasn't alone. It was very cool."

On Wednesday, a homeless man named Ernie slouched on the sidewalk outside her store, back against the wall, hat on the pavement, beseeching passersby for coins.

"I make him coffee and sometimes he'll ask for a sandwich," Driver told me. "We're trying to get him help. We're all part of a community here. It's just really important we see them not as a scourge, but as people who are part of a community and we need to find a way to get along."

It's an issue close to the energetic entrepreneur's heart, largely because of the chilly fall day several years ago when she found a disheveled homeless man named William squatting outside her store.

"His coat had holes in it," she recalled. "His face was weathered. He looked a lot older than he was. That's from living on the streets. But he had a quiet dignity."

William asked for a loonie. Driver said she'd make him a cup of coffee instead. "A few minutes later, my door opened and William came in and asked for a broom. He said: 'I want to sweep in front of the store for you."

Keeping the sidewalk clean became kind of a business for William. Driver made arrangements for a nearby restaurant to feed him when he was hungry.

Fall turned to winter and William's sweeping became shovelling. One bitter morning, he came into the store trying to sell some random items -- a lampshade he'd found in an alley and decorated, and a set of steak knives.

"I asked him why he needed the money, and he replied he needed a special tool to break the ice on the sidewalk," Driver explained. "He needed $40. I'm still not sure why, but I gave it to him. He promised to bring back the change."

Later, as the minutes dragged into hours, the petite boutique owner started to wonder if that was the last she'd ever see of William. "It took a long time for him to come back. I had pretty much written off the $40," she said. "Then the door opened and there was William, looking frozen but smiling."

Lugging the ice-breaker, he apologized for being so late, but it was freezing out and he'd walked all the way to the Polo Park Home Depot and then back downtown, stopping occasionally to warm up.

"I asked why he hadn't taken a bus, and he said he didn't have any money," Driver recalled.

"He said this as he was handing me my change. He wouldn't use the money I gave him for bus fare because I'd asked him to bring the change back. I was shocked and so moved. It was very cold.

"For him to cherish the fact that someone had trusted him -- he didn't want to betray that trust. It changed everything for me. It showed me a man's character, a man who would have been considered marginalized."

It's a moment Driver will never forget, and it's one of the reasons she's dedicating herself to raising money and awareness to help Winnipeg's most vulnerable citizens.

On Thursday, Driver will be one of about 100 business and community leaders hunkered down in sleeping bags near the corner of Portage & Main as part of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's third annual CEO Sleepout, which aims to raise $150,000 to get the homeless off the streets and into jobs and decent housing.

The money raised -- and, yes, I'll be sleeping under the stars again -- goes to the BIZ's Change for the Better campaign to support homeless employment programs.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2013 A2

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