More tales from Toronto streets

TIM HUFF

“Maybe I should do it too.” The words penetrate like a knife.
Fourteen and a half years with extremely troubled youth-and never more disturbed or shaken than by the words of 15 year old Grace.
In 8 weeks this fall I lost 4 teenagers to suicide. Grace was close to 2 of them and knew all 4. A dark emotional journey that physically hurts, that wakes me in my sleep, that I can barely speak of. Beautiful, frightened children…gone. Just gone.
“Only problem is…that’s what they’re remembered for …now, that’s what they are all about. I don’t want that,” she continued. Her character defeats her distress one more day. Thank you God.
Eyes red and watery peering from under her long brown bangs. she raises her head and asks, “what are you all about?” I tilt my head as if to say -what do you mean?
“Not what do you think you are all about…but what are you really all about? Y’know what other people think you are all about?”
Grace; homeless,alone and brilliant beyond her years.

Hidden behind a big , white beard and bright red suit I watch 7 year old Taylor play with a blue train. Santa is smiling- but his heart is breaking. Its December 9th, and the doctors don’t expect Taylor to make it to Christmas. My Santa gig today is with 8 terminally ill kids and their families. Big entrance done. Gifts given. Hugs and tickles done. Now a few moments of young forgetful play while parents cry. In these surreal, quiet moments Santa closes his eyes.
Experiencing the pain here draws reflection on the losses this past season, the tragedy of two of my dearest friends losing a sister, Sept. 11 grief…imagine , Santa Claus stolen by sadness.Then , like a gust of wind, from out of no where, the voice of a survivor rings in my head…”What are you all about?” A little homeless angel pulls Santa together.And we play, and play and play. And every single moment feels priceless.

If a little homeless girl was standing in front of you thi very moment and expecting nothing from you asked ,”What are you all about?”…what would you say? What would your friends and family say your all about?What would God say?

I started and stopped a few times before the truth rattled out…”I’m all about finding out what I am all about.”

Grace closed her eyes and nodded…”Ya , me too.”
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September, 2008

On June 26th – technically the last day of school – I was walking through a downtown park at 1 am. Several people dotted the park in slumber, or passed out – but one unlike all the others. I came across a young man flat on his back; unconscious, bloodied, backpack of items dragged open around him. I called EMS, and waited by his side.

It was both sickening and fascinating to sit inches away from a total stranger who is completely vulnerable and unaware of your presence. Even after experiencing it as such hundreds of times. As I waited I decided to gather the remains of his belongings and put them back in his pack. Left behind were the un-sellable, un-useable items; a street-muggers rejects. Among them… a grade 12 report card from another province. Information-gathering is the justifying word for a street workers curiosity. I looked. Four failing grades.

Most people think kids run from home for fear of low-brow abuse and addictions. But it is remarkable how many run from well-to-do, high-achiever expectations. This was Andrew’s story. Bad grades=dad’s wrath=beatings.

After an entire summer surviving the streets, Andrew is returning home for another stab at grade 12. By phone, the arrangements had all kinds of conditions and expectations that ended with his dad’s words, “or else.”

Andrew’s dad is a scholar. Andrew’s dad is also a cold fool. Andrew has already lived out “or else,” like no one should even have to imagine. Pride has wounded many young souls on the street than drugs and weapons ever could. It’s enough. It’s more than enough.

As the school year starts – let’s love our young ones through bad marks, good marks, peer pressure, teen angst, whatever comes, whatever doesn’t. Just as God has in store for all of us, no matter how we succeed or fail… knowing that “I love you” is always the “or else”; regardless of all other consequences.
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3am. Not the ideal time to be up and writing… but indeed the time my heart tells me. There is an underworld of night-crawlers sneaking through the city while it sleeps. Dozens of individuals that eat from trash bins after midnight, and only feel safe to explore the world by moonlight. Lost souls, purposely hiding.

When I reached Eddie beneath the bridge, he was inconsolable. I sat closeby and just waited until he could bring himself to speak. But before that ever occured, I noticed two things. One – something was missing. Two- something stunk. Before Eddie could gather himself up, I put things together.

“Where’s Shiloe?” I leaned in. Eddie wailed even louder. So I stood and followed the smell. I lifted the grey army blanket resting beneath the concrete beam, and there he was. Shiloe, dead.

When Eddie ran from his abusive home nearly a year ago, he took his best friend with him. The only one he could trust. The family do, Eddie’s solace since age 5, “Shiloe.” The one he clung to at night during dad’s dgrunken outrages, and the same one he clung to in the hidden alleyways of the inner city.

There is another group of people who roam in the darkest hours of the night… these are the night-feeders; those that prey on others. Those that steal, and beat, and hurt others to feed their weakened bodies and confused minds. When old Shiloe tried to protect Eddie from the night-feeders, faithful in a way only a good dog can be, he paid the ultimate price. They stabbed him to death. Faithful to the end.

Eddie finally stuttered out his words. Told me what he wanted. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, that I have stumbled around fuzzy lines of health issues or property acts. But… we carried Shiloe’s old brown and grey body through the shadows for about a kilometer. Then we spent an hour with some old pieces of board, digging a grave at the side of the railway tracks, where they would walk.

Many of you reading this letter have a dog at your feet, or a cat curled up on your lap even now. Others will see them on walks in the park later in the day, or at the end of the street. Today when you experience your cherished pet, or see someone else so likewise (especially a boy and his dog)…won’t you say a prayer for Eddie? And for the countless “Eddies” running, hiding, and doing their best day-to-day, across the nation.

As we stood over the secret grave, Eddie said, “I’ll see you soon Shiloe.” In a terror I have known too well, I put my hands on his shoulders and said “One day. But not soon, okay? Not soon.”

Love. Pray. Act. Believe.

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4 PM
He must be drunk,I thought. At about 40 paces, from behindand in the shade, it seemed most likely. Stumbling to the left. Left again. Suspended, suspended …and down. Face first.I moved in closer. And closer quickly as the shadows could no longer hide the situation.
Alone. Collapsed. Hungry. A young man not yet twenty. Desparate. So very desperate.In a crawl space, west of an alleyway that runs parallel to the worlds longest street, he was probeing through bags of garbage weeks oldfor scraps. Its 40 degrees celcius in the late smoggy afternoon. Heaps of warmed, infested garbage, weeks old due to a city wide strike that includes garbage collectors. Between the heat , the stench, the hunger and dehydration, all that kept him functioning disappeared…and he lay perched at a 45 degree angle, unconcious in rotting leftovers.
I moved him to ground level, downwind. A quick cell phone call and half a bottle of water later, he was rushed away in the cool of an ambulance unit. All this…the ten minute encounter of strangers off of torontos Yonge street.
8pm
Sarah Jane, nine years old , on my left. Jake, soon five ,on my right.Bedtime books, chats, tickles and giggles before lights out. Tonight Sarah Jane decided she wanted to be a zoo keeper when she grows up. After a sweet explanationof all the whys,Jake needed a turn. No surprize-Jake wants to be Spiderman when he grows up , so he can catch the “real bad guys”. Amazing- I remember wanting to be a zookeeper and spiderman too!
MIDNIGHT
In the quiet of the night ,I am disturbed. Worlds apart in a few short hours.
Surely the boy fainting in the garbage had wanted to be a zookeeper or spiderman too!
Surely someone has cute pictures of him as a small, dream filled boy. Surely he deserves better than to seek dining in the garbage. Why him? Why not you or me?
Surely Jesus died for him as much as he did for me. What do i make of it all??
The youngest son of a hard working blue collar dad and a diligent church secretary mom, my adulthood has been filled with surreal moments with desperate people in my journey with the homeless.
Light years away from my simple, happy childhood-I have never seen God present, or the face of Jesus revealed anywhere like I have with those who have no home.
My plea to you is that you love them as you are able. However you can. Even this day.
7AM
I took out the kitchen garbage. Scraps and leftovers fit for no one. NO ONE.
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Raised scars on young wrists have haunted me for years. A reluctant specialist, the opportunity to truly “read between the lines “is not lost on me. Tiny slender tracks- a desperate call for someone to notice. Shallow lines that widen from the outside of an upturned wrist to the inside- a quick decision to take it seriously. The reverse; wide to shallow- fear in the final moments.
But no mistaking Amy’s scars. Determined long lines running diagonal from the base of the thumb, six inches towards the elbow. Instantly I know two things. Right hand scars mean Amy is left handed. And…that I am in the presence of a miracle.Her scars meant
business.Still here she is.
Fifteen years old. Begging for spare change from strangers. Sleeping with rats the size of cats i alleyways at the south end of torontos china town. Who is she?
Whose is she? And how much more does sh3e have to take in this life?
Tonight , from across the street I watch four university students gather around her in drunkenness. Racing across the busy roadway , I was I was barely halfway when one of them undid his pants and began urinating on her. After more than a bit of a “mix up” they stumbled away, laughing and cursing at Amy and I.I was overwhelmed with anger.
Amys response as she dried her face was…”Its no big deal.”
revolting, degrading, unthinkable…its everything except “no big deal.” Isn’t it? Of course. But so broken , so early in life, these are the first words from the mouth of Gods priceless child. His little miracle.
“I’m hungry .”She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a browned apple. Takes a bite. Looks up at me and smiles. Fifteen. Death scars. tired eyes. Educated urine in her hair.And the smile of an angel from heaven. Little miracle.
She needs to learn to feel again. To believe in love. To have history erased. To be truly fifteen again. to be honored as a survivor.
But she is having a hard enough time finding someone who will give her 50 cents and smile at her.Makes it hard to believe in the rest.
“You wanna bite?” She holds her apple up. Left hand of course.
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Though it was broken, she treated it as though it was nothing less than priceless. For after all – it was.

Trudy wouldn’t say why she had left home. The most she ever surrendered was said one evening as she ran her finger across the sharp edges of her sacred keepsake – “You can only get so broken and still be worth something.” Enough said.

A Christmas ornament. An ordinary round, red ball and hook, hanging from her worn napsack.

And while she kept her own story a mystery, she was enthusiastic about the story of the ornament. “My grandma’s tree was all red. Red lights, red balls, red tinsel. Even a red star.” Pause. “I loved it. I loved her. But she’s gone.” Pause. “We got half of her belongings, including all of the Christmas stuff.” Pause. Tears. “When I came home one day from school everything was thrown around the living room – broken, ruined. All of it.” More tears, and then she walked away.

The telling of the ornament’s story gave her up. Just as most street stories are revealed – through the thin curtain of unlikely objects, childhood memories and pauses in simple stories.

Mom left years ago. Dear grandma passed away. And dad had nothing to offer but rage and spite. Trudy was broken. Very broken.

Trudy packed her things and left that same day. On her way out the door she picked up one ornament from the living room floor. One tiny bit of grandma. Of love. A memory of comfort and joy.

Of all that’s lacking on the streets, nothing is more scarce than comfort and joy. Tidings of comfort and joy, desperately needed.

This year, and perhaps for years to come – I am inviting you to join my family in hanging one broken ornament on your tree. Somewhere easy to see. So that every time you see it you will be reminded to say one simple prayer:

“For all whose hearts are breaking this season – comfort and joy. I pray for comfort and joy.”

And may it own you in a way that you seek opportunities right where you are – to bring comfort and joy to the broken-hearted in your life.

The last time I saw Trudy, she was kneeling in a ditch, cupping the ornament in both hands, and sobbing.

Priceless and broken… the ornament and Trudy.

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Christmas

It was a bright Christmas morning and after travelling all through the night my exhausted family and I pulled into a small diner for breakfast. My husband and my son were the only family in the place.

I heard my 18 month old Sammy shout with glee, “Hi there..” his fat baby hands banged the back of his chair,”hi there”. His face was alive with excitment and he grinned from ear to ear.
I stretched my neck to see what was causing my son so much joy and I could scarce take it in.

There he stood , filthy, greasy, worn with a wrinkled, weathered face.

“Hi there baby boy.”

My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between “What do we do?” and “Poor Soul”.

Our meal arrived and we tried to settle Sammy but he fussed as the
street person shouted across the room, “Do you know peek a boo…PEEK A BOO little boy”.

Sammy kept laughing and trying to talk to the man.

Nobody thought this was cute. The guy was obviously drunk and an embarrassment. My husband wolfed down his food, headed for the door then said tensely,”lets get outta here.”

As I grabbed my son and tried to get out of the restaurant without having any eye contact with the old man, Sammy was wiggling and leaned over me with his arms outstretched. All of a sudden Sammy propelled himself from my arms to his.

It all happened in a split second and suddenly a very old man and a very young baby met. As Sammy put his head on the old mans ragged shoulder the mans eyes closed and tears welled around his lashes. His aged hands full of grime and pain and hard labor, gently ever so gently cradled my baby. I was awestruck.

The old man rocked the baby back and forth then opened both eyes and looked seriously into mine, “You take good care of this baby now.”

“I will,” I muttered awkwardly.

He pried Sammy from his chest and placed him in my arms and addressed us, “God bless you Ma’am, You’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

I think I muttered “thanks.”

With Sammy in my arms I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Sammy so tightly, and why I was saying “My God please forgive me…”
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Christmas 2006

godbless-you.JPGA fake Santa Claus and a homeless man, sitting on the wet sidewalk on Christmas Eve… singing, no less. Not a typical Christmas image. But indeed… sacred.

When my daughter was two years old, I thought it would be fun for her to see Santa Claus sneaking around in her own backyard, on Christmas Eve. That notion grew into an annual tradition that keeps me scurrying about friends’ backyards across the GTA, ending in my own. A Santa suit rental became a Santa suit creation, and December visits to hospitals and group homes are now all part of the big picture.

But this Christmas Eve had something extra special in store. The last backyard Santa stop before home was along the Lakeshore. But my family would not be home from church for some time. So, creature of habit that I am, I drove into the downtown core – just to see the city when it stops. The only night it does. Or at least it seems to, at first glance. December 24th.

I drove slowly through the quiet cold, with my windows wide open, to take it in. It was just to be a bit of unscheduled time alone with Christmas carols on the radio… but an old soul drew me in like a sponge. Something I didn’t see coming.

He was sitting on Bloor Street, head tilted to the sky and all alone. I slowed and double-parked on Bloor – the only time of the year anyone ever could. I took a few of the goodies I had with me (the ones this Santa leaves at back doors with notes telling the kids who spotted him – to go to bed), and hobbled over to himn, and sat on his left. He was spectacular. Weathered. Peaceful. Like an old tree.

“Hi Santa Claus”, he said, without even glancing at me. And without question – almost as though he’d been expecting me. Hmm.. expecting St. Nick, I mean.

“Hi. What are you doing?” Santa replied, questioning his role at the time.

He slid back, stretched out his long old body and said, as though rehearsed all day, “the stars in the bright sky look down where I lay.” Incredible.

He was so perfect in his profound gestures and mannerisms. He was shocking. Like a mysterious homeless angel.

“Chocolate?” I offered.

“Sure”, he replied with a sigh. Then he looked at me for the first time. And in his eyes was this grand look of disappointment, as though he’d hoped I was the real Santa. But he was close enough to spot a fake beard, not enough wrinkles, and a sad smile not worthy of the real deal. A Santa wanna-be. I even disappointed me.

He wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t high. His mind was in its own place, but not “ill”. He was just living out Christmas in his world… the way we all do. And in his world, Christmas meant sitting alone, taking it in, and not even letting Santa Claus phase him. Most of us really could only wish for such a character.

We sat for a long while. Not saying much. Then he took in a long breath and began singing “I’ll be home for Christmas… you can plan on me…” His old warm voice was like a blanket. The words wrapped around me. At the same time, his sorrow was staggering. I tried to sing along, but could not stay composed… so just tearfully accepted the gift of being there.

He ended softly… “If only in my dreams.” Then he stood, collected his belongings, and began to walk away. He took 4 or 5 steps and stopped. He shuffled back to me, leaned low, handed me a small piece of cardboard and said, “Merry Christmas, Santa Claus.” He propped himself back up, and wandered away. I watched him, almost waiting for the clouds to part and snatch him up to heaven. But that didn’t happen. He just trudged along.

I looked down at the piece of cardboard. It read “God Bless You.” His panhandling sign… the most precious gift I had ever received. By far.

I have no theological basis for my thinking, but I have always thought that when someone who is homeless says “God bless you” that it is a blessing of profound significance. That they would give those words to me – or to you – has some kind of heavenly resonance. Even after all these years, it almost startles me. So to hold this sign in my hands… it was magnificent. And to own it!

But there I was, sitting all alone in a Santa suit on Bloor Street, on Christmas Eve, with a panhandlers blessing in my hands. My beautiful, bizarre miracle.

How tragic it is – the times over and over that God blesses us, and we don’t even notice. How often we rush through life, frantically looking for blessings of encouragement and inspiration, all the while buzzing past and trampling over the tenderness of God’s own children.

No greater blessing will this world know than a homeless baby, born in the slowness of a silent night, a holy night. May the prayerful offering of God’s blessing on you never be missed, overlooked or ignored. Especially from the voices and hands of His beloved, rising towards you from the sidewalks and streets of your own community. May we all be nothing less than humbled and made new by the offerings of unlikely street angels: “God Bless You.” No Santa could ever bring a gift greater than this.

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