Homelessness or that other way, the one we can’t find


The wanderers. The fringe dwellers. The pulling their belongings behind them scavengers. Us and them. Square pegs. Visible ghosts.

Nothing to do with the endless traffic and nine to five, vacation plans, family dinners. Life’s window shoppers. There but for the grace of God we go.

I watch her sometimes, that tiny woman who walks by every day and I wonder of her past. What’s her nationality? Vietnamese? Japanese? Chinese? Filipino? Canadian? I wonder about her childhood, her parents, and how she got here, pop cans her meager savior.

Every day a marathon. Down back lanes, across streets, along sidewalks, lifting dumpsters, poking inside bins. Focused. Purposeful.

I have no doubt that she knows more about the people who live in this neighborhood than I will ever know. She knows this from what we discard.

On Easter Sunday, her finds were bundled into the largest sized green Glad garbage bag. The metal tins poke their roundness against the plastic. Today’s bundle resembles a gigantic Easter egg. It’s perched precariously above one of those silver grocery trailers that older women use. She pulls it behind her like it’s an impossible toddler.  Around that bulging package she has wrapped a strip of a second orange plastic bag, a ribbon of small possibilities.  Almost festive. She carries on.

Later, downtown in Vancouver Public Library. In the washroom beside the Alice McKay Room, that other woman is there again. More often than not she’s there whenever I use that washroom. If you have been there, I bet you know the one I mean. When I wash my hands, I intentionally choose the sink right next to the one she’s using. I look over at her and say hello.

She looks back at me a little surprised. “Hi,” she says.

She’s washing something. Dark blue, teal blue, squishy and knitted. Maybe it’s crocheted. I can’t tell.  I mistake it for socks.

“It’s a hat,” she says. “I put it in this bag with water and dish washing soap and then I swish it around.”

“Good idea,” I say hating the way these interactions always mimic the lacking.

I walk to the blower to dry my hands, look to see that no one else is here so that she retains her dignity, get out my wallet and hand her a $20 bill.  I forget what I say exactly. Why does giving to those who never ask always make the giver and the receiver feel bad?

“That’s too much,” she says. My heart breaks a little. We all know that it won’t solve anything, not any of those things that have led her to where she is now.

I get the feeling that she’s going to keep it, in plastic, hoarding it the way she hoards the last of those things that she protects in her shopping cart trailer.

“I wish there was some other way,” she says.

“So do I,” I say as I walk away wishing I had a way in, to get to know more about this person and the path that has led her here.

But what is it?

Did you know that New West has a Homelessness Coalition?

On Wednesday, April 30th, Megaphone, Vancouver’s Street paper, launches its Voices of the Street Literary Issue at Cafe Deux Soleils from 7-10 pm.


  1. Hi Anne,
    I don’t think the woman in constant search of cans is homeless. The one in the library definitely seems like she is given that all her worldly possessions are in a shopping cart, although I can’t say for sure whether she is or not. I know she wishes her situation was different based on her indicating that to me in our brief interaction.

    While the issues that lead to homelessness are complex, I believe that they are very well understood even though they present in a myriad of ways in every individual who is in that situation. I also believe that the majority of people (not all), given a viable option, would prefer to have a place of their own that they could go to consistently, that was warm and dry and safer than the street.

  2. Hmmm … this leaves one feeling – well, I don’t know exactly, “fortunate” hardly describes it; because you have to wonder whether she actually feels “unfortunate”; you immediately assume that she has not made this choice, but is this the case?? There is a lot to be considered with respect to homelessness and if we really understood it perhaps we, as a society, could actually do something about it. All I know, or believe, that it is an extremely complex issue.

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