I sat down beside Charlie at dinner. Charlie looks like your stereotypical homeless person. He is a bit dirty, unshaven, smells of alcohol and seems pretty street smart. On this particular evening in 2009, Charlie has decided to escape from the cold and join us for dinner at the Tri Cities Wet Mat Shelter Program – a temporary shelter set up in a church basement where volunteers provide a warm meal, and the homeless then sleep on thin mats on the church floor. Charlie and I began to talk about high school and my student volunteers. He was more than impressed that students and staff woudl volunteer. I then pointed out that the chef in the kitchen was also our high school principal. He could not believe it – this was not his view of high school principals. When he grew up, the principal was the disciplinarian. He lacked compassion and seemed to care more about order and rules than the students themselves. A minute later, Charlie lowered his voice and whispered to me “See this?”. At the same time, he made a slight gesture and gently slid his dinner knife forward by an inch along the plastic table. Feeling like I was living a scene from Prison Break I whispered back “Your knife?”
“Yup – got myself into trouble taking one of these into the principal’s office!”
“I can imagine that didn’t turn out well”
“Not so much”
“I’m assuming you mean when you were in high school?”
“No – as a parent. That man touched my boy. My son came home and told me what happened. No one believed me. The cops said I was a simple drunk. But one year later I was watching the news and that same man was arrested for molesting two more boys. I had told them but they just didn’t believe me.”
And just like so many other times, I could see that this man was reliving the pain that he can’t move past. Again, I recognized that homelessness is so much more than financial struggles – it is about pain, emotional suffering and disconnection from loved ones. Charlie was stuck – and life had moved on without him.
As Christmas was approaching we offered Charlie the chance to send messages to loved ones. Charlie took up the offer to write a card. He decided to write a card to his granddaughter. He spoke of how proud he was to have her in his life. He explained that when he is sober, his daughter lets him walk his granddaughter to her Coquitlam elementary school. Looking at the state of Charlie, I doubted whether he really walked on and off the elementary grounds each morning, but I was happy that Charlie believed this to be true.
The next morning, I had a meeting to attend so I left home a little later than normal. As I drove along Lougheed just after 8:30 AM I noticed a man walking with purpose. As I slowed for the red light, I glanced over only to see Charlie on his way to school with his granddaughter. Hand in hand they walked, ready for a new day. This time, Charlie walked towards school with a smile. As I sat at the light, I cried, ashamed of my own ignorance. I had judged Charlie by his appearance. Again, I realized that we are the ones that benefit the most when we go Beyond HELLO and get to know the homeless. I smiled, happy that Charlie had learned to trust schools again.