An offer to view homelessness turns into an intimate tour of Calgary streets

The evening should have unfolded predictably. Two journalism students would follow an ex-homeless man named Gary as he “toured” Calgarians around the places he used to eat, sleep and drink.

The result would be a minute-long video clip to serve as a heart-warming reminder that there is hope for ending homelessness. 

At least three people were expected to attend the tour that night. But when no one showed up to go on the tour, Bryan — my partner — and I are suddenly faced with the prospect of having no story, and no reason to be there.

We stand despondently in the near-zero temperature, surrounded by camera equipment that our print-orientated minds struggle to understand and operate. The life of a journalist becomes significantly more daunting.

As we take shelter inside the office of Homeless Awareness Calgary, which was the organization running the “tour,” we realize that there is a second guide prepared to show the no-shows around town.

Her name is Susan, and it turns out that she’s the wife of Gary. Her short black hair and grandmother-like face stand in perfect juxtaposition to her husband’s straggly grey hair and pencil moustache. Our hearts warm with the possibility of a light-hearted story resurrected. Susan and Gary, an ex-homeless couple, shared their lives with us. They took us to the places they would frequent when part of Calgary’s homeless population.

Photo by: James Wilt.

The four of us wander the streets. Bryan awkwardly hauls the broadcast camera, while I manage to somehow run into every street lamp with the accompanying tripod.

Susan trails behind with me and tells of how she met Gary in the Royal Canadian Legion opposite the Centre Street train station. She was a bartender, and he a patron. Neither was homeless at the time. That was 11 years ago. The tales began to flow.

They sit on a bench in a darkened park on Seventh Avenue where they used to sleep.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Susan says as she reminisces on the past.

They were homeless together for almost a decade. During that time, they slept on the streets together, drank together, picked bottles together and paid $2 each for admission at the Moviedome so they could snag a couple more hours of rest. The Drop-In Centre didn’t allow them much slumber.

“It’s a good bond. It brings out your true feelings on each other,” Gary concludes in a tone that has gloominess reminiscent of the Winnie the Pooh character, Eeyore.

Susan nods in agreement and tells of how she was staying on the third floor of the Drop-In Centre when Gary had his second heart attack in detox.

Now, the couple lives in an apartment, but are struggling to pay the subsidized rent. Gary works warehouse jobs through a temp agency and the two of them continue to pick bottles to subsidize the bills. Many of their friends still live on the streets, so they also take the opportunity to hang out with them again.

A man in a blue jacket and green backpack walks into the scene as if he is cued. Susan immediately recognizes him and calls out to him. They casually banter for a couple of minutes. He yells at the camera, “I’m homeless and I’m aware of it” before wandering away.

The man — whose weathered face suggests an age far older than the 47 years he claims — returns within minutes. He carefully gives Susan a $20 bill. The couple briefly protests the gift, but relinquish the argument. Firm hugs are exchanged, and the man again departs.

“See, there are good people out there,” Gary says. “We’ve known him for a long time. It hurts my heart.” Susan tells of how one woman stopped them in an alley one morning and gave them $20 for breakfast. The giver emphasized that the money was indeed for food. Gary now lives in an apartment and works warehouse jobs through a temp agency. He cautions that availability of jobs are crucial to keep people off the streets.

Photo by: James Wilt.

The couple’s lives have reflected a similar generosity in the years since they’ve been off the streets.

Susan constantly advocates against youth homelessness in our conversation; she is considered a mom to many of the street kids. Gary reminds the camera that jobs are the key to getting the younger generation out of the shelters. Getting work was a major key for him to realize his possible future, he says.

As the four of us meander back to the starting point of the evening, Bryan and I converse. We conclude that there’s no news story here.

The irony in this case is that homelessness isn’t new at all. There were 4,060 homeless counted in Calgary in 2008, a number which has grown about 10 times since 1992. But the experiences of Gary and Susan aren’t an easy thing to shake from the mind.

The following days provide an opportunity to process the events of that Friday night. Sure, there isn’t a breaking news story here. CBC and the Calgary Herald aren’t going to assign reporters to cover the lives of Gary and Susan. But something deeper, and more meaningful, happened than the failed filming of a simple TV voice-over.

Bryan and I were given the opportunity to glimpse the lives of two extraordinary individuals who would typically be dismissed as bums and degenerates.

The smallest acts — the constant holding of hands, the occasional puffs on the cigarette, the generous donation from the homeless man — all point towards a terrifically unrecognized humanity.

Amidst the homeless, there are few disguises. What replaces the masquerades that the wealthy can afford to wear is rawness and grace. They may not smell the best. But that sweat and dirt can be a reminder to all of us that there is still love out there.

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