Common sense and reality sometimes butt heads

My friend has three case workers assigned to him yet he still lives in the ravine.

Spring has arrived! Although you wouldn’t know it from the weather. The winter of 2013-14 has been one of the roughest on record, well, at least as far as I can remember. I’m fairly sick of it by now. Come on sun!

But my feelings of sick and tiredness are nothing compared to my homeless friend who lives in the ravine. He’s been there all winter long, in a lean-to shack made from old carpets and throwaway lumber. Well, he was living there, until he showed up on our front porch crying and in pain with his feet an infected mess of open sores and ripped-up skin. Now he’s sleeping on our sofa.

The last time this happened to him was a couple of years ago. I took him to emergency at the hospital downtown. It was, however, a fairly useless endeavour. He waited eight hours, only to be sent back to his lean-to with a prescription he couldn’t fill. Within the month he was in crisis again. That’s ancient history and I’ve written about it before.

The upside to that episode was he finally found a room. You can’t call it an apartment with a shared kitchen and bathroom. But he lost it at the beginning of the winter because he got tangled up on the wrong side of the law. It’s a long story and part of the public record. Truth is, he needs more than a room. I’ve written about that, too.

I’ve talked to people involved with his care, but they don’t tell me anything because, well, who am I? Privacy issues you know. And I get that. So I tell them what I think needs to happen. I figure I’m doing them a favour. I try to fill in the blanks for them, as someone who’s been on the scene for at least 10 years. I don’t think they appreciate my help. In fact, I think I drive them nuts. And to be honest, I’m not that nice. I start out nice, but our conversations deteriorate rapidly.

I’ve asked him many times if I can tell his story. He always says yes, and I have from time to time, to illustrate what is not working with the way we do things.

I’m not a social worker or public health nurse. I don’t have any special skills or inside knowledge about what it means to be homeless or to suffer from a mental health disability. I only have what my mother, who was a nurse, called “common sense.” It was something she insisted we develop. “Use your common sense” she’d say, always in relation to some stupid question we asked or dumb thing we did. I understand “common sense” has fallen by the wayside as a trait we should be cultivating, but old habits die hard.

Common sense tells me that it isn’t right to for a person to sleep in a lean-to shack in the ravine during the hardest winter in almost 50 years. Common sense tells me everyone needs a warm, dry place to sleep. Common sense tells me that if a person stinks because their clothes haven’t been washed in months, chances are it will be difficult to get an apartment. Common sense tells me that you don’t send people who have restricted income to look at apartments outside their income. Common sense tells me that if you’re living in the ravine in the winter, you better have some heavy-duty footwear. Common sense tells me that people who suffer from mental health issues often have no insight into those issues and need special help. For some people common sense is an elusive thing.

It’s not my job to take him in and give a bath. Nor is it my guy’s job to take him to the laundromat and wash his clothes. It’s not our job to make sure he has appropriate footwear and a dry place to sleep. That sounds harsh, but he has a worker for that.

In fact, he has at least three workers and he still spent the whole winter in the ravine. One went down and took pictures of his lean-to. One sees him almost every week. One sits behind desk. For months, my friend has made no secret to me that he wants out of the ravine and into an apartment, so I don’t know what the holdup can be. Anything is better than where he is.

That’s just common sense.

Margaret Shkimba is a writer who lives in Hamilton, She can be reached at or you can “Friend” her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter (@menrvasofia)