Like a lot of neighbourhoods, mine has a Facebook group. It’s the usual smattering of area news, lost pets, offers of hand-me-down baby clothes and requests for local recommendations. One reason mine may differ from yours is a different sort of reports we get from time to time.
My neighbourhood is east of downtown Toronto, not far from Lake Ontario. I moved here about a year ago from a somewhat sleepier southeastern area of the city. My entire family was excited for the adventures the new hood would hold. The new house is very close to restaurants, cool shops and attractions, as well as biking and walking trails. It’s well situated for using public transit. It’s also been in transition for around 15 years from very working class to young families and yuppies (yes, I include myself in both categories for the purposes of this piece). While we have yoga studios and bean-sniffer coffee shops, hipster bars and music venues, we also have a large last generation population of people in community-assisted living, who are insecurely-housed or have substance abuse or mental health issues. It’s an unfortunately perfect example of gentrification, that I’m aware makes me part of the problem. I feel very lucky to live in a nice home on a nice street with many amazing and interesting neighbours. And I’m sure the oldtimers on our street look at us all with yuppie-disgust. While we all brought our kids and two cars to crowd the sidewalks and take up the street parking, paying top dollar for teardowns has driven up property taxes, we’re also responsible for rolling over the resale value of their mortgage-free houses several times.
The Ugly Reality
So, last summer, my community Facebook group had a post that woke me up to the reality of my neighbourhood. It was a single sentence and a photo that read “Looks like there was a party last night” and the image showed several used syringes and scattered refuse including alcohol swabs and small baggies. The location was a very public park on a busy street a short walk from my house. While I lack no naiveté, I was more than a little shocked to see this and my immediate thoughts shot to my kids. Not just of them discovering the detritus of intravenous drug use but of their general safety in our new neighbourhood. I also admit that it made me angry. It made me think that junkies are selfish assholes. All my compassion vanished in a few seconds because I thought of my children. I thought so deep that it pulled me back to think about these addicts as people again – as other people’s children.
I live in a sprawling city with several million people. I have no expectation that homelessness and addiction are things that happens or should happen somewhere else. With the skyrocketing costs of living in this city, I know that it’ll get worse, before it can ever get better. I hate feeling like I have no idea how that’ll happen. I know that we all have to not just coexist with people living on the margins, we need to help them. I mean real help. Like opening up the city coffers and making sure everyone has a place to live and food to eat. Yes, I will happily pay more taxes for this to happen. I believe that there are some people who just cannot take care of themselves and that those who can are responsible for those who cannot.
My kids have always shown compassion for a person asking for spare change. They used to ask us if we could give them money. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. No matter what, we never shied away from, demeaned or scolded these people and tried our best to explain why they would be in this situation. We still do, but it’s taken a different turn. As my kids have grown older and have spent more time walking around downtown, they both now show more than a healthy amount of fear. It’s understandable. I don’t expect a child to be able to discern the all the differences between a mentally-ill person screaming obscenities on the streetcar from someone sitting on a bench in front of a pharmacy asking for change for something to eat. To be honest, I’d rather they feel the need to flee than be concerned about hurting someone’s feelings.
Doing What We Can
I know that there are some people reading this in horror.
The world can be scary, especially for kids, but arguably more for parents. Things race through my mind when my son takes longer than 5 minutes to respond to a text that would never occur to him. But as he once said, there’s no such thing as a safe space, only safe people. Smart kid. If you surround yourself with, or better, create safe people, that’s arguably the best security you can offer. I have and will continue to steel them against but not hide their eyes from the ugly side that exists not far from our door. I want my children to be confident enough to take public transit by themselves. I want them to see that not everyone is like them or their friends and family. I need them to understand that the lives they have make them luckier than most people on the planet.
I know that as adults all these lessons will make them more assured, tune their ability to read people, thicken their personal armour and give them a life in a city where they’ll come to appreciate art, be surrounded by culture and befriend and understand people of all kinds.
This is the foundation I can give them right now to build them up for the world in which I can imagine they’ll have to live. Just like the post I wrote regarding being a feminist dad, I’m sure that I’ll come back to this one over the months and years.