It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the man I used to call Jesus, years in fact. When I first moved to Winnipeg in the early 1990’s he was already a fixture on the Osborne Village sidewalks. He was always dressed for the cold it seemed, ratty old blue parka, beat up winter boots and a heavy beard.
He was always dirty of course, living on the margins of society for so long. His hair was normally pretty wild and natty. But for some strange reason I found him to be the most agreeable person on the street those days. Most panhandlers back then were pretty aggressive. They would get in your face demanding a smoke or some of the hard-earned change in your pocket. All the while wearing ratty clothes but somehow the new sneakers gave them away. They may have experimented with the lifestyle but they sure were not living it the way he did.
Living on the streets for a night or two I think most people could imagine, but this man lived day in and day out on and around Osborne Village for as long as anyone I spoke to could remember. Rumours abounded that he had a family once, that he had a job, a nice house and a car. All of those things that society uses to judge us a success or a failure. Now he just survived.
For those of you that do not understand the weather in Winnipeg let me tell you with no hint of jest that winters here are more than just a nuisance they can kill. On a beautiful winters day, sun shining with blue sky as far as the eye can see the temperatures often drop below -40. When it’s that cold it’s seek shelter or die.
Somehow this man, this legend of the street had managed to survive. When I would walk down the streets bundled up in the cold like any sane person I naturally avoid groups of vagrants. Never knowing if a simple conversation over loose change would turn ugly. But for this man I often crossed the street towards him. He never asked for money from me, ever. But I gave it just the same, I didn’t feel obligated to judge him like others who worked the mean streets. I felt he had suffered enough and I shared what little I could.
He always seemed most grateful, a smile crossed his dirty teeth. He may have been repugnant to look at but he was genuine in his gratitude. Most of the time he said a quick thank you and lowered his gaze back to the street where it had been moments earlier.
I am not a very spiritual man but it just seemed right to me to help this lost soul. I honestly don’t know if he drank the money away or if he used it to buy food and shelter. But for him I never worried too much about it, like John Lennon said. “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.”
I often wonder what happened to Jesus of Osborne Village. Did he finally die of exposure, or did he move on to Vancouver like so many of our homeless do? Did his family come and find him, taking him away from the life on the bitter streets? I don’t know?
What I do know though is that there are people on our streets now, some by choice, some by circumstance. Try not to judge too harshly in these coming weeks. It’s cold out there and it’s Christmas time, do what you can to help if you feel it in your heart.
One of the better foundations here in Winnipeg dedicated to helping the homeless is the Ladybug Foundation. Founded by Hanna Taylor, a child who wondered where the homeless went to eat, and decided to help out. Her story is one of boundless enthusiasm and compassion. She was not afraid of the homeless she saw them as human, as someone who needed help. If you have it in you to give, hers is a worthy cause.
I’ll get down off my soap box now. Thanks for listening.
P.S. Heres a little music to help you think about the problem of homelessness courtesy of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.