Give Me Shelter

Chances are if you’re reading this, you have a roof over your head and a warm comfortable bed to sleep in on a cold winter’s night.   But what if you were reading this on a computer at the library and after the closing announcement is made, you have nowhere else to go.   Do you join the other homeless people sleeping on the street?   What if you decided to stay right there in the library, which after all is for the Public. 

That is the premise for the movie, The Public, a 2018 entry at the Toronto International Film Festival.    (We have a local theatre which shows TIFF selections the following winter.  It’s nice to see some of these lesser known indie films.  I need to add TIFF to my bucket list).  

The Public video   Homeless

After one of their friends is found dead from hypothermia, a group of homeless people decide to stage a protest and occupy the library in downtown Cincinnati to escape the freezing cold.   Starring an ensemble cast, the film was written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who plays the role of the head librarian.   While the movie is a Hollywood version with perhaps not the best acting (with so many characters there’s not much time for character development), it’s worth a look, if only for it’s focus on such an timely topic.    (see Trailer at the end)

Homelessness is a growing problem everywhere, fueled by the increases in drug addiction and mental illness.   In many cities, rents are high and vacancies few.   Even in my own small city the homeless shelters are often full and they are planning extensions to meet the demand.   When there’s no room at the inn, the city has to cough up money to pay for stays in motel rooms – 99 people in total last year.   Sometimes the shelters don’t have any female beds.  Sometimes they’re not centrally located.   Some have strict rules on drugs and alcohol, some don’t.   It’s a complex problem and one not likely to get better anytime soon.

My first glimpse of a homeless person was decades ago looking down from the window of my hotel room near Times Square.   There was a man rooting through a garbage can and another one curled up sleeping in a doorway.  I remember being horrified.    (I’m reminded of the opening scene of the 2006 memoir The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, (link) where the author is riding in a taxi cab in New York City and sees her mother going through the garbage cans.  If you’ve not read this book it’s a riveting read about her escape from a childhood of poverty, much better than the movie version).    Homelessness used to be a big city problem but now every city and town is dealing with the same issue and the ones you see sleeping on the street are just the tip of the iceberg.   Many times the problem is a hidden one as the couch surfers and car sleepers are not as visible.      

The street people are not so common in my city that I don’t notice them.  Although they seem to congregate in certain areas downtown where I seldom go at night unless to the theatre, I have noticed a few about during the daytime with all their worldly possessions loaded onto a cart.   Once I was at the farmers market and a woman was approaching people outside asking for money to buy food.   I gave her ten dollars but wondered if it would go for food or drugs?   A friend of mine gives out Tim Horton’s gift cards for this reason.  Recently a Tim Horton’s franchise was in the news after posting a notice on the door that patrons were not to linger longer than thirty minutes.  There was such a backlash that it was quickly taken down.  Of course the senior men’s coffee club members were upset, but it wasn’t aimed at them.  It was aimed at the homeless.  They had overstayed their welcome.   I remember seeing one young man, looking like hell on a bender, begging in front of the mall – someone’s son.    Last March there was a middle aged man holding a cardboard sign – Need Money for Food and Rent – at a busy intersection near Walmart.   He was there for weeks, with all the cars driving past him in the pouring rain, and the sad thing is there was a church just down the street which I’m sure must have tried to assist him.   Imagine how destitute you would have to be to resort to that.    Can you help people who don’t want to help themselves, who are just looking for the next fix.   While our Canadian government finances free injection sites and naloxone overdose kits, funded by tax dollars, we don’t even have a Rehab program for those who do want help.    They’ve been talking about it for years. 

Obviously there are no easy answers, but the homeless shelter here is working on solutions.   It has programs which will try to find affordable housing and help with rent and utility bills.   How many people are just one pay cheque away from being evicted?   You can get food from the food bank or the soup kitchen and clothes from the thrift store, but the rent must be paid and a little financial assistance with overdue bills just might keep another person off the street.   A Circles social program has also been started, aiming to break the cycle of poverty by means of personal support for a family or individual.   It’s a small dent in a big problem but at least they’re trying.  

When I returned the DVD to the library, I asked the library staff about their personal experiences.   While not really an issue at my small branch, those who worked downtown at the main branch mentioned them coming in to get out of the cold and using the washroom in the mornings to clean up, (a scene depicted in the movie).   They said there was always a box of donated gloves, scarfs, socks and toiletries for anyone to take if needed.   One even told me they gave someone a ride to the homeless shelter one night as the buses had stopped running by the time the library closed.   In the opening sequence of the movie there’s an old 50’s black and white newsreel, which talked about careers and the role of the Public library.    I’m sure no librarian back then envisioned that particular type of social assistance would one day become part of their job description.   

If you enjoy a movie with a message, you might enjoy The Public, and no matter how good or bad your day has been, when you go to bed tonight be grateful for a warm bed to sleep in.       

PS.  (Be forewarned, there are a few scenes in the movie which some people might find objectionable).             (1100 words)

Trailer for The Public:

 

 

  

 

 

 

20 thoughts on “Give Me Shelter

  1. Anne says:

    We come face to face with widespread poverty in this country. I never fail to be grateful for my home and a bed to sleep in as a result. When I see individuals holding up signs, such as you mention, whilst standing at busy intersections in the city with their eyes gazing into nowhere, I keep wondering about their families and friends … why do they not appear to have a support system. You pose an important question: can you help people who don’t want to help themselves?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      I think that’s part of the reason why the Rehab program never gets funded or even started here. Our hospital has set aside 7 mental health beds for withdrawal, but it’s just a revolving door, come in, dry out for a few days, then back out on the streets getting another fix. I don’t really agree with handing out (millions of dollars so far) free naloxone overdose kits – yes it saves lives but isn’t it just enabling them to use more and stronger drugs/fentanyl? Knowing they have a safety net. I’d rather the funding for the supervised injection sites go to nursing/old age homes. Each overdose kit is $60 but a fentanyl patch on the street is worth $400. How do they get the money to buy that? Theft, break-ins all fueled by desperation, so the police spend all their time fighting that. I think a lot of them some sort of mental illness and if they have any family perhaps they have alienated them somehow, or maybe don’t even know where they are. It becomes the same scenario – can you help a mentally ill person who doesn’t want any help? I worked in healthcare for 40 years, but the last ten were rough with the increases in narcotic abuse, so I have grown a bit cynical in my old age. As for the widespread poverty in your country, our provincial government was trying to establish a living wage for the working poor. Canada tends to be a more socialist country, so we most likely have more social service/welfare programs here than you do, but correct me if I’m wrong? There is help available here, is someone wants it.

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  2. www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

    Thank you, Joni, for your oh-so-timely post. Even small towns are forced to grapple with the homeless / mental health / drug situation. Yes, the public library is a wonderful place to while away the hours during business hours, but afterwards where do these folks go? There, but for the grace of God, could go I (to paraphrase). One possible solution in my town in Washington state is a county jail built near the Fairgrounds but never opened as such. It’s being refurbished inside as suitable habitation for homeless, but that will take time. I, for one, will be glad when that’s available — but that’s assuming they want to be helped.

    The movie preview looks familiar, by the way. I believe Hubby and I saw it this past fall. The actual film hasn’t arrived here yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      That’s an excellent idea re the jail. They are renovating an old YMCA here but have to divide it into a men’s and a women’s side as currently they do not have any female beds. We have two shelters, one has lots of funding but strict rules, the other church sponsored one at the YMCA will take in anyone, but they don’t have female beds so have to kick them out at 11pm. The homeless in the movie were all men, except for one token female. I forgot to mention in my post about how many of the poor and working poor use the library for the computers alone…to check email, apply for jobs online etc. If you can’t afford a computer, where else do you go – the library. Also to use the free wi-fi. The previous provincial government was working on a living wage policy here – minimum wage took a big increase to $14/hr last year, it was supposed to go to $15 but a change of government halted it as many small business owners couldn’t absorb the increase.

      Liked by 1 person

      • www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

        Oh, yes! I’ve used our library’s computers a number of times when my own was on the blink or in the shop or just sitting here in its nonworking stubbornness. Of course, I maintain my membership privileges as a library patron. Can the homeless obtain a library card? I hope so. It’s a wonderful place to “hide out” among books and newspapers in a sunny reading room. The downtown library, especially, has a wall of tall windows on the east and south sides; and the south end is the children’s library. On some winter days so cold I can’t keep warm enough at home, I’m often tempted to drive down to the library and “camp out” there — that is, if the sun is out bright.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Writer of words says:

    Thought provoking post. We have a few locals whom everyone knows around our neighbourhood, people sometimes buy them coffee and a sandwich or give them some loose change. I think the problem is much bigger than anyone dares to consider….also the Daily Bread Food Bank isn’t far from this neighbourhood either. So constant reminders how inadequate the system really is for those who have no home.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lindasschaub says:

    Very interesting post Joni – I had not heard of this movie, nor the book you referenced at the link you provided. We have a lot of homeless in our City, but I saw them all the time when I worked down in Detroit. This was right in the central business district of Detroit. When we had the Superbowl in Detroit in 2006, the police went around and gathered all the homeless people up and carried them off to hotels in the suburbs, far away from the media that gathered for the event. They did not want the media to see our homeless crisis. I was at Memorial Park last Summer. I read about their butterfly garden that was planted and wanted to see the newly planted garden so I could return and knew right where to hone in on to see the butterflies on a warm Summer morning. But I could not do that as a family of three lived in the Park. They spoke to me and one said they slept there every night and showed me their blankets – one of them was a Vietnam veteran who could hardly move for having two legs broken while serving his tour of duty and had cancer from Agent Orange. That guy laid down on a park bench and fell asleep, the other two kind of watching over him.

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  5. annieasksyou says:

    Joni,

    This is such a valuable, timely look at a growing problem—both clear-eyed and humane in your assessment. I had somehow entirely missed the movie and hope I can locate it.
    For a long time, homeless people were not so prevalent. Their growing presence is a shameful reminder of wealth disparity and inattention to opioid addictions, mental illness, and the impact of gentrification. Sure, it’s complex, but we must address it in all its manifestations.

    I wrote recently about lovingkindness, quoting Sharon Salzburg’s observation that you may or may not decide to give a street person a dollar, but you should look at him/her and acknowledge the presence of a fellow human being. I have concluded that it’s not my business how someone got into this plight, but if my dollar or two is even a temporary balm, that’s fine with me.

    And yes; I agree The Glass Castle is well worth the read. I found the movie affecting as well.
    Thank you for this very worthwhile post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I borrowed a copy of the DVD from the library as I don’t do Netflix or Amazon Prime or any of those download services. I think part of the problem is that our social network has fallen apart – families used to take care of their own because they lived in the same area. Churches helped out more because they knew everyone in the community. It’s a different type of society now. I did read your post on lovingkindness and enjoyed it! I didn’t think the movie did the book justice, but then I’m not a Woody Harrelson fan. We’re bracing for a major snowstorm this weekend, so it’s a good time to stay in and blog and read. I can’t even imagine how anyone can live on the street. Tonight on the news there was a story about a man who was evicted from a shed he had been sleeping in. He refused to go to the homeless shelter because he had been drug free for 18 months and he said the homeless shelter was full of drugs and therefore not a good place for him. It should be an interesting week politically next week – history being made. I wonder how it will all pan out? I have a bit of hope, but not much….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ally Bean says:

    I was not aware of this movie, and it sounds profound and powerful. I have no solutions to homelessness, yet I admit that it worries me. To be homeless, dependent on the goodness of others and the government… I dunno. What do we do about it? I’m cheered to know that librarians are, in their own small way, helping those who need it. What a world…

    Liked by 1 person

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