Monday, April 14, 2008
Problems are fixed when people have a place to live
April 11, 2008
They call him Ishmael, and he’s OK with that. “Ishmael, the unwanted child,” he explains, pulling a Bible from his backpack as he tells the story of Abraham’s outcast son.
He picked up the nickname while living in Toronto’s infamous Tent City a few years ago. He liked that people found it easier to pronounce than his given name, and that they weren’t always asking him how to spell it. So “Ishmael” it was.
He built his house in Tent City for the grand total of $200, scrounging most of the materials out of other people’s garbage. As we chat in the coffee shop at the University of Victoria library, he brings out his laptop to show me photos of his little dream house from that period - a tidy, tiny structure complete with granite and marble floors, a woodstove, an outhouse, and a rosemary bush thriving in the front garden (photo above).
The media were reporting hundreds of people living in Tent City back in those days, but Ishmael figures it was actually about 80. The campers lived on the Toronto lakefront for three years on vacant property owned by Home Depot before being evicted in 2002.
Ishmael had moved in after finding himself out of rent money and in between jobs, and stayed for a year and a half. For him, it was the perfect situation, and in his opinion far more cost-effective than the “current idiocy” of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of homelessness without ever solving the problems.
“When I was in Toronto, it cost $80 a night to keep me at the Salvation Army for two and a half years. That’s 1,000 nights - $80,000 in all - yet I was still as homeless on the day I left as when I arrived,” he says. “Here in Victoria, they’ve got a van that goes around at night handing out soup and sandwiches. But it costs [taxpayers] $12 a head for that soup and sandwich. I could buy the same thing at Quizno’s for half the price.”
These days, Ishmael spends virtually all of his daytime hours at the UVic library. He’s found a place to sleep in the Western Communities, but needs to keep a low profile so the property owner doesn’t spot him. So every day he hops a bus to the university and spends long hours browsing the library stacks.
“I don’t smoke, don’t do dope, don’t drink. You’ve got to occupy yourself somehow, so I’m doing this. And I am a bookworm, so it suits me,” says Ishmael, whose favourite writer is Thomas Jefferson. “I’ve got quite a book collection that I drag around with me, including some rare and hard-to-find volumes.”
He’s not sure why he lives like he does, but recognized years ago that he could no longer count on holding down a job long enough to pay his rent.
It wasn’t always that way. After immigrating to Canada from Germany in 1983, he landed a job quickly and was able to buy himself a house within a couple of years.
“But in 1990, I just kind of died,” he says. “They tell me I’m somebody who fell between the cracks. There’s a reason for every one of us to be on the street. A lot of us are really 12-year-old children in adult bodies.”
Ishmael jokes that he was a drifter throughout the 1990s, “then a new century started and I became a vagrant.” But he works when he can, and is currently making do on savings from the $7,000 he earned last year doing odd jobs. He refuses to go on welfare; socialism is “the philosophy of the parasite,” he tells me emphatically.
He’s 51 now, and no longer sure that his 2005 move to B.C. was a good idea. He’d ridden his bicycle from Toronto to Vancouver - a 44-day sojourn - after seeing televised images of the city and finding himself drawn to it.
But things haven’t worked out as planned. He built another tiny house in the woods of Metchosin, but that’s lost to him now. He swapped farm labour for a small wage and a place to live on the Peninsula for a time, but then he and the owner got into an argument and that was that. He’s thinking he might end up back in Toronto if he can find the bus fare, and get a room again at the Salvation Army.
I ask him what he’d suggest for readers wanting to know what part they can play in ending homelessness. Hire people, he says. (Call Cool Aid’s Community Casual Labour Pool at 388-9296 for more information.)
And if you’ve got a little bit of land where a wanderer might settle for a while, he’s all ears.