Facts & Arguments – Nov. 2, 2006

Designer java for a regular Joe

Much of what we’re told is suffering is actually just choice masquerading as suffering.


Twice in the past week I’ve found myself standing in line behind a homeless person at an expensive café. While I owe much to the noble coffee bean, I try not to drink chain-store brew — nothing pretentious, it’s just too expensive for my budget. Besides, the best-kept coffee secret in my town is a little joint that sells organic, locally-roasted Joe for a buck a cup.

Sadly, I just needed quarters for the laundry machines. And early Sunday morning, when banks and shops are closed and most residents still asleep, expensive chain cafés are one of the few places to get quarters.

Sunday, as I stood calculating just how many loads needed to be done, I watched as the homeless man in front of me (it’s true I made an assumption, but his odour, demeanour, and dress would be admissible evidence in any court of public opinion) ordered and waited for a grande vanilla latte ($4.85) and a low-fat fruit bar ($1.85).

Avoiding all eye contact, he dropped a large handful of nickels, dimes, and — yes! — quarters on to the counter. Good fortune for the next man in line, tasked with the day’s laundry duties.

He grabbed his steaming beverage as it arrived, snatched the bagged fruit bar from the clerk, left a few nickels and dimes behind on the counter, and darted out the door without saying a word. He got his morning bean, I got his quarters, and everyone was happy (except perhaps the two young women behind the counter who wrinkled their noses long after he left).

Let’s face it: everyone needs a caffeine jolt once in a while, even the homeless. What’s the point of spending all your time begging for change, sleeping in parks, and living on the streets (which can’t be easy or pleasant at the best of times) if you can’t treat yourself to a cup of grossly overpriced coffee once in a while?

I’d even go so far to say a morning cup of coffee (or tea, if one prefers) should be a Charter right, enshrined: One cup for all. A true egalitarian gesture; a leveller of the coffee-drinking playing field.

But the ritual (I call it that now) of watching homeless people on their way out of expensive cafés, oversized to-go cup in hand and a kind of false shame in their eyes, has become much more common these days. I’ve seen it several times this week alone. And while many tax-paying citizens might be upset or angered by this apparent contradiction (“The poor should act poor!”), I think it’s great. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Years ago I used to worry much about the homeless, the result of an encounter with a kindly old man when I was about four years old: “Dad, why is that man digging in the garbage can?” I asked.

“Because he has nothing to eat,” was my father’s characteristically blunt response. We kept driving, but I never forgot the image, the answer, or the man.

But after talking to a self-proclaimed “street refugee” who squeegees windshields during the day and panhandles for change during the night, I learned that today’s homeless have a lot more disposable income to spend. “I make an easy 20 bucks an hour either way, when it’s busy,” one young lady told me as she washed the cracked windshield of my 14-year-old car.

And so she should. After all, these are heady economic times, boom years in the truest sense. Just this morning I was sitting in a very un-trendy café, sipping my coffee, and reading (in a borrowed newspaper) about the Canada-wide labour shortage. Canada, it seems, is importing workers: from Mexico to pick fruit, from Germany to build bridges, from the U.S. to manage companies, and from just about everywhere else to do just about everything else.

If the homeless can’t benefit from this economic windfall and set aside a little more of their disposable income to enjoy an expensive cup of coffee now and then, when can they?

But regardless of my own circumstances (freelance writers rarely make 20 bucks an hour on a good day) each time I see a homeless person sipping on a latte, grooving to tunes played on an unseen MP3 player, or feeding their companion animal expensive canned dog food (mine gets the cheap dry stuff) I don’t get upset. I feel good.

This is how I know that much of what we’re told is suffering is actually just choice masquerading as suffering. And how can we feel bad for people who make their own choices?

Of course, not every homeless person chooses a life on the street. Many are there for reasons far beyond their control: mental illness, drug addiction, health problems, poverty. In these circumstances, there are few choices. But in many Canadian cities, a growing majority of those on the streets could probably choose to be elsewhere, if given an incentive to make that choice. Alas, freedom of choice poorly exercised is still freedom, and still a choice.

But no matter. The homeless cappuccino-drinkers I often chat with have reinforced a long-standing belief (or maybe a bias, I’m still not sure) that there are few truly hungry on the streets of any Canadian city. Whether right or wrong, misinformed or wishful, this is the inescapable conclusion that keeps me, and many others as well, walking right past those cardboard “Spare Change? Need Food” signs without a second thought.

Many years ago I learned first-hand that the truly hungry — financially and otherwise — are invisible. They live in run-down houses and government-subsidized apartment buildings, they shop for used children’s clothing and toys, they skip meals or shoplift frozen pork chops so their families might eat, and they do what they can to make ends meet while holding on to their dignity.

These are the people who deserve our thoughts, our compassion, our understanding, and above all our help. But we walk right past.

So hat’s off to the latte-and-fruit-bar homeless (call it a subculture).

It’s not easy doing what they do in these times of nationwide economic growth, prosperity, and labour shortages. Indeed, they deserve a break. Don’t we all?

Dan G. Hilton lives in Victoria, B.C.

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This essay on the Globe and Mail site.



Philip’s response to this essay.



7 Responses to “Facts & Arguments – Nov. 2, 2006”

  1. […] “Yuck. Not worth the wait if you know what I mean.” Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Showing his woundHomeless Man ThanksTwo […]

  2. Ame Says:

    Re: Designer Java for a Regular Joe Nov.2, 2006
    “If this province wasn’t so ultraconservative and didn’t see every homeless person as a druggie or alcoholic then I think the whole province would be a lot better. Unfortunately, that’s what they see and that’s what they think and that’s what they write in the newspaper” – Doug, Homeless.
    And write they do, at least Dan Hilton does. he Designer Java for a Regular Joe straightforwardly asserts that people are homeless because of “their own choices” and aren’t truly as poor as we’re made to believe. An example of how prejudice against homelessness is all too prevalent and sadly misdirected. However, homelessness has been growing globally, figures indicate that the total number of homeless people in Canada on any given night is probably of the order of tens and thousands, and has been growing rapidly almost six times faster than the overall population of Canada (Statistics Canada,2008). Unfortunately as homelessness increases, so does misconceived stereotypes and stigmatization of the homeless. Sweeping generalizations like “there are few truly hungry on the streets of Canadian cities” is a poor and inadequate representation of the truly homeless and has a severe impact on poverty initiatives. Hilton’s article redirects the lens of poverty onto the individual and blames them for their weaknesses, further contributing to stereotypes that exist for these individuals which hinders the ability for the needy to seek financial assistance. He establishes a binary between individuals living on the streets to those in subsidized living will only create further polarization between the deserving and the undeserving.This is dangerous as it’s hard to calculate who the homeless truly are. Studies conducted state that one-fourth of homeless individuals have gone in and out of homelessness numerous times, the rest experiencing a first or second episode which lasted more than a year(Dragan,2002). This highlights the diversity of the homeless population and proves; no model stereotype or labels could possibly exist contrary to Hilton’s belief. Hilton has glorified homelessness as a mere choice, yet the prevalence of mental illness 25-50% and substance abuse between 50-70% in homeless individuals refutes his assumption (Gelberg,2000) Homeless persons are vulnerable to victimization such as harassment, violence and abuse by members of the general public for simply being homeless(Fischer,1992).The daily struggles they must face is a hardship in itself and they shouldn’t be forced to suffer further by articles that inaccurately represent them. Hilton’s ignorance to poverty as being a serious issue is baffling to me as a Toronto citizen living downtown as well as a student studying social work, and the combination of the two has opened my eyes to the severity of poverty in our country. It’s difficult to live in an urban centre and not see the conditions or lack of conditions some people live in every single day. Individuals sleeping on a subway vent to maintain warmth hardly sounds like an appealing choice. Becoming or remaining homeless is not a choice but a result of a combination of community and societal factors (Eberle,2001).Homelessness has been labelled as a national disaster by Canadian mayors in 1998, yet anti-poverty attempts have remained at a standstill (CMHA,2004). Programs established are focused on serving people who are already homeless, yet if assistance is restricted solely to those homeless tonight not much can be done for those who are homeless tomorrow. Advocates argue that if all governments increase their spending on housing by 1% of overall spending, homelessness could be eliminated in 5 years ( Dagan,2002). However, the silence of our society denying homelessness as an issue works to exclude the experiences and lived realities of the homeless and hinders strategies to effectively deal with the homelessness crisis. Denial of poverty as a social crisis must be re-examined and there must be pressure to invest in prevention and more affordable housing. We must lose the stigmas that are so sadly attached to homeless individuals and rectify the crisis that Canada is in.

  3. […] Posts A fine balanceFacts & Arguments – Nov. 2, 2006One more timeHomeless man drinks his first lattéAfter I undressed herCalling Ralph on the big white […]

  4. I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I definitely will post a link to that page on my blog. I am certain my visitors can find that really valuable.

    • Ame Says:

      Thank you!
      This article outraged me as a social work student to the extent that I wrote a policy response to it.

      I appreciate your interest in the article.

  5. Julie Says:

    It should be ok to question a homeless individuals decision making just as we quesiton the decision making of anyone else. If someone is obese we look to their diet and exercise choices in order to help them. If we placed blame entirely on society for an individual’s obesity that removes their own personal self-determination. In the same way that religious faith cannot be called into question, some seem to think that the homeless are equally untouchable. That kind of thinking hurts the very people you profess to help.

    Before you judge me, be aware that I was homeless in my teens and came out of it not by being encouraged to blame society but rather by building my own will from within. The best help I got was from a youth empoloyment centre that showed me how to put a resume together and look for a job. Once I started working I never looked back. By building strength from within I have built a very comfortable and secure life for myself. This is what people need most.

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