On Sunday, I was returning home from a wonderful weekend with friends in Lanark county, Ontario. While traveling along a rural stretch of road, I turned south at the junction of routes 15 and 32. There on the side of the road stood an older man who appeared to be in need of a ride. In that moment, I experienced this overwhelming feeling which compelled me to stop.
At the man’s feet were three bags, one of which appeared to be a sleeping bag. I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for him to come up to my window. He approached in a cautious manner, stating that he was looking for a ride to some town that I was unfamiliar with. I was heading for the U.S. border at the Thousand Islands Crossing and would take him in that direction if it would help.
This was agreeable to him, and he loaded his belongings into my pickup. As he climbed in, I asked for his name. Eugene, he answered as we shook hands and he settled in for the ride. Eugene was short in stature, a bit portly and a little disheveled. I later learned that he is 59 yrs of age, and looked it every bit, if not older. That aside, I noticed that within his eyes, there remained a sparkle. As he spoke, I became aware of an underdeveloped side of him that was childlike.
Eugene immediately broke into small talk as he asked me questions about the upcoming presidential race taking place here in the United States. I have to smile as I reflect upon his exuberance for the shit show that is American politics, especially given his more pressing personal concerns. While it was apparent that Eugene was down on his luck, what he shared next I found difficult to accept.
He told me that he was homeless, which was fairly evident by his appearance. It wasn’t lost on me that all his worldly possessions were here within the cab of my pickup. He then shared that he’s been homeless for more than ten years now. I wondered what happened to change his life in such a dramatic way.
He told me that he doesn’t want to be homeless and doesn’t enjoy living this way, without a place to rest or call home. I thought that we had a social safety net established in our society, so why couldn’t he find help? Apparently, he had been turned away on numerous occasions by the governmental agencies which claim that he was not eligible for assistance. Eugene told me that he’s willing to work, and will take the odd job when he can find one. He had injured his back, and combined with his advancing age; it’s difficult for him to compete for jobs that are physical in nature.
Eugene shared with much pride that he doesn’t smoke or drink. Even so, evidence of the years of living this way appeared as deeply etched lines upon his face. In our short drive together, I discovered so much about this lost soul, a nomadic traveling man.
Eugene had made his way across much of the Canadian countryside, hitchhiking from coast to coast. He shared that he has spent time in lower Alberta which has been my home away from home for the last several years. He spoke of his mixed experiences with local law enforcement, ranging from indifference to outright cruelty.
One incident he described occurred while he was looking for shelter from the brutal Canadian winter. On this particular evening, he took refuge inside the lobby of a post office. It was the only place he could find that would provide him with warmth and shelter from the cold. Someone took notice and reported his presence there to the police. The RCMP arrived, promptly removing him from the premises and locking him in a jail cell for the evening. On the bright side, he wasn’t turned out into the elements to freeze to death.
I asked Eugene if he had any friends or family that he could turn to. He has a ninety-year-old mother who doesn’t want him in her apartment. He has three siblings who want nothing to do with him. He also feels that there is no one in his life that he considers to be a true friend. He is without community and has no sense of belonging.
During our time together, I sincerely searched for any possible solutions to his situation. I encouraged him to seek out some form of reliable shelter as it’s now September, and winter is just around the corner. I suggested that he might head to the West coast, maybe try Vancouver or somewhere winter is a little milder in comparison to that of Ontario.
Eugene told me it was too expensive to live out there. I made other suggestions, and most of my ideas seemed to have one flaw or another with them. Admittedly, I felt a sense of failure in not being able to find an acceptable resolution to his immediate dilemma. I reminded myself that a decade of living in a certain mindset is not likely to be shifted by a single, brief conversation.
Eugene has proven himself to be resilient and resourceful over the past decade, enduring countless hardships. Though he is a survivor, he also seems resigned to his present circumstances in life. He remains determined to forge ahead on his own path, and in his own unique way.
I imagine that even the strongest and healthiest among us would be hard pressed to last ten days living homeless, let alone surviving for ten years. Eugene has lived in a day-to-day battle to scratch out a meager existence, manifesting his basic needs seemingly out of thin air. Though he has proven himself, I wonder for how much longer can he continue to defy the odds.
When the first snowflakes begin to fall this season, my thoughts will turn to Eugene. Somewhere out in the unforgiving elements, this gentle soul will face yet another trial by the brutal Canadian winter. Will he find a way to survive until the spring, when the warm winds blow and the world renews?
In our parting, it was difficult to find adequate words. I told him that I wish there were more that I could do to help. I said to him, ” I can tell you are a good man and I wish you well.” He left with a smile, in gratitude, and seemingly content in his path. I had provided him with a short a break from his walking and a little closer to his destination. Though I question if even Eugene knew where he is going. We waved goodbye to each other and I watched him fade from view in my mirror.
“I brought you along on this ride with me, so that I may whisper to your soul, much Love to you my friend.”
The video below captures the moment a little girl notices a homeless man outside the restaurant where her family is dining. The girl asks her father if she can give her meal to the man.