We Walk On By

Last Friday, caught up in afternoon foot traffic and not paying attention, I walked by.
  I had heard the banter on the morning show, earlier in the week, but, right then it did not register.
  It wasn’t until I went back for early morning coffee on Sunday that it hit me.
  There was a tent pitched next to the curb, nestled between the newspaper boxes and a trash bin, on one of the city’s busy downtown streets.
  Yes, I am aware of the plight of the homeless, and fully aware there are people living on the streets of this city beneath sleeping bags, blankets and cardboard, but this seemed so… so, permanent.
  This is what it has come to.
  This is how we live, at the close of a decade, in Toronto.
  Now I’ve seen, in the past, small tent cities under the Gardiner Expressway. I know people have chosen to camp out in out-of-the-way ravines, out of sight and out of mind of most city dwellers, but this is right out there, for everybody to see.
  I sat inside Starbucks, warm on the chilly morning, enjoying a cup of expensive coffee, and a slice of coffee cake. It was early; pigeons had only begun settling on the sidewalk and slowly people walked by the tent, not really paying attention to what is going on.
  Maybe we have become immune to the difficulties, and the pain, more and more people are experiencing each day in a city that has become increasingly less affordable?
  We all seem to have come to accept people living on the street as normal.
  We have become accustomed to homelessness.
  We walk by on the way to the office, or shopping, or on our way home to our cozy condos. We don’t acknowledge that this is all that some people have: a temporary slice of dirty cold concrete with little to protect them from the elements.
  Daily, as we walk the streets, we are approached by panhandlers, or some just sit and wait for coins to be dropped into their cups.
  Mostly we walk on by.
  I consider myself a charitable person; yet, rarely do I drop any change into the cups or open palms. I’m more inclined, now and then, to step into any of the three Salvation Army missions within the circumference of my common area and make a donation. Maybe this takes away some of my guilt, or maybe I just know the money will go towards a wholly meaningful charity and not end up wasted on the wasted. Drugs and addicts are a common sight in the city. There is a safe injection site I walk by more frequently than the missions. I, more often than a few times, have stepped by, or over, discarded needles on the street.
  I do see the homeless, but the tent on Queen Street hit me hard.
  Of all the streets of Toronto, Queen Street West is overly familiar to me. In 2015 – as I was getting to know my new home city – I spent much of a year photographing the sights, the people and places, at all times of the day, for a photo essay I was preparing.
  Yes, that year, I did come to know two regulars who slept, essentially, on the same corners (one of them is still there today), but I had never seen a tent on the street.
  The chatter on the radio last week, from both the morning show host — who rides his bike to work very early every morning — and some longtime Toronto residents also indicated they had never seem this before.
  I was stunned.
  The scene has affected me, and I don’t know what to do about it.
  We’ve just come out of a federal election where the word “affordable” was bandied about, but none of the parties offered any sort of platform to deal with social housing, even improvements or support to the shelter system. Hell, it’s hard to name an issue any of the parties actually introduced a platform on at all.
  And this is Ontario, where the ruthlessly ignorant Dog Ford government will surely continue to cut funding to social services and support to those who need it the most. The waiting list for affordable housing continues to grow, along with the demand.
  With about 7,000 shelter beds in Toronto, there is still not enough capacity to deal with this problem.
  Now, I don’t have the solution, not do I know what it’s like to camp out on a city street during the colder weather certain to come, but I know it’s not right.
  I know it’s not how I want to live. I don’t think anybody does.
  Still we walk on by.

“The measure of a society is found in how they
treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.”
                                                       -Jimmy Carter


Clocks set back, days ahead altered
as if time can be held, still
we cannot fool ourselves in believing.

The sun will still set.

We seldom lose hours as much as
we change our trajectory.
It will get darker, before you know.

The sun will still rise.

Between where and then, light will
strike any object in its path
as long as it is able. Faithfully, we watch.

The sun sets.

This autumn, this November,
carries a tone of melancholy.
Steadfast, I can only stare back.

The sun rises.

I know about fear, or fear what I know.
Remnants of the day,
routinely, have so much less to offer.

The sun will still set.

When all that you know becomes
all that you have, you are
unable to consider possibility.

The sun will still rise

We live and breathe, twenty-four hours
daily. Memory will serve us;
those uncertain, those unbroken.

© 2019   j.g. lewis

Free Speech Or Hate Speech

There was a substantial protest last night outside a downtown Toronto library demonstrating against an author speaking her views on gender identity.

The event went ahead as planned, following a great deal of media attention, weeks of protest, a hefty on-line petition in opposition, and ‘no place for hate’ signs liberally taped up through the city.

Vancouver writer Meghan Murphy unapologetically promotes her opinion not to recognize the rights of transgender people. Reportedly, about a hundred people attended the event. The number of people protesting outside was far more than twice that number.

While the event has broadened conversation on transgender rights, it has shone a light on the gap between diversity and inclusion. It has also opened up a wider debate on the role, and purpose, of a pubic library.

In any city or town, libraries are traditional civil institutions dedicated to culture, history, free thought, information, and ideas. The purpose of a library, as I was raised to understand, is to encourage and advance opinion. The library is a place of learning. I have long carried a library card.

The library as I know it, in any of the cities I have lived in, is also central to the community as it hosts neighbourhood meetings, presentations and exhibits for all ages. I attended a pen and stationery show last Sunday in this city. The pen show, while not offered by the Toronto Library system, used public space within the library.

Last night’s presentation was not sponsored by the Toronto Public Library, but took place in library space. The use of this space, above the topic of the presentation, has been questioned. The mayor has publicly voiced his displeasure over the contentious event in a city library. A local councilor has said she will present a motion to council directing the city manager and solicitor to review booking rules for all public spaces.

What last night’s event does is question the difference between free speech and hate speech, and with that there are further questions we must continually ask ourselves.

When does refusing a speaker, or book, constitute censorship? When do we take opinion at face value and when do we give it more gravity than it deserves.

I’ve not read anything by Murphy. I have not bothered clicking onto her Feminist Current website. This event is actually the first I’ve heard of the opposition to her views on gender identity and apparent anti-trans stance. Last night’s protest, then, may actually be giving the author more of a platform because of the anger aimed at the Toronto Public Library system.

I have heard concerns, through the media, over the past week that some authors will no longer appear at library events. I’ve read that performers will cancel their roles in popular children’s programming because of this event. I’ve also read that trans-women will no longer feel safe in a Toronto library. I am saddened and fearful when I hear all of these examples because a library should be a safe place for all individuals and families. This is how I have always known a library.

Efforts to reduce services or withdraw participation within the library will only further harm the Toronto Public Library system. When people do not visit, or books are not lent out, and when crowds no longer gather in these magnificent spaces, it will eventually lead to budget cuts.

But this is not as much about future funding as it is the future itself.

You have to ask one major question.

When they attempt to take away an author’s right to say, or write about what they think or feel, when will they next attempt to silence you?

© 2019 j.g. lewis