Sunday April 20, 2014





Wagamese: The poor never label themselves

One of my wife’s tenants passed away a couple weeks ago. She runs a rooming house on Kamloops’ North Shore. It caters to the marginalized; the impoverished, mentally challenged, disabled, formerly homeless and the just plain lost.

When she bought it seven years ago it was one of the city’s most notorious addresses. Since then, with strict rules, no alcohol or drugs and a deliberate fostering of community, it’s become a safe, secure, home. Those who call it home are our most invisible. You’ve likely passed them on the street hundreds of times and never really seen them.

Or if you have seen them, it’s been fleeting with little or no human connection. That’s normal. It’s also incredibly sad because every one of them has a history, a story that we are all made the better for hearing.  

Charlene was like that.

She came to the rooming house from the hospital where she was being fed through a tube. She was emaciated, gaunt and wasted away. She put on a few pounds while she was a tenant but she was still shockingly thin.

Dire poverty was part of the reason. Cancer was another. We knew little of her story. We only knew that she was game, resilient and possessing a fortitude that was amazing.

She died suddenly. One of the other tenants performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. She rallied but passed away later at the hospital. Her death was a blow to everyone there. They’d come to care for her, to take care of her, to run her errands and make sure she was comfortable.

That’s what you don’t see on the street — the compassion and the resolute care the chronically impoverished have for each other. The least of us displaying a complete and utter generosity.

Then, the house caretaker found an old driver’s licence. It was 26 years old. Charlene was 28 when it was issued and the photo showed a vibrant and beautiful woman. It showed the person that fate and circumstance had shrunken and it showed the story that even we had not been privileged to see.

We saw a brutally skinny woman with marvelous, magical, deep brown eyes. Eyes that glimmered and shone and hinted at the beauty that her old driver’s licence revealed. She’d been a bartender, other papers told us.

She was well schooled in the hospitality industry and she’d once had a normal life and a
history. She’d loved, been loved, had a family, bore great dreams, suffered heartbreak, and
revelled in joy.

Charlene’s last words to my wife and I were, “I love you and the other tenants. You have all been so kind and have given me a home.” Those luminous eyes were large and a lovely soft brown. The same eyes we see in that old picture. For my wife and I and the tenants, that picture is how she lives today in all our hearts at the rooming house.

But most people could only see her as a sad, poor and eccentric lady in her last years. That’s because so many people presume that the poor create their existence on purpose.

But the truth is that the marginalized never marginalize themselves. We do that. We do that when we refuse to see them as people just like us. We do that when we assign labels like addict, drunk, or welfare bum.

Charlene was none of those. Neither are any of the other 12 tenants. They are all people just like us with a story that we all be made much better for the hearing of. Thanks, Charlene.

richardwagamese@gmail.com





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