Book Notes: Author offers an intimate look at homelessness

“Gotta Find a Home: Conversations with Street People,” Book I of three books By Dennis Cardiff. Published by Lifetales Books, an imprint of Karenzo Media. 2014. Available online for $2.99.

Joy is the name Dennis Cardiff gave the main character in “Gotta Find a Home: Conversations with Street People.”

Cardiff writes that Joy and the many other homeless people he befriended beginning in 2010 in Toronto have become his closest friends. “My life has become much richer for the experience.” For Cardiff, Joy is both a name and a descriptor of the quality of his experience. She is, in his eyes, the matriarch of the group and his guide.

Cardiff spent 18 months talking with the homeless people he encountered on his way to work. He left home early so he could spend time with them as they started their own work, as they called it.

They often began panhandling early in the morning in order to get the money they needed for food, alcohol, cigarettes, tampons and other essentials. Many got small disability checks, but that money didn’t cover all their expenses.

Panhandling was a job and a way to interact with others. Cardiff also spent a good part of his lunch break with his friends, who he said were more interesting than his work colleagues.

He blogged about these conversations daily, working primarily from memory and the notes he took once he got home. He asked simple questions about his friends’ day and kept the conversation focused on what was going on in the moment.

As a result, Cardiff is not a character in this book. He let the people talk. If they asked him a question, he would include that conversation. Chapters are brief, and each has a title that relates to the key incident covered in the chapter.

When we first meet Joy, we find out that her boyfriend beats her when he drinks. Eventually he is imprisoned. Though she loves him and doesn’t consider the relationship over, readers realize that Joy grows a bit more self-aware and assertive in his absence. She doesn’t make good decisions but she wants peace, stable housing and the rage management course she is told she must take.

Everyone seems to like Joy. She has a regular spot on the street and her spot is respected. People hand her a lot of fruit, which she gives away. She makes relatively decent money and she gets acknowledgement.

In other words, Joy is not entirely invisible and it’s clear that Cardiff likes her. He describes his first look at her this way:

“I noticed a woman seated cross-legged on the sidewalk with her back against a building wall. A snow-covered Buddha, wrapped in a sleeping bag, shivering in the below freezing temperature.

“I guessed her to be in her forties. Everything about her seemed round. She had the most angelic face, sparking blue eyes and a beautiful smile … I thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Her smile and blue eyes haunted me all day.”

Due to unemployment, Cardiff had once lost his house and his truck. His empathy is genuine.

Toronto is not a good place to be homeless. It is cold, wet and windy a good deal of the time. By the time a person becomes homeless, or semi-homeless, much has gone wrong in their lives.

They’ve experienced childhood abuse, physical injuries in the womb or fetal alcohol syndrome, they’ve become addicted to drugs, painkillers and/or alcohol, and most have a variety of illnesses including HIV, cirrhosis, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, cancer, mental illnesses and arthritis.

Many are very sick with several of these diseases at once. They vomit blood, have seizures and diabetic shock, experience paralysis of the limbs and several of those Cardiff befriends have been beaten, robbed and imprisoned. Some have no education, while others have college degrees.

I imagine they are like the homeless we see in every city in the United States. There is a sameness, a repetitiousness, a tedium to the lives of these people that we feel profoundly when we read. It’s a hard read, for that reason.

Their friendships, while fraught with complications, lend an energy to their lives that is crucial. And they are easily isolated. To stop drinking, for example, means to stop associating with friends and even to stop sharing living space.

“Gotta Find a Home” lacks sentimentality. We empathize with Cardiff more than the homeless people who suffer so greatly in the 18 months we know them. They report the news of their day matter-of-factly: The shelters are noisy and the crack addicts are unpredictable. Shark is robbed.

Joy gets a black eye. A man has a stab wound that won’t heal. Another spends the night in a hospital after a diabetic shock. Some, living with HIV and cancer and cirrhosis all at the same time, still have to get food and make themselves want to eat.

Readers have to infer the emotional context, because we don’t hear it from them and we hear only a fragment of it from Cardiff, who keeps himself out of the story.

I learned about this book when Cardiff connected with me on Twitter. I was intrigued by his commitment and his ability to get to gently insert himself into this group.

His interactions with them are sincere, honest and genuine. He gives them bus tickets, he buys Joy a breakfast sandwich and coffee most mornings, and listens carefully. He gains their respect. He donates the money made from the book to Ottawa Innercity Missions.

Cardiff’s goal — to “investigate the ultimate cause of homelessness to find a possible solution” — is beyond his or anyone else’s reach at this time. Instead he found “as many reasons for homelessness as there are people sleeping on the streets.”

“I can’t do much for these people except to show them love, compassion, an ear to listen, perhaps a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. I want to do more. To know them is to love them.”

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@gmail.com Read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter at @RaeAF.

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