Can a parking lot become a dwelling place? Can a draped sheet become a home? This past summer, as the building next door became vacant and up for lease, a few homeless folks began camping out in varying forms of tents and dwelling places in the empty parking lot. Because the parking lot was right beside our living room and kitchen, and right under my bedroom window, I couldn’t help but notice the patterns of campsites and tents that evolved over the summer. I learned a little about tenting in this city closer up than I ever expected.
First there were picnic tables used as a gathering place, then eventually pushed together with a sheet draped between. Then a small fire pit was added between two tables, and rocks built up the fire pit, a few more added each day. Later in July, a new camp sprung up on the other side of the parking lot, closer to the building–more complex, with multiple sheets draped from the fence and building, a clothesline, a few bikes, and what seemed to be a wash station. A quiet camp, I enjoyed having them as neighbours and hoped to meet them if an occasion allowed.
I know there are many opinions on tenting in London, and I can’t begin to speak to these. I can definitely tell you I’m compassionate towards those who are tenting, because they’re most likely hurting, struggling, and homeless. But what I can tell you about most, is what I learned from one particular man who camped just under my bedroom window for several nights. He wore a muscle shirt, looked aged by life, and had a rough beard. He had several large carts piled with his belongings around the fence corner (and no, this wasn’t Sunny.)
He started out camping with a group, and slowly pushed them away one by one, until it was only him. He paced, he smoked, he took over the territory. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was upstairs in my bedroom, when I heard a lot of angry screaming outside my window. The man obviously felt a threat to his dwelling space, perhaps a place he was just starting to feel a little bit safe, and he seemed determined not to let anyone take that away from him.
I looked out the window. He was face to face with another man, both of them posturing and aggressive. He had a brick in his hand, and he was holding it close to the other man’s head, yelling and threatening to cause him serious harm if he didn’t leave. Finally after more yelling and cuss words and posturing, the other man did go, unwillingly, but peacefully enough. I was broken up inside, after witnessing the violence of the situation. Though I understood it would take a lot of past trauma and difficult life circumstances to create that kind of angry emotional barrier, I was still shaken up. Such aggression–what kind of hurt would it take for someone act that way?
The next day, the camp was gone. I heard from a neighbour that the police had been called. Later that night, I was walking with a friend down Queen Street in the rainy dark, when I spotted the same man, walking west with all of his carts. I almost didn’t recognize him. He no longer looked tough or aggressive or angry. Instead he looked tired and smaller, soaked from the rain, his shoulders weighed down, and he was struggling with his carts as he crossed over from one street to the next, coming back for them one at a time, and then moving them along in single file.
It was, through the dark rain, that I could best see his heart. That I could see God, and felt my own fear of this man transform into a newfound wave of hurting for him. I suspected trauma and vulnerability and sadness and fatigue. What kind of muddy dark depths had he been through, I wondered, to end up here like this? What kinds of things took him away from home, and what could possibly ever bring him back? What kind of dwelling place, even a makeshift tent or picnic tables pushed together, could ever feel like home for him? How much love would it take, and trust, and relationship, before any dwelling place would ever feel like home again?