Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Robert Kinghorn: If I knew then what I know now…

  • March 6, 2020

Driving downtown, the weather forecast came on the radio: “The temperature tonight is expected to plummet to a low of minus-14 degrees with a windchill factor making it feel like minus-25. The health department has issued a warning that at these temperatures frostbite to exposed skin can occur within minutes.”

I parked the car, making sure that the four layers of clothing I wear on such occasions were tightly fastened against the wind, and I thought to myself that only the most desperate are likely to be on the street tonight.

I made my way to the local hamburger joint where I was to meet a 20-year veteran of these mean streets who, over the past nine years, had climbed her way out of a lifestyle of drugs and prostitution. However, her grasp on good health and sobriety had often been tenuous, and the years of drug use had taken its toll on her immune system and general health.

Frequently I would receive emergency calls from the local hospital that she had once again been admitted and needed to see me. Two weeks previously, I had rushed to the hospital to support her after a particularly painful attack on her immune system, and now we were meeting to catch up on her life.

The news was good on the health front, but unfortunately not so good regarding her employment.

For several years she had managed to support herself and her young son, even eventually moving into a nice condominium, but she had now lost her job and so she was back in the shelter system where I had first met her 15 years previously.

She had a great resiliency and, as we walked back to the shelter with her young son, she was joking that it was nice to be back downtown in her old haunts. I turned and stared reprimandingly at her as she added quickly: “I’m only joking, don’t look at me like that. I can’t believe I actually used to walk around in short skirts in nights like this. Fortunately, I did not feel it because of the drugs.” 

We said goodbye at her shelter just as I got a call from Tracey, another veteran of the streets, but one who has never looked back since kicking the drug habit 12 years previously.

“I just got a call from my buddy,” she said, “and he told me that Gen had been found dead.”

I told Tracey that Gen had been on the streets since before I started, but anytime I had come across her she had largely ignored me so I could not say I really knew her.

“My buddy and I were reminiscing,” Tracey continued, “and, you know, of all the people we hung around with doing drugs 20 years ago, almost all of them are gone now except my buddy and me. We were able to get out of it before it killed us.”

This stark statement hung in the cold darkness of the evening as it exposed the devastation that drugs inflict on lives and families.

I rounded a corner and, as I turned into a biting wind, I pulled my hoodie tightly across my face. In the distance I saw a woman striking up a conversation with a potential client. The conversation was brief. Clearly they had failed to come to a suitable financial arrangement.

While I was still a little way off, she shouted to me, “Do you want company tonight?”

Now, I have long since learned that she was not being solicitous about my loneliness, and so I explained why I have been coming downtown for so many years.

“I have not seen you before,” I said. “Are you new to the streets? Would you like me to pray for you?”

“I’m just down from the town of Barrie,” she answered, “and yes I’m new to this area. If you would like to pray it would be good, I could do with positive energy right now.”

I finished the prayer and as I looked at her fresh face and innocent eyes I thought of my conversation with Tracey.

“Don’t stay on the streets too long,” I suggested as she vanished into the cold and darkness of the night.

American priest and author Fr. Edward Farrell once wrote, “Where there is no vision, people become demoralized, and perish; they become lost.”

I pray that she can recover her vision of youth before she becomes a statistic of loss on the streets.

(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto:

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