Undesirables, by whose standards?

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I live downtown in a condo governed by a strata council. A month ago, the strata council sent tenants a letter that detailed the list of “pests” we were attracting by leaving garbage on our patios. The following is a direct quote from the letter:

“Humans: This area is populated by a number of drug-addicted transients and undesirables . . .” The letter blamed these so-called “undesirables” for everything from the mess left around the garbage area to break-ins in the area.

But the letter-writers are wrong.

One evening, a drunken “undesirable”—by my strata council’s standards—walked me part of the way home from the bus stop. “It isn’t always safe around here, you know.” he told me. He said that he loves fall, that it is his favourite season. I was surprised, since it had been raining heavily for days, and I told him this. “You just need to see the beauty in it,” he told me. “Remember that song from the musical? I’m singin’ in the rain!” he belted out, and burst into song. He walked with me, singing, until our paths diverged. He told me his name and asked for mine. Then we parted ways. “Just wanted to make sure you were safe,” he said, and went on his way. He didn’t try to steal my wallet. I checked.

Since I started using my white cane to assist with my visual impairment, interactions like this have happened weekly. Every interaction has been with a male, and they have all, except one, been so-called “undesirables.” It is a really interesting phenomenon. I am ashamed to admit that I am always initially afraid when I am approached. It’s similar to when you are travelling—you always find extra attention suspicious. As a woman walking around alone at night in a somewhat shady downtown neighbourhood, I get nervous when an intoxicated and clearly transient man approaches me. Does he want to rob me? Is he going to sexually assault me? Like most women, these are the thoughts that run through my head.

I was worried that using my white cane would identify me as an easy target and attract unwanted attention in my neighbourhood. So far I have been approached five times. Each encounter was by a man. Four clearly were “undesirables” who were either intoxicated or had obvious signs of mental health issues. One wanted to know what my white “stick” was for, and the other three wanted to know if I needed any help. Or, like the “Singing in the Rain” man, they just wanted to make sure I would be safe on my own.

These men are not “undesirables”—they are kind men. What’s undesirable are the fast judgments that are passed all too quickly when we see someone whose entire life is stored in a shopping cart; someone who hasn’t had access to facilities such as a shower in a while; or someone who may have mental health or addictions issues. What’s undesirable is everyone else who awkwardly avoids making eye contact, or are so busy looking at their phones that they actually run into me. It’s these men who are the ones most likely to be looking out for me.

The “undesirables” in my neighbourhood are looking out for the young woman with the white cane who is walking alone in the dark. They want to make sure that she is safe. I think that is pretty amazing. There is nothing undesirable about it.

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