by Deron Johnston
Homelessness is not really a subject that people think much about here in North Grenville. If you don’t see someone sleeping outside on the street, it’s easy to assume that there are no ‘real’ homeless people living here. Homelessness, to most people, is a ‘city problem’. However, let’s consider the following definition of homelessness from a Canadian homelessness advocacy website: “Homelessness describes the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it.” So, the definition of homelessness also includes things like people who ‘couch-surf’ and stay temporarily with friends, or those who rent a bedroom in a house for a few months and then move on. Statistically, the majority of these people are youth under twenty five. We’ve all passed these young people on the street without any way of knowing their situation.
I sat down with a taxi driver recently, who told me an interesting story about a fare he had back in December. It was late on a Sunday night when he got a call to go pick up a fare at a private residence in Kemptville. The caller said that they needed a ride to the bus station in Ottawa. The driver told the caller that he had a couple of other calls to do first, but he would be there in fifteen to twenty minutes. The caller phoned again ten minutes later and asked where the taxi was. The driver told the caller that they were his next fare and that he just had to finish his current one. The caller asked the driver to hurry because she had been ‘kicked out’ of her brother’s house and she was waiting outside. It was cold and snowing, so the driver said that he would be there as soon as he could.
When he arrived to pick up the caller, “April” (who appeared to be a young First Nations woman in her early twenties) was waiting outside on the street in front of the address she had given him. April walked over to the car, carrying two small bags, and got in. The driver asked April if she had the cash to pay for the trip to Ottawa and she said not to worry, that her friend would email the driver the money for the ride. He explained to her that she had to have the cash for the trip, and that emailing the money to him was not an option. April got on her phone to call her friend, but got no answer. She told the driver that if he took her to a bank machine, she would try to get the money for him. So he took her to a bank beside the 416, but didn’t charge her for it. She went in to the bank machine, but came out five minutes later empty handed. She said there was a problem with the bank machine, and that she’d try to call her friend again. When she got no answer again, she asked if the driver would take her to Walmart, so she could get cash back with a purchase. Once again, she came out empty handed and said there was a problem with her card. She got back in the taxi and once more tried to call her friend.
Sitting in the back seat, she started crying and got very upset, saying that she had to get to Ottawa to catch a bus because she already had her ticket paid for, and she couldn’t miss it. The driver said that he simply couldn’t take her if she didn’t have the money for the ride. Through her tears, April said that she had to go to the bus station that night, because she had nowhere that she could stay in Kemptville. She had been staying at her brother’s house, but he had kicked her out and wouldn’t let her stay there any more. The driver felt badly, but he knew that he couldn’t afford to pay for the trip himself (about $80).
Being unsure what to do, he decided to drop her off at Tim Horton’s, but promised to make a couple of phone calls to see if he could find her a place to stay for the night. He called the executive director of a local charity at home and woke her up, but she said that they weren’t able to help the passenger at this time of the night, but to try calling the Salvation Army. If that didn’t work, he should try calling the OPP, who might be able to give her a voucher for a night’s stay at a local hotel, or find another appropriate place for her to spend the night. So he tried calling the local Salvation Army, but there was no after-hours phone number to call on their voice mail. So, as a last resort, the driver called the OPP. The OPP dispatcher asked the driver a number of questions about the situation, the physical and emotional state of his former passenger and where she was currently. They then told the driver that they would send an officer over to Tim Horton’s right away to check on the young woman, and then they’d make a decision on how to proceed. The driver asked if they would call him back and let him know what happened, but they never did.
The taxi driver said he felt very guilty that he wasn’t able to help more than he did that night. He said that now he’ll always remember that night, and for him, homelessness now had a face and that her name was April.