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Richmond Hill has its share of homelessness amidst affluence, but when the two worlds collide, as they did recently at a local beer store, the encounter can be powerful.
Richmond Hill Liberal
You won’t see a photograph of the people featured in this story.
They’re far too modest to want their faces emblazoned in the local paper.
But reading this story may cause you to go about your daily life a little differently.
It happened in mid-July in Richmond Hill, at a local beer store in the south end of town, but could have happened anywhere and it could even happen to you.
The man was missing a shoe. That was the first thing Natasha Wells noticed.
Then she noticed his foot.
It was swollen to three times its normal size.
She looked more closely at this man, who occasionally appeared at the store where she worked.
He really did not look good at all.
True, he wasn’t your average customer — he was a drifter with a fondness for the bottle — but something, this time, was really wrong.
“Are you OK?” the 23-year-old asked him.
The man, who appeared to be in his late 50s, shrugged off her concern. Just a hurt foot, he said. Infected. Had medication. He’d be fine.
But Ms Wells didn’t think so. He seemed very sick.
“He’s just drunk,” a customer said. “He’ll shake it off in the morning.”
No, Ms Wells thought. She’d seen the homeless man drunk before and it wasn’t like this.
“He was looking really rough. Normally, he doesn’t look like a downtown homeless person, not constantly dirty. He’s usually clean and well-kept. But this day, he was dirty, mud-smeared, didn’t have one shoe, his stuff was missing and his hair was everywhere.”
The man showed her the medication he was taking for the infected foot. It was a container full of powder that had come loose from the crushed capsules, dampened from a recent rainfall.
He explained that he took bits of the dry powder from the bottom, where it hadn’t been touched by rain.
Gently, she suggested he might want to sit down. She asked if he’d like her to get him some medical attention.
The man said he didn’t want to burden anyone.
“I said my job is to provide good customer service and you’re a customer and you need help. We want to help you.”
Fergus Elliott was one of five people standing in the customer line, watching.
“I was so impressed,” he says. “She didn’t care what other people thought. She was just focused on treating this man with respect.”
Mr. Elliott was also concerned.
“The guy’s left foot looked like it was going to explode.”
He stepped out of line, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“You’re in pretty bad shape, buddy. You should listen to her. She’s giving good advice,” he said.
“You could see he was in pain, but he was polite,” he recalls. “There was a good human inside there.”
He offered to drive the man to hospital. The man pondered a bit, then agreed to an ambulance being called.
Ms Wells helped him to a bench outside the store and as they waited, she talked with him a bit.
She heard about his life. It sounded like a tough one: a business that was no more, a marriage that left him beaten, literally. Raw life stories that few youth in the comfortable suburbs ever hear about.
But Ms Wells, who lives in Richmond Hill, had just graduated from a Seneca College program in emergency communications.
The man was very lucky.
As he sat down, she noticed he was bleeding from his back.
Then she saw the blade. Shiny metal, still wedged in an open wound.
Be calm, she told herself. She remembered that from school. If you talk about the injury, it can cause panic and make things worse.
They talked some more. He said he lived in a sleeping bag — for now. It seemed he’d just been jumped.
“Why are you helping me?” he asked, still unaware of his back wound — and the blade. “Why are you being so nice?”
“Sometimes, you kind of need a friend, you know?” Ms Wells says, thinking back to the brief encounter. “He told me he appreciated my taking the time. And he cried.”
Seeing the man was being cared for, Mr. Elliott returned to his business, but the exchange stayed in his mind long afterwards.
“She did a fabulous job of making this guy feel genuinely cared for. To see a young person in this day and age, acting so selflesslessly, not talking down to him in a condescending way — it renewed my faith in youth.”
Two and a half weeks later, the man appeared at the store again, wearing a hospital bracelet, carrying a new batch of pills and a letter that he was eager to show Ms Wells.
“Thank you for getting this gentleman help. You saved his life,” it read, in neat handwriting.
“I think he’d got someone to write it for him,” she says, and the letter seemed to have special meaning for him.
“He asked if I minded if he kept the letter. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Then he went away.
It makes Ms Wells feel good, knowing she made an impact on a stranger who may not have experienced much in the way of kindness.
It reminded her not to judge a book by its cover. Reminded her that sometimes, everyone just needs a friend.
But she really doesn’t want any accolades. It’s not why she helped. She doesn’t think there’s anything unnatural about kindness.
That’s why she won’t be photographed and only gave her name to this paper with reluctance. She had the guts to approach a homeless man, but not to have her face in the newspaper, an irony that her boyfriend pointed out.
Mr. Elliott respects that choice.
The Thornhill man has been through hard times himself, but the brief encounter reminded him that he is blessed.
“I have good health, live in a house, food in the fridge. I’ve lost everything but gained big amounts of gratitude.
“How could we not help him, when we have so much and he had so little?”
He’s happy to have the story told in the newspaper, he says, because maybe some good will come from it. Maybe readers will ask themselves what they would do.
Would you offer your help, and if not, what would stop you?
Fear? Disgust? Apathy? Embarrassment?
“This homeless person was fortunate enough to be guided to Natasha that night. She gave him a positive emotional charge ... Showed him that there is certainly one person in this world who cares about him, even if he sleeps in a sleeping bag in a park.”
The homeless man reappeared in the neighbourhood this week, four weeks after they all crossed paths.
He looked really good, Mr. Elliott says. Like a new man, like he’s taking care of himself. Healthy, cleanly shaven, new haircut with an almost-cured foot.
His transformation is a story worth telling, Mr. Elliott says. It’s proof a rare, random act of kindness can touch a life.
“I hope this shows people how easy it is, that it’s OK to step up and do something kind.”
Thanks to: http://www.yorkregion.com