It was late August when the perfect day arose to get my ass off the computer chair and meet one of these highway dwellers. I had the idea for the story months in advance, and during the time in between I made routine drives up and down the off-ramps to locate the hot-spots for these panhandlers who’d seemed to pop up over night.
It was roughly 1 p.m. and Neil (Swept’s local lit editor) and I were already behind schedule. After having some lunch and a quick smoke break, Neil and I set out from my house to hit the 410 to locate one of these panhandlers and find a story.
It took us no longer than five minutes to find our man. My research (driving up and down the highway for months) determined that Queen and 410 off-ramps tend to be the most active.
As we stopped for the light at the end of the southbound off-ramp at Queen Street (ironically a giant Goodwill sign is within plain site of the off-ramp), we watched as our prospective homeless man collected money from three people in front of us. At the top of my lungs, I hollered at him to make sure we had made contact before the light had changed.
He made his way over to my beat-up SUV. With roughly $5 change ready in my hand, I basically explained to him that I was doing a project for my website and asked if he would like to be interviewed. I offered the money, stating, “I’ll give you the money either way man.”
Though skeptical at first, he quickly changed his mind and agreed to meet us on the other side of the street, away from his pan handling spot and where it was a bit quieter – or so I thought.
The camera and tripod were set and our man was a bit quiet, but so was Neil. Originally I wanted him to ask the questions, but very quickly I realized he wasn’t ready for an interview like this. I quickly took over. At this point it wasn’t about the video – it was about his story. He could have found a new spot the next day, or even worse, ended up dead.
Within the first few minutes I came to the conclusion our new friend most likely had a drug problem. His smile void of his two front teeth, he introduced himself as Chris. He gave us a last name, but that’s irrelevant.
In his scratchy voice, Chris told us that he lived between the off-ramp and the highway. He jokingly pointed to the city landscapers who were doing maintenence and said they do a great job, as if it was his property.
“Never had that at my house,” he said.
All I could think was focus on the highway. That was my angle – that was my story.
I asked him about why highways are hot-spots. “For a lot of reasons,” he said.
“There’s money here. You’re going to get harrassed a lot more if you’re trying it (panhandling) in the city.”
Neil asked if he ever had any trouble with the cops. That’s when he brought up an interesting point – the jurisdiction of the highway.
“They’re not too bad around here. When you first start, they want to know who you are and what you’re doing, right? You get a lot of tickets for soliciting. After they get to know ya they’re pretty good. You know they gotta do their jobs.”
Pointing behind him in the direction of his spot on the side of the highway, he continued.
“See this is OPP, so realistically it’s their territory. See if it was here (where we were standing) it would be Peel Region police.”
Chris went on to tell us about how sometimes the police would bug him, and suggest that he take a break for a little while.
“You gotta act proper. If you’re there harrassing people and being aggresive to get money you’re not going to get anywhere,” he said, adding that his smile is what works for him.
At this point, I interjected. I was wondering how a nice, well-mannered man like Chris ended up living in-between a provincial highway and an off-ramp. I asked if he had always been a Brampton resident. That’s when we started to learn a bit about his story.
He told us that he had formally been married and had moved here from Palgrave and had a house in the northeast end of the city. He went on to tell us that he grew up in the Thornhill area and came from a wealthy family.
“Got divorced a few years ago… Started partying… Had a few problems,” he said, nodding his head. “I’ve been doing this for about a year now. I was on the streets… and that’s a lot harder. You end up boosting, car hopping, getting in lots of trouble, getting arrested.”
As a woman walked by and noticed we were filming all I could think was ‘man, this guy probably gets shouted at by strangers all the time.’ Chris says it’s just encouragement.
“People encourage me to work ya know, like ‘get a fucking a job, you fucking bum!’ And I say ‘thank you for the encouragement sir, have a nice day, you fuckin’ asshole!’ All the time, man.”
I asked him about the others that I see on the off-ramps, particularily the guy on the other side of the highway. He told us that he knew the guy we saw and that he wasn’t actually homeless. He just does it every now and then to make some extra cash.
“He doesn’t really have any problems, just trying to get through another day,” he said, adding that he was probably just out trying to make some grocery money.
During what quickly turned into a conversation, I noticed that when he used the word problems, he was usually referring to drug addiction and mental health issues.
Standing on Queen Street was a bit loud, and we eventually moved over to the plaza where it was a bit quieter. It was along our walk that Chris told us roughly how much he makes per week.
He said on average he makes $700 a week. Now there is no real way to confirm this, but I sort of believe it considering how busy his panhandling spot is. He then told us that during a portion of the early summer, all the rain was getting to him – so he stayed at Brampton’s notorious Howard Johnson hotel (a.k.a. the Ho-Jo), a hotel with an ugly history, for a whole three weeks.
He wanted us to see his receipts, but I naturally took his word for it. I asked him if it was sort of like a vacation for him. He said he just couldn’t take the rain anymore and needed a break.
So what does a guy like Chris do with all his money? Crack.
Chris told us that what money he doesn’t spend himself he spends on others. Now, again – I can’t verify his claims are facts, but a little part of me did feel as though at least a portion of what he was saying was the truth.
He says that often he would buy food for other homeless people in the community. In addition to buying comrades food he would also help out dope-sick friends of his. According to Chris, opiate addiction is a big reason why people end up on the streets, and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of opiate addiction (heroin, morphine, oxycodone addiction) understands how easily one can end up in such a shitty situation.
As for Chris, he made it clear – his drug of choice was crack. He said he would occasionally binge, but that his time on the side of the highway acted as therapy. The idea of returning to a normal working life is scary to him considering how comfortable he is.
According to Chris, the only thing that makes him think he could return to a normal life is the chance of having his daughter in his life again.
Now this is where things get sort of complicated. It’s also part of the reason that this feature is the first part in a series of three.
For now, Chris remains panhandling along the side of a Brampton highway off-ramp, collecting change and continuing his journey toward what this reporter hopes is a normal life.