On the Street with Reverend Al

By Rita Button

5:13 a.m. I’m three minutes late. As I stop the car, I see a vehicle driving up the street away from me. I get out, cross the street, and ask a security guard if he’s seen Reverend Al Tysick. And he has. He was driving the vehicle I just saw, but no matter, all I have to do is drive to the parking lot at the end of the street where I find him and his two volunteers serving coffee from the back of the Dandelion Society van. People accept the coffee gratefully. “Got a cigarette?” someone asks, and, magically, a volunteer flips one out of his pocket for the guy with the shaking hands. I am given the job of handing out cookies—gingersnaps, Dad’s Cookies and Oreos.

As we get back into the van, Reverend Al explains the schedule: we’ll drive to various locations to check on people, making sure they’re okay. Four weekday mornings per week, Reverend Al drives this route. People wait for him. Because respect and care for people is more important than sticking to a rigorous schedule, Reverend Al takes some time with a person who needs to talk. However, feeling the pull of those still waiting, and appointments to keep, Reverend Al does look at his watch frequently.

At the last stop, I notice that the bottom of the bag from which I am serving the cookies, contains some that are home-made, and I wish I had known this earlier when a young woman asked me for “the home-made kind because my teeth are bad and can’t bite the hard ones.” When I shook my head, no, she said, “Even just the crumbs at the bottom of the bag?”

I remembered the cookies I had made that I had put into the compost pail because I thought they might be stale.

I also remember the couple on the steps for whom Al stopped; they were part of Al’s family. We clambered out of the vehicle to get the coffee and cookies. They were fine, they said. It was the same great story; gratitude that someone noticed them and cared enough to stop and check on them.

At one place, I watched a young woman smile at a guy she knew. She asked him how he was doing. His response was, “I have no idea.” She looked at him carefully; she could see that he was telling the truth.
What can be done? We talked about that in the van between stops. Reverend Al’s clear statement surprised me: “Homelessness is legislated.” I had not thought of homelessness in that way. He continued, “If all adults were entitled to a Guaranteed Annual Income, homelessness would not exist.” Thinking for a few minutes, he added, “Of course, we would need affordable housing, but that’s finally beginning to happen.”

Guaranteed Annual Income is a concept beginning to be discussed. It’s actually a part of the agreement between the NDP and the Greens in their coalition to govern B.C. The agreement includes a strategy “…to design and implement a basic income pilot to test whether giving people a basic income is an effective way to reduce poverty, improve health, housing and development.” (p. 7; 4.a.i.2017 Confidence & Supply Agreement between the BC Green Caucus and the BC New Democratic Caucus) http://bcndpcaucus.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2017/05/BC-Green-BC-NDP-Agreement_vf-May-29th-2017.pdf. Currently, this concept is partially implemented for retirees. A guaranteed income supplement is currently received by pensioners who qualify.

In Dauphin, Manitoba from 1974-1979, a pilot project funded jointly by the federal government led by Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the Manitoba provincial government under Ed Schreyer, tested the concept of Guaranteed Annual Income. When the Manitoba government was defeated in 1977, and the federal government in 1979, the researchers were instructed to store the research. No conclusions were published. (Lum, Zi-Ann, “A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty and Nearly Everyone Forgot About It”) https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/12/23/mincome-in-dauphin-manitoba_n_6335682.html.

And that would have been the end of it, except that at the University of Manitoba, a community health sciences researcher Evelyn Forget remembered the project and has recently taken a closer look. Aimed at the working poor, the “mincome” project seemed to give hope to people who were, until that time, eking out an existence from month to month. Looking at the research from a medical point of view, Forget concludes that the project worked. The strain on the health system lessened. People were able to fill their prescriptions because they were now able to make ends meet. Healthier, happier people seemed to be a result of the project’s field work.

The most frequent argument against Guaranteed Annual Income is that it removes the incentive for people to look for work. Forget noticed that two segments of the population stopped looking: students and mothers. When mothers are able to be at home with their children, a more stable home environment often becomes possible, thereby creating a space where children can grow without the nagging worries about money that they will feel in spite of parents being careful not to talk about it. Students, on the other hand, can learn more deeply when they are able to spend the time learning and representing their ideas in ways that demonstrate what’s possible when the luxury of time is available. Hence, they are more likely to become contributing members of society as they grow and graduate.

Rev Al believes that such a system would work as long as affordable housing were a part of the equation. He turned the conversation back to the person who had made us late. I will never forget what he said: “No one cares if that person lives or dies.”

The trajectory of a person’s life can change when opportunities present themselves, and someone is able to see these opportunities as possibilities. If a person has made some bad choices or has had some bad luck, and cannot figure a way out of the dilemma, it’s easy to spiral out of control, and difficult to regain control by oneself.

When we have friends, family and professionals who are able to answer questions that we know to ask and can ask, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine a situation where these are not forthcoming. Maybe it’s time to imagine a community where we’ll sit on the bench with a person who needs a friend and begin to build that community with politicians, health practitioners, teachers, mentors, financial advisors, gardeners, farmers, and anyone with the will to discover the joy of helping someone take the first and even the second step.

Visualizing the solutions is the first step to making it happen.


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