The Invisibles

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This guy’s eyes haunted me for a long time.

I was out to take pictures at the Rideau Center. When I exited The Bay, he was standing here, playing the harmonica. I stood here for a minute, looking at him. I grabbed the camera which was slung over my shoulders and our eyes met briefly. He nodded, still playing. He first slowly turned on his side to show me the cat perched on his shoulder, safe from my camera’s peering eye. I smiled and waited. Eventually, he looked straight into my eyes. I snapped two pictures quickly, gave him a couple of bucks and walked away. Later, when I looked at the picture, I noticed he looked like a deer caught in headlights. His wary eyes seemed to be challenging me, saying: “are you seeing me now?”

Looking back, I realized what bothered me so much: to most people, these guys in the streets are invisible. They stand nearby bus stops, sit at busy intersections and sleep under bridges. They sit there and they watch people go by, attending to their business. Everybody mind his own business here. Occasionally, they ask for a buck or two and will wish you a good day even if you don’t have change. And people keep on walking by, as if ignoring them will make poverty, homelessness and distress go away. How silly from us.

A French song goes “It seems to me that misery will be less painful under the sun”. It sounds so true to me. I saw the ugliest side of poverty in Bolivia: it was cold, the streets were dirty and looking at the kids in rag playing in piles of garbage made me cringe. Some places we’ve been to were equally as poor, but it just didn’t feel the same. In Brazil, kids from the favelas used the showers at Copacabana and played football on the beach. Poverty was still there but it didn’t seem as bad.

To me, poverty and homelessness in Canada look as bad as it did in Bolivia. Sure, our streets are cleaner and we have drinking water. But these guys are outside in the cold from dawn to dusk. I chatted with one of the guys pictured below and he explained me that he can usually find a bed in one of the emergency shelters around the city, such as The Mission or the Salvation Army. But homeless are kicked out during the day and left roaming in the city.

I don’t have a miracle solution. Like most people, I occasionally spare some change but most of the time don’t. I rushed by homeless people every day and I seldom take the time to slow down and be friendly.

I chatted with “Danny” for a little while (he is the one who told me about these emergency shelters). He told me one of the things that bothered him the most was that people ignored him. He felt invisible and asked me why people acted this way around him. The only reply I had was that people were probably scared. Not of him, but of being like him. He seemed to like that. It made sense to him.

We ought not to be scared. Closing our eyes won’t make poverty, homelessness or any other unpleasant truth go way. Let’s keep our eyes open. There is so much to understand…

The Shoppers

A Buck or Two




Two Worlds


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. There are really a lot of homeless people or shanty town dwellers in and around Paris. It’s really sad but at the same time you get over-solicited just about everywhere and that’s what drive people to ignore those other people. I wish the world was a better place but it’s not and see more and more tents being planted on the sidewalks.
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Mauvaise nouvelle =-.

  2. I was going to share my own personal story.

    Once, I was harassed by a homeless person in Nice. He actually grabbed me and asked for money. I rationally understand that most people aren’t even close to that.

    But I get nervous that if I make eye contact and apologize for not having any change it might happen again.

    It’s totally irrational and unfair, but I’m sure other people feel that way. It’s like one bad experience helps contribute to this fear of the homeless.

    Thanks for sharing a little of your insight, it helps to show that my experience isn’t normal. I am touched by your photos and interactions in this post.
    .-= Monique´s last blog ..They’re so tiny! =-.

  3. I like that cat on his shoulder-it looks so fluffy. It is true that we always ignore homeless people and I never gave a cent to one either. I don’t know…In the back of my head, I always think if we give them money then they’ll use something bad. I’d rather give them food or clothe though.

    A very good post 🙂

  4. Zhu,

    I have been reading your posts for the last two years or so, but never thought of commenting. This was perhaps, the most touching one…

  5. Amazing photos. You made me stop and think of the guys on the street corners here in Miami and how we pass the same ones day in and day out and after a while they’re almost like fixtures. You don’t see what’s inside the person or take the time to get to chat with them for a bit. I’m glad you did that; I’ve done that, too. I’ve fed the homeless before and gave one a ride home.

    Btw, I think you’re right; people are afraid of being like them so they figure if they look the other way it won’t ever happen. Crazy, isn’t it?

    Cool post, Chica! I loved it.

  6. A social worker at the hospital told me once about her experiences working with the homeless. Just like you mention here, he said that one man was particularly grateful because “you see me. No one else sees me.” I think that’s just so poignant. Homelessness, misery, and poverty make us so uncomfortable that most often we just ignore the victims of these problems. I know at one point there was a proposal in my town to have boxes on the street that you could drop change into for the homeless, rather than having them out panhandling. I don’t know what happened to that proposal.

    Thanks for sharing this and making us look into their eyes.
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..It’s here! =-.

  7. Hi Zhu,
    I have some ‘regular’ homeless people in my neighborhood – they talk to me as if they are friends and never ask for money. Growing up in Mumbai, I feel quite oblivious to the homeless people here. I think that the majority of the homeless people do not make an attempt to get out of poverty, or are stuck in the limited vision of life, dependent on drugs, etc. Loved the posts, checking your site out after ages!
    .-= Priyank´s last blog ..Veliky Novgorod =-.

  8. Great post Zhu and yes, we don’t have solutions to all their problems and if only we could just make a difference just to have some empathy.

    I remembered this guy with his young boy strumming the guitar in an underpass. I put in a $2 dollar and just continue my walk, surprise, surprise…..his little boy ran behind and gave me a hug 😉 I was so touched and it brought a smile to my face. To me, it is something so small but to them, it means a lot.

    After that I keep on looking out for them throughout the island but to no avail.

    Thanks for sharing this Zhu, his intensity of his eye-sight tells me he appreciated you Zhu for acknowledging the fact that they are not invincible.

    Have a great weekend my friend ;D

  9. @Agnes – They can, but like I explain, not really during the day.

    @Cynthia – I know exactly what you mean.

    @micki – They are but a lot of them were closed because they lack funding. Apparently homeless people don’t vote and aren’t a priority… or am I just being cynical?

    @Tulsa Gentleman – This is very true. A lot of people had money problem way before any addiction they may have developed later. And even though… it’s not a reason to let people live in the street.

    @Monique – I understand. I had similar experiences in the subway in Paris and yes, I got a bit scared. I’m not saying that all people in the streets like to chat but from my experience here, I have never have any problem. That said, I may not slow down and talk with someone under a bridge at 1am…

    @London Caller – Exactly!

    @Bluefish – I thought that too and then I realized that what they were doing with the change they get is none of my business. After all, no one asks me how I spend my money. Why should I have the right to control how they spend the little they have?

    @Lizz – Thank you! This is exactly that: because it’s the only way to cope. You said it very well.

    @Sanjay – Thank you so much for your nice words, and for taking the time to react to the article. It means a lot to me.

    I’m honored that you have been reading my article for so long! It means a lot to me.

    @Celine – Yes, me to. I can’t believe it’s still a problem today… half of the world is eating too much and the other one not enough. How unfair.

    @Ily – Thank you! It’s exactly that: those people are a fixture. We are not perfect and can’t be chatty and friendly with everyone, but I believe a little bit of kindness and less prejudice would go a long way. I’m working on that.

  10. i have mixed feelings about homeless street people. in san francisco, many of them frighten me. most aren’t just temporarily “down on their luck.” too many of them have mental problems and/or they have drug habits. the ones that are most desperate are the ones that scare me. some get right up in your face. i hate the aggressive ones. i’ve seen instances of violence, so i give these people a wide berth.
    i won’t give money to one i don’t know. i’d rather give money to groups that feed, house and counsel the homeless.
    on cold days, if i see a homeless guy outside, i’ll buy an extra cup of coffee and take it out to him.
    whether i give them money or not, i always treat homeless people with respect. *most of the time* i’d rather tell them no thanks than ignore them.
    they have a hard, tough life. you’re right, i don’t want ot be like them.
    .-= Seraphine´s last blog ..Raise the Stakes =-.

  11. I don’t usually give money to homeless and people who beg in the streets because in some cases, they waste the money in drugs or booze so when I feel I need to help them, in Spain, I usually bring food to the dinners for homeless (in Madrid, there are some of them) or buy toys for kids in Hospitals or things like that.

    I don’t trust giving money. If a homeless asks me to buy a sandwich for him/her, I usually do it.
    .-= Cornflakegirl´s last blog ..Have a happy St. Patrick´s day =-.

  12. Heartbreaking..,
    the worst is when you see kids. Adults down and out is one thing- but kids. I can only think of what it would be like to live in a box with my three kids in -20 deg weather. In this climate it’s beyond comprehension.
    In the states a lot of the working poor/working class people are only a paycheck away from being out on their keisters in the street or living in their cars. I think it’s sad that some people think that these folks “don’t make an effort” to get out of their circumstance. We have lots of people here in the states with such attitudes. Try getting a job while listing your address as
    “the chevy malibu parked in the Mickey D’s parking lot.” The bootstraps arguments are largely bogus here.
    I agree that not all of them are winos or have drug problems etc. though some of them do have these issues. A lot of lay people don’t realize while they CAN go to shelters many don’t because if you’re drunk or High they’re not going to let you stay- so if it’s a choice between escape (being high) and a warm place to sleep, escape often wins.

    Anyone who lives in an urban area can tell that they had an unpleasant experience with a vagrant at some point. In my experience in critical/emergency care they are more typically victims of crimes than perpetrators. They are preyed on by other vagrants, gang members, teens and other urban hoodlums. I can’t tell you the number of times we get homeless people who were killed or brutally assaulted because they are easy targets.
    One of the ironies here in Syracuse is that the city has always had such low occupancy in the low income public housing that they actually tore down a whole complex of projects this year! It’s definitely a complex issue.

  13. Your blog post reminded me of an experience I had in Portland, OR. Most of the time, I stay away from people that are homeless and begging for money, because I always felt like they think it is their right to be given money, and indeed, one time I declined one beggar here in Buffalo, and I got a F*ck you! in return.

    However, when I was in Portland last summer, a girl was sitting down the public park, and asked for some change. I declined, of course, but even though I declined, she bid me a Have a great day! That made me think. About an hour later, coming back from where I was originally headed to, I passed by her again, and gave her some change. Somehow, I felt compelled to even chat with her and ask how she ended up homeless. She turned out to be a very nice person oddly enough.
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..Book Review: Seeing by José Saramago =-.

  14. @Seraphine – I have rarely seen any homeless being aggressive in Canada but I know what you mean. A lot of them have mental health issues here too. Many hospitals are full and they can’t get the help they need, and they end up in the streets if they are not lucky enough to have a supportive network of family, friends etc. It’s scary.

    @Cornflakegirl – I know I’m weird, but I tend to think the way homeless people spend the change they get is none of my business. After all, nobody tells me to stop wasting my money at Starbucks for instance. So I feel I have no right to tell an homeless person how to spend his change, although I’m not supporting substance abuse.

    But I know buying food is appreciated as well.

    @Seb – The book is a great idea! Thank you for your support!

    @rich b – Once again, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure a lot of people don’t realize they are more likely to be prey than predators!

    I never see kids in the street in Ottawa. A few young adults (in their late teens I’d say) sometimes in the summer. But never kids like I used to see in France as well.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – Interesting! I must admit I rarely give change either, mostly because I don’t actually have change with me. A lot of people don’t ask in Ottawa, they just sit around. Whenever I take pictures in the city, I chat with people because it’s part of the fun. Quite a few homeless are very chatty and obviously very smart… these good experiences led me to understand about homelessness a bit more. There are a lot of stereotypes around…

  15. As a poor student who is never ever paid regularly or on time I often ignore people begging for money (hopefully not because I’m cold-hearted). I guess, in NZ, we do not see people asking for money very often and so when I first came to France I was always handing out the change in my wallet. But it seems that at every corner there is another person asking for money… and I just don’t know when I’d stop giving. Now and again I give money but a lot less often than I used to, I think I would’ve spent 10€ a day with all the people wanting money walking to uni and home.

    p.s. that guys cat looked really cuddly and soft!
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..It’s over! =-.

  16. Very touching post and beautiful photos.

    I remember years ago walking in the streets of Paris and smiling to a homeless guy although I didn’t have money. He was so thankful and said it didn’t happen very often.

    You can’t give to everybody so one needs to make a choice. I usually give to those who play music or make drawings (basically do something for a living).

    I try to look at them even if I don’t give anything but it can be quite difficult sometimes as some are insistant.

    I was in Canada in June and it’s one of the things that annoyed me in Montreal (not in ottawa nor Toronto though): you couldn’t walk for long without having someone following you and asking for change. I think that this makes the situation difficult, and, yes, I started ignoring homeless people; felt guilty about it but then I didn’t feel pressured… Tricky!

  17. I remember when the rules were changed with respect to beggars several years ago. These laws are provincial and were instituted by (the infamous, the evil) Premier Mike Harris. As I was walking along a street in Kingston once, I saw a cop coaching a beggar on what was allowed and what wasn’t. He was not allowed to extend his hand in order to receive spare change; he must use a cup (like those in your photos). He must place the container on the ground and never wave it in anyone’s face. I think it had to be kept below waist level or some such thing. It was like the regulations for a soccer game. (I am fairly certain following people would be against the rules too – perhaps it isn’t in Quebec, or it isn’t enforced.) All of this was done so that people walking down the street wouldn’t feel “threatened”. It was the behaviour of certain aggressive “squeegee kids” in Toronto that touched off the legislation. It was a reaction to that, but the new rules applied to harmless old men sitting on the sidewalk in Kingston too. I think that their exaggerated politeness partly stems from that – if people complain about them, the cops come by, so they are always careful to say “That’s ok! Have a nice day anyway!” when someone refuses to donate. They are not allowed to beg near banking machines, or solicit people getting in and out of vehicles etc., etc. It would be called “aggressive panhandling”; illegal under the Ontario Safe Streets Act.

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