We have a friend who I’ll call Dave. Dave is a tenant at the rooming house my wife runs. It’s a place that provides affordable shelter for the marginalized, the formerly homeless, former addicts, drunks and those for whom life became a labyrinth of pain and loss. It’s a special place. It’s become a community and a haven for those who lost that in their lives and it teaches us valuable lessons all the time.

            Dave has severe mental health issues. He’s a young man, probably in his mid thirties. But he has the difficult job of trying to navigate his way through the world with fewer tools than most of us.  He’s a schizophrenic. He’s anxious a lot of the time and has trouble concentrating and remembering even simple every day things. Questions perplex him. It takes him a long time to focus and get to the fact of things.

            But he’s a very nice man. One of the things that bamboozles Dave is the necessity to keep his room clean. The way his mind functions this seems to be a rather low priority. But it affects the way the others in the building are able to live. We found milk bottles filled with pee in his closet. There were cigarette butts everywhere and the counters and table hadn’t seen water in months. The smell was more than a little worrying.

            After notices and warnings to improve his hygiene and cleanliness, nothing changed. My wife was at her wits end. She never wants to remove people from the house, never wants to cause them angst or risk making them homeless again. She’s intent on helping, on showing her tenants that someone cares. So we went to talk to Dave about how his lack of cleanliness was becoming a health issue.

            He just couldn’t get what we were saying. He couldn’t see what he needed to do. We thought we were left with the choice of asking him to leave. When we mentioned it we watched his face fall into resignation. He picked up a backpack that he kept ready for just such an eventuality. There was a pair of shoes tied and dangled across the back. He just shrugged and asked for a ride to the homeless shelter.

But there was another choice. When we saw how conditioned he was to accept being tossed neither of us could bring ourselves to do it. We both know how it feels to be jettisoned like we don’t matter, how loneliness feels and we felt compassion. So we offered to teach him how to clean and maintain his space if he would let us. He did.

So the next day we showed up with cleaning supplies. We spent a couple hours showing Dave how to keep his tiny 12’ X 12’ room clean. We scrubbed it from top to bottom, changed the sheets, found fresh towels, vacuumed and even took him to theSt.Vincent de Paul store for a table lamp and a picture to hang on his wall. He took great care to hang the picture just so.

            Well, a month or so went by and Dave’s room got better every week. He passed room inspections and was doing his laundry on his regular days. We felt good about that. We felt gratified that he’d picked up on the lessons and was making good efforts to follow through on them. We felt good when he got confused about the days after a month and actually asked the building caretaker to come and inspect his room.

            But we felt best when it was reported that Dave was vacuuming the laundry room voluntarily. He did the window ledges, behind the machines, the edges of the ceiling and even the tops of the cupboards. Then he mopped the floor. It was amazing because he said he really liked doing it. We were thrilled. Dave’s passed every room inspection since then and there’s no longer any funky odors coming from his room.

            We could have done what most people would have done and gave him the boot. We could have reacted with disdain. We could have behaved like landlords more concerned with the state and the marketability of the property than the lives of the people we house. No one would have blamed us for that.

             But Dave taught us that if we take the time to consider things there is always a way to reach people, even the most infirmed and seemingly unreachable. If we genuinely care, if it’s not just an act for posterity or acclaim, there is always a way to reach them. You reach them with your heart. You reach them by remembering that we all began our journey as somebody’s daughter or somebody’s son. You reach them by reaching out – not pushing away.


About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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