We slept inside our small car
in the parking lot of a large shopping center
for over 60 consecutive nights –
as a homeless family in 1990.
We were heading back to the streets of Toronto, to continue to fight the war against everything and everyone who believed that justice and equality did not belong to every woman, child, and man living on the face of the Earth. Yet I was returning to the streets of Toronto with my family to fight this war at a time when my body was in its weakest condition.
I had lost most of my physical strength from the massive loss of blood I had suffered in that motel that afternoon. And my body was racked with pain from all the attacks I had suffered, at the hands of all the different people who had pounded and battered and injured my body over the years. I was in no condition to live on the streets, or to even lead a protest for my family while we lived there.
But I had a job to do. And nothing in this world, and beyond it, was going to stop this God from doing the work that she came here to devote a lifetime to accomplish. Not my weakened body, not my failing health, not the deceitful and heartless bureaucrats or politicians who had lied to us, or not even the knowledge that I could end up dying while I was out there on the streets – nothing or no one was going to keep me from completing my job. Not even me.
The first day we returned to the streets of Toronto to live in our small car, we did not know where we wanted to go to set up a home. We did not want to go back to live on the grounds of City Hall, or any government property. There was no need for us to do so. We had already established that the political leaders of the city of Toronto did not have any integrity, and could not be trusted to speak truthfully, or to even keep their word. Going back to Queen’s Park was also a waste of time.
It was just a provincial version of the government of the city of Toronto. So we drove around the city of Toronto for a few days looking for a place to live on one of its many streets. We finally returned to the city of Scarborough, where we had just stayed in The Lido Motel for a month. Scarborough was a city where I had spent my first few years in Canada.
It was also the place where Andraggon spent his first five years, after he came up from Jamaica to live with his mom in 1970. So we both knew that city better than we did most of the other district we had lived in, including the city of North York, where we spend eight years of our lives living as a family. Scarborough was also a part of Toronto that had a reputation for being a place that was not as cluttered with buildings and houses and factories like other urban areas. It had a lot of parks, and many parkland areas where families could take their children to relax and enjoy some of nature’s beautiful settings.
It was an easy choice for us to make, to go to Scarborough, to continue our family street protest . We finally found a suitable place. It was located at the corner of Lawrence Avenue West and Dufferin Avenue, inside the grounds of a large shopping centre – in a parking lot. But this was not just any parking lot. It was a large parking that was well lit, and which was also very empty in the evenings when the shopping mall closed each day.
We chose that particular spot because it had all the conveniences of living that we needed to have access to during the day. There was a Macdonald’s and a Burger King just across the street, with washrooms. There was also a gas station that opened all night, and which had a washroom, which we could use whenever we were stuck for one. The mall itself had a supermarket, a Shoppers Drug Mart, and a few other stores. We could eat takeout food when we needed to, and use a washroom when we had to. So the problem of having a place to empty our bladder or our bowels was solved for us.
To make sure that we were under as much light as possible, while we slept there during the night, we always parked in a spot in that parking lot that was near that main intersection. We were not too close to the street but also only about three or so parking lengths from it. A few nights after we got there, a group of metro police officers dropped in to see us. Or should I say, they pounced on us in the middle of the night – just as the other group of officers had done that night they surprised and intimidated us with their batons, guns, flash lights, cruisers, and sheer numbers on the grounds of New City Hall.
While we were sleeping, we were awoken up by lights being flashed inside our car windows - batons pounding on our car, and the high beam from a number of police cruisers that had surrounded our small car. We were put through the same aggressive and intimidating procedures that we were subjected to that night at New City Hall. The same hostile attitude, the same stupid and disrespectful questions, and the same arrogance that law enforcement had become known for having with the average resident of the city of Toronto.
My husband and I were both African Canadians, and we were very aware of the fact that we were at the mercy of a metropolitan police force, that still was overwhelmingly made up of male officers, who were predominantly of European ancestry. And a force that still had a problem of racist police officers using their authority, and their weapons, to target and mistreat people of colour, especially people of African heritage. And wherever racism raised its filthy and vulgar and revolting head, sexism was the foundation that it stood on. The macho mentality of the Male Culture forms the distorted ego, and the body of deformed thinking, of superiority over the female gender, that feeds the poisoned fire, which keeps the contaminated flames of racism alive, and other social plagues, which have infected and polluted the lives and future of most of humankind.
So I knew that these mostly male, and Caucasian officers, who had surrounded our car in the middle of the night could assault me just as easily as they could my husband. After about half hour of grilling and intimidating us these people, who are paid to serve and protect the people of Toronto, packed up and drove away. We had survived their onslaught the same way that we did with the officers that night at City Hall over a month earlier. We stayed in that parking lot for about two month or so during evenings and throughout the nights. The police did not try a second show of force against us again, while we stayed there. They did, however, come around in their marked cruisers at different times during many of that night. But they left us alone.
Living in that parking lot for those few months, in our car, was an experience that gave us the opportunity to look at life in Toronto from a entirely different perspective. It was almost like we were a family of outsiders who were just sitting in our car, and watching people around us go about their business of living their lives. We were like refugees in our own country of residence who were being forced to live like gypsies, in a small battered car.
One of the things about living in that parking lot for those few months was that we were also parked in the same part of this parking lot, where there was a Goodwill Store container sitting about twenty yards from the spot where we always parked. About every two weeks, this container would become overfilled with clothes, and other small items that were placed inside it by residents of Scarborough. People of all different races would drop off items that they wanted to donate to Goodwill.
We would sit there and watch as they would drive up, and then put their bags of clothes, and other stuff inside that big sealed container, that had an opening that was big enough to stuff donated clothing items inside it. The others items they would place carefully outside the container next to the bin. Just about every evening we would sit and watch this nightly ritual as it took place before our eyes.
I was moved to see that Torontonians cared enough about their fellow residents, to take the time to bring personal items that they no longer wanted to keep, and donate them to a place like Goodwill, for them to then sell to the public for a small fraction of what that item was worth, or would normally sell for in a regular retail store. Any savings that a family could make from buying clothing and other items from places like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other stores like that, could be used to spend on other things that the family needed. Food was at the top of the list.
There were food banks in areas where we had lived before, and also throughout the city of Toronto. We did not use any of them at that point in our lives. But more and more families in Toronto were using food banks. More and more, clothing banks, like the one that we parked near every night, were also popping up in different parking lots, and other public places in Scarborough. I was happy to see that they were there for people who needed food or clothing for their family, that they could get for free or buy from these goodwill type stores. Yet I was sad to know that people were forced to buy their clothes, or even to go to food banks, to try to make ends meet.
It was not the people who dropped off items in this Goodwill container that caught our attention each night, however, as we sat there relaxing and waiting to fall asleep each night in our car in that parking lot. It was the people who dropped by that container to pick up, and take out items from that Goodwill box. Whenever that container became full, or close to being full, people from all over the neighbourhood (and elsewhere) would swoop down on it and just raid it.
First, one person would come by, and start to pick through that container. Then another person would show up, and do the same. Soon there would be a group of people picking through the items in that container. They would pull them out of it, and then either put back the ones that they did not want, or they would just leave them on the ground beside the box.
In an hour or so that container that use to look like a tidy and clean bin a short while before, would look like a messy area, with clothes scattered on the ground in front of the box. It was an odd scene. There would be people gathered around that clothing container picking through items like they were at a flee market or a Goodwill store looking for items to buy.
They went about their business calmly and casually checking each item, and then selecting ones which they wanted to keep. These they would put in bags that they had brought with them. After about a month of watching that scene as it unfolded in front of the clothing bank, we started to notice that there were people who were making regular visits to this container. We even got the opportunity to speak to some of these people on different occasions.
After a while, my husband started to go to that clothing container himself, and pick up clothes for his family, such as jeans, tee shirts, and other items that he thought we could use. My husband was the consummate provider for his family. And one evening, after we had watched the piles of clothes that were thrown on the ground by the people who were picking through it, he went over and started to go through those clothes on the outside of the bin himself. As far as he was concerned, these were clothes that were left inside, or at this Goodwill container, by people who wanted to help other residents of Toronto get used clothes that they could use.
As far as my husband was concerned, these same people who left these items for Goodwill, would have loved to have given them to people who needed clothing, if they were able to do so in person. But since they could not do so the next best thing for them to do was to donate it through non-profit organizations like Goodwill, so that it could earn some revenues from selling these items to the public for a few dollars. So he did not have a problem with taking anything from outside that box, or even from inside it, that he felt his family could use.
I agreed with my husband. People had a right to be able to live in a Society where they could provide for their family’s basic needs, including shelter, food, and clothing. If they were being denied the means or the opportunities to do so, then they had the right to look for ways to look after their family without harming others in the process. Taking clothes, or other used items which other people, just like them, had left for Goodwill as donations, was not a moral crime. These were used items that were being given away by the people of Toronto, with the intention that the people who could least afford to buy these items when they were new, would be able to buy them for a few dollars through a non-profit organization like Goodwill.
These people who raided these boxes were getting these used items that the Samaritans who gave them away intended for them to ultimately have. The only problem was that they were going to the box itself to do so themselves, instead of going to The Goodwill Stores to pay a small amount for them. Even if the law of the land said that they were breaking the law by doing so, the higher laws of the Cosmos said that it was there moral right to do so, if they needed to. Any Society that passes laws that charged someone for removing donated clothes from a clothing container, that was located in a parking lot or some other public area, is a Society that does not have the interest or the welfare of the people in mind – especially the people who are living in poverty.
The only concern I had was how untidy they left that area at the end of the evening. Things started to look so bad around that container that the police began to conduct raids on people who were raiding those boxes. It was a strange kind of raid, and one which made us laugh at how funny it look, while at the same time how sad a scene it was as my family and I watched it taking place at different times.
One minute a group of people would be picking through that container, and the next minute a police cruiser would pull up a short distance from that container, out of nowhere. Then these officers would quickly get out of their car and walk quickly over to where those people were gathered, and tell them to put back the clothes they had taken from that container. Then these officers would sometimes pull these items from these people’s hands, and then shove it back inside the box.
Afterwards they would chase everyone away from that container, and tell them not to come back there to take any more clothes. Some of these people would just wait nearby, and then returned a short while after the police had left, and then quickly scoop up the clothing they had forced to returned, before they quickly left that area. Most, however, did not return that evening. That memory of seeing people raiding that clothing container, and then being raided themselves by police officers, was the most memorable one that I have of the months we spent sleeping in our car in that parking lot at nights.
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