It was summer 1970. I was a student at the Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service in Toronto. The director, Dr. Ed File, minister of the United Church of Canada, had prepared us for what he called the “urban plunge.” We were to go into the ghettos with $5 in our pockets and interact with the displaced persons we found there. The goal was to see people as they really are within a corporate system that necessitates winners and losers, rather than projecting stereotypes on them.
One evening, after going into the chapel for a bible service, I received a ticket and was assigned a bunk bed. As I sat on my perch on the upper bunk, I looked around the room and composed this poem:
Monks of Skid Row
A strange breed of monks,
these 12,000 derelicts of life,
these lovable, genial, isolated human beings.
They live with a past not to be forgotten,
a present built out of isolation,
a future that promises and hopes
These monks of the inner city
are more alone than the strictest contemplative,
often more redeemed
as they traffic in their currency of cigarettes.
Where to get beer, a bed, a meal, a job
and sometimes money?
They are selfless and concerned,
these islands of humanity,
boasting of a day’s work
and regretting a wasted life.
They trust NO ONE as they walk
their silent world of pain and fear,
this order of the street,
people without futures, without rights.
Poor, pushed, passed by and possessed
by those who provide beds and food,
keeping them on one aimless
treadmill of life.