Shake Hands with Homelessness: Richard Leblanc’s Journey to the Edges

It’s another bitter cold night here in Victoria, BC – below freezing again – unusual at any time of the year, especially mid-March. As I turn the heat up in my apartment, I’m thinking about Richard Leblanc spending his 22nd night living rough on the streets.

Richard Leblanc living on the streets, with sign "Journey to the Edges 2012"

Richard Leblanc "Journey to the Edges 2012"

On February 13th, Richard traded places with ‘Ed’ – an as yet unnamed homeless man – who has been living in his van for the last few years. While ‘Ed’ is tucked up warm and cosy in Richard’s farm house, the Woodwynn Farm and Creating Homefulness Society founder and Executive Director is living rough on the streets and sleeping in a beat up old van. He’s reduced his monthly salary to $1 and is living off the equivalent of welfare.  He’s committed to this path until 2012 letters of support for Woodwynn have been written to Central Saanich Mayor and Council and 2012 people have pledged to support the organization’s fundraising goals. That might be weeks, if not months away, but hopefully not years.

Challenging Perceptions of Homelessness

I’m very inspired by Richard’s courageous new undertaking: Journey to the Edges. It speaks volumes about his commitment to challenge our perceptions about the range of issues related to homelessness.

I was curious to know more about this wild adventure into the unknown that’s unfolding on our own downtown streets. So I decided to meet with Richard in person at Green Cuisine. I didn’t recognize him at first, he was bundled up in a hoodie and flack jacket, with a ball cap pulled down over his shaggy hair and unshaven face.

It was a  cold wet afternoon and I offered to buy Richard a substantial hot lunch, but to my surprise, he choose a light meal of soup and raw vegetables.  “Ed has been mentoring me on how to live life on the streets” he laughed. “Ed says, don’t ask for help but never turn down an offer of a free meal.” He was surprised by how tired he was, as if he’d just done a big workout. “When you’re cold and shivering all day and night, it’s physically exhausting.

Richard Leblanc in the van he now calls home. Photo by Lyle Stafford, Times Colonist

It was strangely unnerving sitting next to Richard, who I have worked with in the past. During our conversation about his motivation, media coverage and community engagement strategies, I found myself confused. At times it felt like I was having lunch with a different man who I did not know how to relate to. Someone who was living in a very different reality than my own, on the edges of society, without a safety net.

Suddenly there I was hanging out in the grey zone, the messy place where worlds collide, and it challenged me to confront my own perceptions of homelessness. It wasn’t easy.

The Messy Place Where Worlds Collide

And yet I was there to talk about exactly that – how can we find a bridge that crosses to the other side, so that we can start to navigate the mighty river of inequality that both joins and separates the two worlds? It crossed my mind that perhaps everyone needs to feel the discomfort of looking across the table at the reality of homelessness in order to realize how much we separate ourselves from it. And, how close to home it really is.

We tend to think in black and white, you’re either homeless or you’re not. There’s this great protective divide that society has built between the haves and have-nots, it keeps us safe in our illusion of sanitized security. But in reality, there’s no barrier, it’s not black and white; it’s actually a thin veil and a lot of shades of gray.  It was very shocking to come face to face with the flimsy curtain that blows between the home-full and the home-less. It felt  somehow taboo.

The Four Quarters of Homelessness

Richard talks about four issues that can contribute to someone becoming homeless: addiction, mental illness, economic hardship and free-thinking. Any one of these can easily spill over into one of the other three, and lead to homelessness. I suspect most of us can relate to one or other of this quartet, or at least knows someone who does. It puts it into perspective doesn’t it?

Ultimately I think that’s what Richard’s journey offers us – he’s a conduit between two worlds, providing an opportunity to ‘safely’ experience, understand and hang out in the  messy gray zone where homelessness and homefulness meet. The more people who can stand in that uncomfortable gray zone, even for a few minutes, the better.  We need to literally shake hands with the reality and proximity of homelessness, so that we can start to understand how regular, good, honest people can stumble into circumstances that lead to homelessness.

Richard has crossed over into the grey zone, he’s our guide, leading the way. By trading places with Ed, Richard has flipped the focus of the conversation from “how can we fix it?” to “how can we get to know it?”. To my mind, Richard’s journey is reminiscent of Gandhi’s brilliantly inspired act of throwing off the lawyers’ starched business suit to join his people dressed in rags and living simply off the land. From that place, Gandhi was able to turn the world’s head and non-violently change the course of history.

What Can We Do?

What can we do? Connect. Spread the word, read and comment on his daily Facebook profile or Facebook page updates, follow him on Twitter, talk to Richard if you see him, buy him coffee or lunch, write a blog post, shoot photos or video.  Write letters to the Mayor and Council of Central Saanich, and if you can spare a dime or two, please by all means, donate to Woodwynn Farms.