Hamilton Reflections – The Poverty Lesson

By: Drew Simon

I’ve been hearing a lot of the same question lately, “will you stay in Hamilton after next year?” This is a question that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. What a great time to think about it more, rather than study for my exam on Thursday. As I was lying in bed taking my post-work pre-dinner nap, I thought of my Hamiltonian highlights over the past three years. One thing remains constant, Hamilton is awesome. But not for the reasons that you would think; not because it has a good nightlife, a great university, and a bunch of pretty waterfalls. Hamilton is awesome because of the lessons I have learned that have changed me as a person. If I could narrow it down to my one greatest lesson, it would be my lesson on poverty.

When people think of Hamilton, many think of poverty. So do I, after all, Hamilton does have some of the highest poverty rates in the country along with a massive wealth gap which goes hand in hand with a difference in life expectancy of 21 years from one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods to one of the poorest neighbourhoods. But my view on poverty is not through the traditional lens. I have had the opportunity to travel to some of the more ‘poor’ areas of Hamilton in the past three years. Although they may be underprivileged in wealth, there is one thing they are quite privileged to have: a very strong sense of community.

In an evening in February, me and 7 of my peers made our way to Living Rock, an organization for street involved youth (homeless, gang involved, drug involved). We went there to hang out at the movie night and to get to know some of these youth. When I walked in I was terrified, I was out of my comfort zone, and I regret not getting to know too many youth that night. We spent the night at Living Rock, and the next morning volunteered at the breakfast program. That day I was determined to meet more of these youth. I just finished serving breakfast to some youth when they invited me to come hang out with them. With open arms they welcomed me to their group, and shared some of the most inspiring stories ever. One of the individuals (looked to be 19-20 years old) got kicked out of their youth shelter and spent the evening before on the street. His best friend was in prison and he was no stranger to drug use. Although this may sound ‘sketchy’ and would likely make the average person including myself, uncomfortable, it was quite the opposite. He proceeded to ask me how my day was, asked me about my program at McMaster and shared his academic interests. He then showed me some of his favourite music and asked me if I would like to play basketball with them later that day. This was one of the best displays of community I have ever seen as they welcomed me to their group, no questions asked.

For the rest of the week, we continued visiting different non-profit agencies working around the theme of poverty, offering help where we could, but getting so much more in return. Where we offered a couple hours of work, we gained knowledge that would last us a lifetime. I met many wonderful people, heard their stories and was further inspired. I started seeing poverty differently. Instead of pretending I was texting to avoid a homeless person asking for money, I would make eye contact and smile. I unlearned some of the stigmas surrounding the complex issue of poverty. What I did learn, however, is quite simple – people who live in poverty aren’t evil, they aren’t scary, and they’re no different than you and me. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my three years in Hamilton.