When Matt was 13, his abusive father kicked him out of the house because he suspected Matt was gay. He spent the next 15 years begging for money, mostly in Toronto’s Queen Street area. In his teen years, he’d make about $20 a day. “I was happy with that. It was all I needed and I’d use it to buy smokes.” As he got older and became a “squeegee kid,” as they are known — someone who wipes windshields of cars stopped in traffic and solicits money from drivers — he could make as much as $200 a day. By then he needed that kind of dough because he’d become hooked on heroin. He got off the street three years ago and today shares an apartment with a friend, paying the rent with his government disability cheque (he has post stress traumatic disorder because of past abuse), and supplements his income by organizing flash mob comedy shows on the street.
The 33-year-old is a budding comedian who goes by the stage name Matt Comedian Yeti Andrews. Part of his success as a panhandler was his humorous approach: “I’d sit on the street with signs that I hoped would get a laugh. My favourite was “Out-of-work drug dealer. Our mayor is ‘clean.’”
Matt recognizes that it’s difficult for people to determine which panhandlers to give money to. “You can’t give to everyone. One idea is to have a set amount that you are willing to donate,” he says. He goes on to say: “You have to pick and choose because everyone has a sad story.” He himself would be most apt to give to those who “look institutionalized to street life,” usually men over 50. “They’re the ones who have been on the streets for years and don’t even really bother asking for money.”
Many young panhandlers use their donations to buy drugs, he acknowledges, but points out, “I’d sooner give a junkie $5 than have him stab me.” Also, the Toronto sex trade “is immense,” he says, and youth are often the most preyed upon.
Whether or not you choose to give, the single most important thing you can do is acknowledge the person you see in front of you, according to Matt. “Don’t look down on them and, if you can, get down to their level and talk to them face to face. But keep your guard up because some people are nuts,” he laughs. “If you can’t help them, say ‘maybe tomorrow.’ And remember, eye contact is key. Because we’re still human beings.”
Sheima Benembarek was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005. In 2015, she relocated to Toronto. At first, the city seemed so much bigger, impersonal — and even threatening — until a fateful encounter in the subway one day.
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