(Darren Calabrese/National Post)

Barbara Kay: On cleanliness, dignity and our obligation to the homeless

A man is covered in snow while sleeping on the sidewalk in Toronto's Financial District as temperatures dip to -25 degrees with windchill on Tuesday, January 22, 2013. Through a comprehensive a study, the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness estimates at least 200,000 Canadians access homeless emergency services or sleep outside in a given year - with the number potentially much higher.

My mother-in-law, Maryka, was healthy and independent well into her 80s, but eventually short-term memory loss and general frailty set in. Maryka studiously ignored our gentle suggestion to consider assisted living, and it seemed unkind to pressure her, but on the other hand, we didn’t want the decision made for her by a broken hip or a kitchen fire. Where, we wondered, was the line between respect for her sense of autonomy and responsible prudence with regard to her safety and dignity?

I sought advice from a friend, a social worker who knew my mother-in-law well. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that Maryka’s wonted ladlylike, even somewhat aristocratic self-presentation, was beginning to show worrisome signs of decline, including incipient neglect to personal grooming.

At that, my friend said decisively, “Personal hygiene is the line. Once someone who has always been meticulous about grooming starts losing interest, that’s when they need support, and it is fair for you to urge assisted living, as she would be ashamed, if she were still high-functioning, to be seen in public as anything less than fastidious.” That settled our doubts. We made arrangements at a pleasant facility near us. Maryka put up some resistance, but soon acquiesced, settled into her new home without fuss and responded well to the benefits of supervised communal living. 

But what if she had put up such ferocious resistance that it would have seemed to us an act of cruelty to coerce her? What if she had deteriorated to the point that she lost all inclination to remain clean, but refused to tolerate care? These are the questions I asked myself when I saw the — for me — disturbing comedy drama, The Lady in the Van, based on the eponymous book by English writer Alan Bennett. 

The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Bennett’s prickly friendship with Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett met in the 1970s. He allowed her to park her battered van “temporarily” in the driveway of his home in trendy Camden, but she stayed for 15 years, dying in 1989. Bennett eventually discovered that Miss Shepherd was Margaret Fairchild, a gifted but mentally fragile pianist. She had been a nun briefly and unsuccessfully, then was committed to an institution by her brother and escaped. A reckless motorcyclist killed himself plowing into her van, for which she blamed herself and baselessly feared a murder charge, hence her permanent retreat to homelessness. 

The thing about Miss Shepherd was that she was, not to put too fine a point on it, filthy, and stank to high heaven. Little is left to the imagination. People who came near her would grimace and turn their heads away. Most disgustingly, she used plastic bags as a toilet and then dumped them in Bennett’s garbage can. Sometimes she missed; at one point we see Bennett’s character stepping into her excrement on his walkway. 

So here’s the thing. Bennett is perceived by his neighbours as something like a saint for putting up with this woman all those years. They are well-meaning people who struggle to control their revulsion in the name of a social liberalism they all share, which tells them people have the right to live as they choose, even in a semi-feral state. Social workers and police in England (and here) cannot force people to take baths against their will. So everyone was distressed, but there was nothing they felt they could do. 

I did not think Bennett was a saint at all.  A saint would have asked her to share his home. Miss Shepherd amused and exasperated Bennett by turns. But even at her most amusing, she was not welcome in his clean and comfortable house, even to use the toilet (she shoved her way in once when taken short and afterward he scrubbed every inch of the bathroom like one possessed.) There was something unethical, it seemed to me (and by implication in the film, to Bennett himself), in his ability to detach himself from her abased condition not 20 feet away from his civilized, hygienic habitat, yet exploit her for lucrative writerly fodder. 

Being filthy was, I know, more or less the natural state of most human beings throughout most of our history, but when everyone was dirty and smelly, the concept of dignity was not attached to hygiene. Now it is, and so it seems wrong and patronizing to speak of the “right” to live like an animal. 

I am sure my husband and I would never have let his mother expose herself to the public gaze in a state unbecoming a civilized human being, no matter how she fought us. I think we owe the unloved Miss Shepherds of the world the same consideration — whether they like it or not.

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