All photos via the author.
Panhandling is a polarizing issue in Canada. On the one side, organizations like the Canadian Observatory On Homelessness argue that the “panhandling problem,” is really a reflection of a homelessness crisis that needs to be addressed. Others, like ex-Toronto Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, argue that it’s a violation of public space, and that we “need to give police the power to clear these people out of the way.”
A 2011 poll found that 38 percent of Canadians think police should crack down harder and push panhandlers off the streets—even if that means some jail time. Thirty-one percent think we should learn to accept them as part of our cities (22 percent preferred not to answer). The poll also found that people from Quebec are the most accepting of panhandling in Canada, and least likely to say police should crack down.
At the forefront of Montreal’s panhandling scene are the city’s iconic squeegee punks. Working in small groups, this dreaded, tatted, torn-denim-clad army walk into traffic and wash windshields for change with short-handled squeegees at most of Montreal’s major intersections. On the nationwide annual circuit that many Canadian squeegee punks travel, this city is a popular summer stop. Their strong presence, along with their reputation for being misanthropic and hot-tempered, has tested Montreal’s relatively inclusive attitude in recent years, with some business owners going so as far as calling the trend an epidemic.
I decided to spend a day with a group of them at one of Montreal’s more popular squeegee corners to find out what these guys are up to in a day. Here’s how that went.
Finding a squeegee punk is easy—look for a high traffic area with a stoplight (e.g. St Catherine Street or St. Laurent Boulevard) and you’ll usually find a couple working diligently.
I biked over to Square St. Louis in Montreal’s Plateau to see if they would let me sit and talk with them. There were about half-a-dozen squeegee punks within a 50-metre radius of the intersection, standing and talking, smoking, and washing windshields in traffic. Along the sidewalk was a collection of their stuff—Doritos wrappers, army backpacks, and malt liquor bottles.
As squeegee punks are not known for being the most welcoming of communities, it took a minute to gather the courage to approach them. I asked a man sitting with his dog if I could sit with them. He told me his name was Chris, and that he had no problem with it but his price was ten dollars.
“OK, so,” he said in a raspy voice as he sat down cross-legged across from me on the grass, clutching a 40, “What do you wanna know? That I got stabbed in the ribs, shot at, that I’ve been to prison, that my best friends have screwed me over for the last 12 years? That I’ve done everything there is to make money except prostitution? That my doctor gave me a low dosage of methadone just now and it took everything I had not to knock him out? Hey, can someone get me a fucking cigarette!?”
There was frustration in his voice. His eyes darted back and forth purposefully in the top of his head like he was reliving old memories.
“I escaped from my first group home after juvie when I was 13 by jumping out of my window. They caught me an hour later and moved me to a new home that was a lot more lenient. So I started hangin’ with these guys from juvie who would pay me for various things, and we started… fuckin’ drinkin' booze, smoking joints. We were hustling poolhalls, I was fuckin’ their bitches, I was doin’ whatever I wanted because I was young, I was beautiful, and I was free. I started rollin’ downtown and started hangin’ out with some squeegee punks I knew from juvie and next thing you know it was… it felt good.
It felt good because we made great money, we got to get drunk all day, we got to do all the drugs we wanted, we got to fuck all the women we wanted. We were kings. We were kings of the street. We didn’t owe nothing to nobody and nobody fucked with us because we were fucking crazy. We were a family of violent ass motherfuckers who had nothing to lose but everything to gain.”
Then he introduced me to his dog, Rusty.
“If it weren’t for Rusty I would have offed myself years ago.”
“I got the [they lied] tattoo on my hands for my friend who was wrongfully accused of murder and went to prison. He killed the guy by accident. So we were tripping on acid and I got this tattoo.”
He showed me the track marks on his arm and neck, but told me not to take photos of them.
“When you get sick, your veins shrink, so I had to shoot up in my neck.”
“A lot of people turn to this because they reject the 9 to 5, they reject the office job, but you know what? I want that. I want the white picket fence and the wife and the 10-year-old kid running around telling me he learned how to ride a bike. You think we’re doing this because we want to? Hey Groove, if you could be doing something else, would you?”
Groove, or “Phil de Groove” had more of a bounce in his step and optimism in his voice: “Well, ya sometimes I think that. But in the summer time man, it’s beautiful out here.”
Chris introduced me to his other friend Mark, or “Dirty Mark.” He had been squeegeeing while Chris was talking to me. Mostly he was getting honked and yelled at. A white Mercedes tried to run him over at one point.
I asked Dirty Mark where he got the name from: “I dunno, probably because I’ve fucked a lot of bitches without condoms and I may shit my pants from time to time.”
Fair enough. Chris told me about the social connection Chris felt to the community.
“Most of my friends are dead. I wouldn’t consider most of the people on the street my friends. Acquaintances, yes. But not friends. There are two huge misconceptions about us: that we’re all the same, and that we don’t work hard. So first, we’re not one unit. Guys like me and my bros, we try to be entertainers. We try to put a smile on people’s faces, and show them that life ain’t as bad because you could be in our position.
Then you have the guys who are really hardcore coke junkies and crackheads. Then you have fuckin’ yuppie kids who are just using squeegees to try to make fuckin’ money. Then you have the guys who have been on the street for 20 years and never made anything with their lives. Then you have the people with mental disorders, then there are the people who have everything—family, house, and they just come down and pretend that they’re streetcore. So there are many different genres. We’re not just one people.”
Chris had to go, so I went to hang out with Dirty Mark for a while. I asked him about the pragmatic side of squeegeeing—how you go up to a car, how much money they make, etc.
“Right now it’s slow, he said. On a Monday, at the beginning of the week it’s slow but on Thursday, Friday, when everyone gets their paycheque, it picks up. When the Habs were in the playoffs it was crazy. When Montreal’s happy, we’re happy”
Chris came back to give his input: “In the mornings when people are all stressed out and late for work, you gotta ask. But if it’s at night, like midnight, and people have been partying and are drunk, you just go right up and wash the cars.”
Dirty Mark told me that he was born in Halifax, and has been sleeping next to ATM machines since he was 12. He woke up in the Montreal General Hospital one time with 750 mg of methadone and 30 mg of Lorazepam in his system, where the typical dosages are 10 mg and 1 mg, respectively.
“I’m lucky to be alive. I really am.”
Mark has squeegeed almost everywhere in Canada and in the States, but likes Montreal.
“Montreal is good, but in most other places I’ve been you can get arrested or shot. So life is good, well except for the fact that I wake up shaking and vomiting every morning before I drink one or two 40s. Hey Steve, bro, do you like hardcore rap?”
He put his headphones in my ears and told me it was "Slam" by Onyx.
“It’s fuckin’ nice right?”
He told me he wanted to be a truck driver, because he loves driving fast and listening to loud music. I asked Chris about the territories that squeegee punks have in Montreal, if it was divided amongst different factions.
“We don’t have those, no, not anymore. We used to, back when we were more organized in the 90s. We used to have a purpose, a fight against the system. The old school motherfuckers know what I’m talking about. There’s a fight against the system now, but it needs to be a lot smarter than smashing windows and breaking shit.”
Nasty Mark quickly ducked out of the street when he saw a police van drive by. He stood on the sidewalk and hid his booze in a Starbucks cup behind his back.
“You get a ticket for soliciting to a vehicle, same as prostitution,” he told me. “I can’t go to prison,” he said, looking down and spinning his squeegee. “I couldn’t take the withdrawals.”
I looked around for Chris. He had his head down on a bench on the other side of the park. He was visibly distressed. I asked Nasty Mark what Chris was upset about.
“He lost someone. We call him Angry Chris. I dunno why he’s so angry. Maybe it’s because of this fucked up world we live in,” he said, stepping into traffic.
Groove and the five or six other guys hanging around whose names I never got had all left to get high. Angry Chris had his head down on a bench and Dirty Mark was bobbing his head in the middle of traffic to old school rap in an amphetamine-induced haze.
It felt like the right time to leave, so I got on my bike and said goodbye to Dirty Mark before riding off. I had gotten to know two very broken people, and found it equally inspiring as it was sad. Despite a lifetime of hardship, they’re still fighting, and beneath Dirty Mark’s optimism and Chris’s angry diatribe, the men were trapped in a cycle of drug dependence and mental illness—a symptom of the crippling, larger issue of homelessness and substance abuse in the city.