Mike Kennedy sits on a green crate and pillow, an empty Styrofoam cup in hand, begging for change. The 60-year-old’s hands are gnarled from years living on the street. His white beard hangs just under his jawline and is clean shaven up to his face. Kennedy’s wearing a white hat and explains it helps stave off exhaustion from the sun. He’s already dealing with fatigue from multiple sclerosis (MS).
Kennedy’s blue eyes beam as he empties over $100 into his pockets. He panhandles most Saturdays at Fredericton Boyce Farmers Market, raising money for studio time. Kennedy’s been working on a folk album since 1984, a project he initially started to coincide with New Brunswick’s bicentennial.
“If I was on the outside looking at my life with MS and everything and I was looking in, I’d think that guy is nuts,” said Kennedy with a grin stretching across his weathered face.
MS is an autoimmune disease that leaves Kennedy extremely fatigued and off balance. He falls asleep standing up. Kennedy gets $705 a month and has trouble stretching that. He needs a fixed address by the end of August or he may lose his social assistance, money he needs for his medication.
“I have too much month at the end of my cheque,” said Kennedy.
But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing his album.
As he gathers his things at the Farmers Market he stumbles as he lifts his empty green crate and pillow. Kennedy said MS has taken so much from him. “MS took my ability to play guitar.”
Kennedy learned to play guitar at 21. His love for music started much younger in his Moncton home.
He grew up with 11 siblings on Winnipeg Street. His parents, Paul and Ruby worked hard to keep them fed. His mother was a homecare worker, and also worked shifts at a convenience store. His father worked long hours. Kennedy said he loved his father, but there was a wall between them.
“The father-son relationship just didn’t happen. He missed it completely and I missed it completely because it just wasn’t there. My father was so busy and I understand. He was so busy looking after, no, providing for 12 children,” said Kennedy.
Although both parents worked, Kennedy said he still grew up poor, so poor in fact, “ I couldn’t even pay attention in school,” said Kennedy with a chuckle.
His mother is his hero. “In my eyes my mom was the strongest person on this earth,” said Kennedy, remembering her sacrifices.
At home is where he learned to dance and to appreciate music. He remembers fondly Merle Haggard’s, ‘Hungry Eyes’.
Over time he learned to write lyrics and music for folk, gospel and some children’s music. “When I decided to become a musician, I obtained the status of recording artist then I put all my creative moments in me, into maintaining,” said Kennedy, and he’s been struggling to do since 1984.
Kennedy, 27, was confident he’d get his break. The Richard Hatfield government was providing grants for local artists to help celebrate the bicentennial. He wrote a song called, ‘New Brunswick ‘84’. He spent $1,000 financing the song. Instead,
the government took a different route. Kennedy’s life did too.
A year later he was incarcerated for break-and-enter. His MS symptoms began to surface, he earned the nickname “Shaky,” while incarcerated. He was officially diagnosed in 1992 at 35.
“They figure I’m just drinking and wasting my life away,” said Kennedy.
He’s had trouble obtaining employment because of his prior conviction and condition. Kennedy has lived in about 30 homes. He moved to Fredericton three years ago. Kennedy gets three square meals a day at the Fredericton Community Kitchen. Now, he lives in a tent just outside of the soup kitchen.
“There’s a lot of undue pressure being homeless now, but it’s all going to change, I can see it,” said Kennedy.
He now has a personal advocate.
Kennedy met Claude Sirois over a year ago. Sirois can speak legally on Kennedy’s behalf since late March. The military veteran met Kennedy in the middle of winter and offered up his couch. Sirois offers Kennedy meals, helps deliver Kennedy’s digital guitar so he can busk, and sits in on meetings with Kennedy’s social worker.
“I signed a confidentiality form to speak on his behalf with his social worker,” said Sirois.
“He can fall asleep during the meeting because of his condition.”
Sirois feels the system takes advantage of Kennedy. One source of pain for the both is a rent subsidy provided for low income people, which didn’t follow Kennedy after his eviction.
Sirios said homeless individuals should able to set their address at the health centre so they don’t risk losing their social assistance. He feels if people such as Kennedy lose their medication it could have dire consequences.
“People should go have a look at it,” said Sirois, with tears in his eyes.
He remembers how complicated it was to navigate Veteran Affairs and now he helps Kennedy. Sirois said he’s seen Kennedy offer cash to those in need. He’s even seen people working in the system pay out of pocket for shoes for Kennedy. But he thinks more could be done.
“I just try to help the guy out the way he deserves to be,” said Sirois.
Kennedy still panhandles, busks, and tells jokes. He’s preparing for the debut of his “Homeless,” song on November 3 at an event put on by the Community Action Group on Homelessness. He hopes to sell some CDs but is still working on his album.
“I may never be recognized as a singer songwriter while I’m alive,” said Kennedy. “But my determination is to leave a footprint, to blaze a trail.”
Listen to Mike Kennedy’s ‘Another Night’ on YouTube.