You can’t fake homelessness

Glen Whiffen
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Reporters’ foray into life on the street is no match for the stark realities

Looking at a homeless person’s bed, I shudder.

It’s spread out on a concrete ledge in downtown St. John’s. I can’t imagine crawling inside it.

It’s 10 p.m. Wednesday, raining but warm for late January. Two days before, there were extremely high winds and the layer of cardboard covering the bed wouldn’t have stayed put, so I figure the owner must have been here since.

The whole bed is damp, the pillow and blanket grimy with dirt.

It took work to assemble it. Discarded ends of commercial carpet are laid on the concrete, then a thick layer of cardboard, a blanket, a pillow without a case, then more cardboard on top — a large box broken down.

Bits of clothing are strewn near the bed, along with another blanket,  empty cups and plastic bottles.

Put walls around it all and it could be someone’s messy bedroom.

But that’s the problem — there are no walls.

How does a person find himself homeless? Depression? Drug or alcohol addiction? Another form of mental illness?

I’m here because, as a journalist,  you try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

On this night, I can’t come close.


Telegram reporter Tara Bradbury and I tried to dress the part — worn snowpants and old coats, hats and boots. We hit the streets early in the evening. Tara’s carrying a large backpack and I’m lugging a garbage bag with extra clothes. We have no money and no ID but we’re carrying the cellphones and notepads we need to do our work.

We look for areas frequented by homeless people and ask people for directions to shelters. We plan to try and spend the night at a shelter, not to take up valuable beds, but to get a better sense of the circumstances people find themselves in.

Two women give us directions to the Wiseman Centre on Water Street. One of them says there’s a large tree in a churchyard nearby  that’s “safe to sleep under, if it comes to that.”

It starts pouring. Before long, we’re soaked.


Walking downtown, you taste the salt from the street on your lips. The smell of food stirs your hunger. The musky aroma of marijuana sometimes drifts past your nose.

A couple in a restaurant sits drinking wine in the warmly lit interior. They’re at a window table that’s draped with a white cloth. Other patrons are at various stages of dinner. From the outside looking in, they are silent, moving in slow motion.

Shoppers leave stores with bags and point their keyless-entry remotes at cars. They jump in and pull away.

Outside a bar, two men and a woman are smoking. We ask for directions. The younger man recommends one with Wi-Fi, where the food is better. The young woman tells us to be safe.

We sit in a location popular with panhandlers. Some people stare as they walk by, others don’t spare us a glance. A couple walks past with their dogs and one dog pauses and barks at Tara. The owner pulls it away without saying anything and they continue on.

A Metrobus slows down going through a puddle so as not to splash us.


We approach the Wiseman Centre — a fine-looking building, well-kept  and clean. Water drips off us as we enter, and a lady passes me a tissue through the circular opening in the plexiglass barrier to wipe off the ’80s-era prescription glasses I’d pulled out of an old storage box in my basement.

I speak into the window: “We are homeless for the night.”

We’re told we have to be approved by social services. We are given a piece of paper with a phone number and directed to a phone in the corner. The number is for the Department of Advanced Education and Skills. We hesitate, knowing that if we identify ourselves, we won’t be approved.

A staff member comes out to talk to us and explains the process, and how the centre works. He doesn’t press us about why we’re there, but he says we’ll have to be up front with the social worker on the other end of the line.

We decide to tell him who we are and what we’re doing. At first he’s upset, fearing the confidentiality of the shelter’s clients would be breached. As we explain our intent and offer reassurances, he relaxes and laughs a little. He understands what we are doing, but he can’t let us in.

“You’ll have to try to set something up during the daytime.”


Outside, we seek shelter from the rain under the overhang of a nearby business. A man walks up to us, hand in his pocket. He pulls out a cigarette and offers to share it — his last one. He asks if we’re homeless and if we’re trying to get in the Wiseman Centre. He stayed there a few years ago but has his own place now.

Two clients from the Wiseman Centre notice us and stop for a smoke on their way to Tim’s. One guy tells us of his past troubles and says he’s found comfort and peace at the Wiseman Centre. He talks about the good food, the people.

“If you get in, we’ll see you in the morning,” he said.

He pauses as he walks away. “You guys need anything? Money for a coffee? I don’t mind.”

We say no, and thanks.

We head to a corner of Long’s Hill, where down-and-out people and sex trade workers have been known to hang out. There’s no one around.

The clothes inside my snowsuit are so wet, they stick to my arms and legs like bandages. The rain on the street forms into rivulets and flows into the run-off drains.

We stop being homeless and head home for the night.




5 p.m. — At the office, I dig into my garbage bag full of old clothes and get ready. Old snowmobile suit, shaggy cap, 1980s-era prescription glasses.

5:10 p.m. — Wait outside for my ride to the downtown St. John’s area. Get looks as people enter and exit the mall in which our office is located.

 6 p.m. — Walking in the east end downtown checking allies and overhangs, the War Memorial, Harbour Park, and other areas known to be frequented sometimes by the homeless.

 6:30 p.m. — Meet two women on a sidewalk who give directions to shelters, other places to sleep — one suggests under a big tree near a church “if it comes to that.”

 6:35 p.m. — Sit at a corner popular with panhandlers on Water Street. Interesting reactions from passersby.

 6:45 p.m. — Another woman leaving a store gives us directions to shelters, a young couple walks by. The girl nudges her boyfriend, hands him something (I suspect it was money) and he heads back toward us, but for some reason doesn’t follow through and returns to his girlfriend.

 6:51 p.m. — Pouring rain now and we are getting really wet.

 7:10 p.m. — Walk by two men and a woman smoking outside a bar area. They give directions to shelter upon asking. The youngest man in the group has stayed in shelters himself and recommends the one with Wi-Fi.

 8:05 p.m. — We enter shelter only to be turned away because would not qualify for social assistance.

 8:20 p.m. — Standing under an overhang by a building, a man approaches and offers to share his last cigarette. Asks if we are homeless.

 8:30 p.m. — Standing under overhang of building near the shelter, we are approached by shelter residents Terry and Robert. Talk with them while they smoke. Terry is very knowledgeable of area shelters and even offers us money for a coffee.

 10 p.m. — Find an empty bed under the downtown overpass. Looks like someone was there recently since there was still cardboard covering it and likely wouldn’t be there with the high winds a couple days ago.

 10:10 p.m. — Observe a man on George Street bum a cigarette and some change off another man. I ask the man who bummed the money where he is staying tonight. He replies, “Got me own place, buddy,” and he scurries off.

 10:15 p.m. — Arrive at an area on New Gower Street where we were told some homeless people stay. No one is there.

 10:30 p.m. — At Long’s Hill, on the corner where down-and-out people and sex trade workers are known to hang out. No one is there. 

 11 p.m. — Soaked to the bone, no hope of getting in a shelter, still raining, and so we decide to quit for the night.


• Homeless in Sydney - Cape Breton Post

• Guardian reporter seeks shelter - The Guardian

• No home, not sure where to go - The News

• Warm reception on a cold night - Truro Daily News

• Home free - Journal Pioneer

• Homelessness is a lonely street - The Western Star

• Lessons in generosity - The Telegram

• A night in a cold tent is not homelessness - The Digby Courier


Organizations: Wiseman Centre, Department of Advanced Education and Skills

Geographic location: Water Street, Tim

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Recent comments

  • James Abro
    February 04, 2015 - 18:26

    Here's the real deal if you care to take a look:

  • Dave
    February 04, 2015 - 06:06

    Mike has the best comment: Got to love the Wiseman Center operated by the Salvation Army. If they can't get money for you from the government, they kick you out to the street. What happens to all the donations they get to actually help the poot and homeless? Time for an investigative journalist to ask the tough questions?

  • Sadly
    January 30, 2015 - 21:15

    "11 p.m. — Soaked to the bone, no hope of getting in a shelter, still raining, and so we decide to quit for the night.". Sadly not everybody has that option.

  • Mick
    January 30, 2015 - 17:33

    Got to love the Wiseman Center operated by the Salvation Army. If they can't get money for you from the government, they kick you out to the street. What happens to all the donations they get to actually help the poot and homeless? Time for an investigative journalist to ask the tough questions?