Getting up my nerve to spend the night homeless in St. John’s was easy — it was my heart that wasn’t ready, I discovered.
Standing under the eaves of a downtown business, taking shelter from the driving rain late Wednesday night, Glen Whiffen and I were approached by two men.
One of them made me cry.
“Are you guys looking for a place for the night?” he asked, introducing himself and dropping a duffel bag at his feet. He looked to be in his late 40s, wearing an old Montreal Expos hat and no jacket. He was carrying a cigarette and an open can of Pepsi. He introduced himself and his friend, and offered his hand. I shook it with a sopping wet mitten.
The guy gave us the lowdown on the neighbourhood shelters — which one had the best food (“They do a lot of pasta, you know, but sometimes you might have pork chops”), which one was usually the busiest and which one had the nicest rooms. He was living in transitional housing now, he said, having beaten some demons. Not substance abuse or anything, but depression, and now he was better.
“I think a lot of things come down to selfishness,” he said, taking a sip of Pepsi.
“People need to look past themselves and at the world outside. Then you can really see how insignificant your problems are.”
Sound advice, I thought.
There’s nothing wrong with going to stay in a shelter, he said, or asking for any kind of help if you need it.
“There’s a stigma about it, of course there is. But you’re trying to make a better life for yourself, and there’s no shame in that.”
It was as he was walking away that my new friend broke my heart.
“Do you need anything?” he asked, turning back.
“No, but thank you,” I replied.
“Do you want some change for a coffee? I don’t mind, you know.”
Glen and I had spent the better part of the night walking around downtown in the rain. Despite snowpants, a fleece jacket and an old winter coat, I was soaked through to my skin, and my eyes were black with wet mascara.
At one point we had sat on the corner of George Street and Water Street, a place known for buskers and panhandlers, just to observe people’s reactions to us. Most people would glance at us out of the corner of their eye, then turn away and pretend not to see, busying themselves with their dogs or their iPhones or their companions, and it felt terrible.
We never asked anyone for money, and no one offered it — apart from one couple who originally ignored us, then seemed to feel bad. The man turned back towards us, coins in his hand, but changed his mind again for some reason and kept walking.
We had a few encounters with truly homeless people that night, and each time, they approached us with concern, advice — even their last cigarette or quarter.
I felt a sense of family amongst them, and they were happy to bring newcomers into the fold with compassion and without hesitation; looking past themselves and their own problems each time.
6 p.m. – Glen and I are on the east end of Water Street, walking west. Checking doorways and alleys for potential spots to sit — looks like it's going to rain. Thankfully it's not cold.
6:20 p.m. – We cross paths with a couple coming out of a sushi restaurant. The woman does a double-take at us, and looks nervous/awkward.
6:30 p.m. – We stop two women, asking if they know where to find a shelter for the night. One gives directions to where she thinks one might be; the other tells us a downtown church has a "big tree that's safe to sleep under."
6:35 p.m. – We sit for a bit on a corner known to be popular with panhandlers, just to observe people's reactions to us. People glance, then pretend not to see. It feels terrible.
6:44 p.m. – Try to stop a young couple to ask for directions, but they ignore us (I think they assume we were going to ask for money). Another woman stops and Glen asks if she knows a nearby shelter. A couple hears this, and the woman gives her boyfriend money for us. He comes back towards us, sees us talking to the other woman then turns away again and keeps walking. The woman gives us directions to a shelter which has actually been closed for a few years.
7:10 p.m. – Three people having a smoke outside a bar. Glen asks directions to a shelter and a young guy gives them. One is better than the other, he says, because it has Wi-Fi. The girl turns to me: "Aww, don't you have a home?" I say, "Not tonight." She says, "Are you travelling around or something? Be safe!"
7:45 p.m. – It's really raining, and we're getting soaked. My cheap waterproof mittens are clearly not as waterproof as claimed. Drenched through!
7:50 p.m. – It's amazing how many restaurants you notice downtown that you've never seen before, when you're hungry and have no money. All full of happy people.
8 p.m. – Standing under an overhang in a city building doorway. It's raining hard. I am soaked through my coat, fleece and snowpants to my skin. We decide to try a shelter.
8:15 p.m. – We're turned away from the shelter. Must be approved by social assistance for funding to stay the night.
8:20 p.m. – Standing out of the rain in the doorway of a building near the shelter, a young guy in a puffy jacket comes over. I'm nervous because he keeps one hand in his jacket pocket the whole time. Tells us about the shelters: which one has the best food, which one to go to so we're "not surrounded by idiots." Says he has stayed there in the past, but has his own place now. Finally takes his hand out of his pocket: he's holding his last cigarette, offering to share it.
8:30 p.m. – Still in the same place, we meet two guys living in the shelter and chat for a bit. They're so nice, giving advice and asking where we're from and if we're ok. Offer us change to get a coffee. I'm so touched, get teary-eyed.
10 p.m. – Walking around, we find what seems to be a bed under an overpass: dirty pillow, small mattress, cardboard, clothing. No one is there.
10:30 p.m. – We're at Long's Hill, known to be a place where the down-and-out hang out. No one there. Seems as if everyone but us has found shelter for the night.
11 p.m. – Entirely drenched and getting cold, we are wrapping up our assignment. I have learned so much in six hours and am feeling thankful for a warm ride home and a hot shower.
ANY GIVEN 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
• You can’t fake homelessness - The Telegram
• A night in a cold tent is not homelessness - The Digby Courier