Cold and “home­less” in Car­bon­ear

The Compass - - OPINION -

On April 29 I joined a group of like-minded in­di­vid­u­als in an event called “Sleep Out 48,” an event where par­tic­i­pants live as home­less peo­ple for 48 hours, keep­ing up with all of their pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments while giv­ing up all lux­u­ries that a home­less per­son wouldn’t have ac­cess to, such as a home with all of its mod­ern contents. I was un­able to stay out for the full 48 hours, but made the com­mit­ment to par­tic­i­pate for 24. The fol­low­ing is a re­count of my ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Ir­ish-New­found­land blood proudly cours­ing through my veins scorned the no­tion that I would find the next 24 hours dif­fi­cult. I qui­etly pride my­self on the fact that I en­sure that I am ed­u­cated about, and sym­pa­thize with so­cial is­sues; es­pe­cially those that af­fect the greatly marginal­ized so­ci­ety the main­stream of­ten oblit­er­ate from their con­science.

My ego­tism quickly re­ceded, how­ever, when a thick blan­ket of frigid fog sur­rounded me and my home­less com­rades, its chilly mois­ture cool­ing my bones. The harsh re­al­ity that I wasn’t leav­ing the hard pave­ment on which I was stand­ing be­came more dif­fi­cult with ev­ery pass­ing car trans­port­ing its owner from work, or per­haps a shop­ping cen­ter, to their warm and in­su­lated homes.

Over­whelm­ing gen­eros­ity

Group morale was still high de­spite the sub­stan­dard liv­ing con­di­tions, mainly due to the over­whelm­ing gen­eros­ity from many mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. With ev­ery do­na­tion of food and money that we re­ceived, we were en­cour­aged that our mes­sage was get­ting out there, that peo­ple were be­ing en­light­ened to the plight of home­less­ness that is present in this part of ru­ral New­found­land, re­gard­less of the com­mon be­lief that “it just doesn’t ex­ist here.”

Home­less­ness does ex­ist here, and it’s more preva­lent with the ris­ing num­bers of sub­stance abuse, fam­i­lies earn­ing in­comes that still leave them be­low the poverty line and a lack of af­ford­able hous­ing.

“Street home­less­ness” is ex­tremely rare on the Bac­calieu Trail, but home­less­ness isn’t only de­fined by a card­board box and all worldly pos­ses­sions in a shop­ping cart. Be­ing home­less sim­ply means not hav­ing a home. Un­der that def­i­ni­tion, many women and chil­dren liv­ing in a shel­ter are home­less; peo­ple sleep­ing in their cars are home­less; peo­ple jumping from couch to couch of friends and fam­ily be­fore they wear out their wel­come, are home­less.

Try­ing to con­vince peo­ple who refuse to ac­cept this fact proved very dif­fi­cult for me and my heart clung to their cal­lous words as tight as my hands did to my only blan­ket.

Liv­ing in a box

The min­utes of the evening seem to last for­ever when not con­sumed by tech­nol­ogy, tele­vi­sion and house­work so I at­tempted to read a book that a well-wisher loaned me. It was not very long, how­ever, be­fore I was forced to put the book back in to my bag for it be­came ev­i­dent that con­cen­tra­tion doesn’t come easy when sit­ting out­side, cold in down­town Car­bon­ear.

My fel­low par­tic­i­pants and I de­cided to go to bed early, roughly 11:30 p.m. I am un­sure of the ex­act time as I didn’t have a watch. Be­fore my ex­pe­ri­ence with home­less­ness, I thought that time would be ir­rel­e­vant; wrong again.

I care­fully made my bed in a box thought­fully do­nated by a lo­cal busi­ness, tak­ing great care to guar­an­tee my whole body would get equal amount of blan­ket cov­er­age. I trusted the other newly home­less par­tic­i­pants with my be­long­ings, some­thing that an ac­tual home­less per­son might not have the lux­ury of, while my­self and a friend walked to a nearby bar to use the wash­room fa­cil­i­ties and brush our teeth.

I was hum­bled as I briskly walked to the bath­room, hur­riedly brushed my teeth and rushed out of the bar, not mak­ing eye con­tact with the bar­tender or the bar’s pa­trons, know­ing that I wasn’t a cus­tomer and that I didn’t have enough money to pur­chase any­thing at the busi­ness to jus­tify us­ing their ameni­ties.

Back at our card­board com­mune, I set­tled into my sleep­ing bag, more awake and aware than I had been for some time. I forced my­self to get into the frame of mind that this was it. This was my home for tonight and that to­mor­row’s home was un­cer­tain. I wanted to get as real a glimpse of what life for a home­less per­son re­ally is and for me, that meant worry.

I wor­ried about be­ing cold in the night, about the rain that was threat­en­ing to fall, about catch­ing a cough or cold. I stressed about fall­ing asleep and wak­ing to find that my things were stolen, about how easy it would be for a preda­tor to drug me in my slum­ber and that I would wake in a dif­fer­ent and se­cluded lo­ca­tion, or worse, not wake at all.

I turned my mind off from thoughts, though, when I found my­self think­ing of my tod­dler. My small and pre­cious daugh­ter, tucked safely away in her pale pink guest room at my mother’s house. The thought of be­ing a mother who was un­able to pro­vide a safe and loving en­vi­ron­ment for my child was too much to bear. Large tears weld up in my eyes as I sup­pressed a grow­ing lump in my throat, think­ing of the hun­dreds of par­ents who, for what­ever rea­son, have empty but yearn­ing arms many lonely and heart­break­ing nights of the year.

Freez­ing feet

Judg­ing from the lack of traf­fic fre­quent­ing the busy park­ing lot not far from me, I as­sumed it was ap­prox­i­mately 3 o’clock in the morn­ing when I woke with freez­ing feet. I had only thin cot­ton socks and no ex­tras but I re­mem­bered that in my back­pack I kept three hot packs, air ac­ti­vated pack­ets that be­came warm due to a chem­i­cal reaction when trig­gered. Th­ese were do­nated by a con­ta­giously en­er­getic and friendly ally.

I blindly rum­maged through my things to find them and then strug­gled to open the pack­ag­ing. It was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to get them into my socks with­out dis­rupt­ing the setup that I had worked so hard to achieve. I man­aged and found in­stant re­lief. I was, and still am, amazed at my first reaction to the third hot pack. With both my feet get­ting warmer by the sec­ond, I was just about to put the third hot pack into my back­pack, think­ing of con­serv­ing that heat source for an­other time. In only one night out­side, my mind was al­ready be­com­ing con­di­tioned to live think­ing of street sur­vival.

I woke for the day at 5:30 by the not-so-lovely song of the seag­ull. The damp­ness of the foggy air only in­ten­si­fied my need to use the bath­room and the near­est open busi­ness was a lit­tle more than two kilo­me­ters away, about a 30-minute walk. Be­cause of safety and se­cu­rity con­cerns, or­ga­niz­ers re­quested that we keep in pairs and groups. I didn’t want to wake any­one so early in the morn­ing, not know­ing how ev­ery­one slept so I took the op­por­tu­nity to walk around the park­ing lot, ap­pre­ci­ate the at­mos­phere that I was in, and try to clear my mind of the many feel­ings that were swiftly swirling around in my head.

Af­ter a deep breath, I re­al­ized that my throat was sore and that ev­ery cell of my body was des­per­ate for proper nu­tri­tion. As ap­pre­cia­tive as ev­ery­one was for the gen­er­ous and plen­ti­ful do­na­tions, there was hardly any food of sub­stance. Pas­tries, sweets and junk food are com­par­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive to health­ier op­tions and have a much longer shelf life, which is im­por­tant for peo­ple who don’t know where their next meal may come from and have to ra­tion out what they are given.

That be­ing said, my body was quickly feel­ing the ef­fects of my new “zero pro­tein-low vi­ta­m­in­high sugar and fat” diet and I was a lit­tle dizzy by the dras­tic in­crease of caf­feine that I was con­sum­ing through gifted hot cof­fee in an at­tempt to keep warm.

I was phys­i­cally tired and men- tally ex­hausted and I found my­self cow­er­ing near the back of the build­ing, away from the pub­lic eye when early morn­ing work traf­fic be­gan to pick up. My pride won­dered what passerby’s thought of some­one loi­ter­ing around the front of the civic cen­ter so early in the morn­ing. It made me won­der how truly home­less peo­ple re­tain their dig­nity in a so­ci­ety that shuns so eas­ily.

Filled with em­pa­thy

It wasn’t long be­fore ev­ery­one else was up and the dis­as­sem­bling of our abode be­gan. Spir­its were up be­cause of the knowl­edge that we were just hours away from a hot shower and com­fort­able couches. It was over the course of the last few hours that I be­came con­scious of the strong sense of com­mu­nity that the par­tic­i­pants had de­vel­oped.

A very wise math teacher once told my class that “re­gard­less of what each of you do from here on out, you will al­ways have this con­nec­tion to each other that no one is able to sever or take away from you. You will for­ever be con­nected by this ex­pe­ri­ence.” Th­ese words echoed in my head as I ob­served new friend­ships and strength­ened un­der­stand­ing be­tween the par­tic­i­pants and ever-present sup­port­ers of Sleep Out 48.

I came home and watched hot shower wa­ter rinse away the dirt on my body and the tears dried onto my face but it is now im­pos­si­ble for any­thing to rid me of the aware­ness that is en­grained into my heart. My soul is filled with em­pa­thy for the for­got­ten and I pray that the words of the wis­est man res­onate through my fu­ture acts in at­tempt­ing to raise the much-needed aware­ness of this emer­gent epi­demic and in my en­deav­our to eter­nally serve the un­der­priv­i­leged and needy.

“Truly I tell you, what­ever you did for one of the least of th­ese broth­ers and sis­ters of mine, you did for me.” – Je­sus of Nazareth — Ali­cia Hop­kins writes

from Car­bon­ear

Note: This week’s Just Won­der­ing col­umn by

Bur­ton K. Janes can be found on Page A9.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.