Cold and “homeless” in Carbonear
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.
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.
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
Note: This week’s Just Wondering column by
Burton K. Janes can be found on Page A9.