HOMELESS FOR A DAY
BY G.P. PARHAR
The Rusty Toque | Issue 1 | Creative Nonfiction | July 2011
I awake feeling nauseous and numb. My hands are shaking, and I feel lost; a thin layer of snow covers the blanket around my body. I stand up and look around puzzled until I realize that I’m on a wooden bench in Victoria Park. I try to survey the area, but my mind is racing. I’m cold and lonely, and I just want to go home. I clutch the blanket and make my way to the Unity Project homeless shelter. As I walk, I imagine what it would be like to experience this misfortune for the rest of my life.
This is my short journey on the front line of homelessness.
According to Statistics Canada, 150,000 to 300,000 people are homeless in Canada, living either in shelters or on the street. When we think of a homeless man, the image we have in our head is often one-dimensional. We see a dirty and deprived man sitting on a concrete sidewalk, asking for everything, but getting nothing. All we see is a black and white painting.
My experience of homelessness for 24-hours is a shock to my system.
My short, memorable journey begins on cold, wintry, February 24th at 10:00 a.m. I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. I think about what today has in store for me, but I have no idea. I’m nervous and worried. I plan the day out in my head. I think about the questions I’m going to ask everyone and the answers I’m expecting to hear. I roll out of bed. I dress up as warm as I can, and stuff about $8 of change into my pocket. I leave my wallet, my phone, and my driver’s license behind. I leave my house and head towards the Sisters of St. Josephs Hospitality Centre, a soup kitchen.
The soup kitchen provides a good insight on how homeless people cope with hunger, but after going there, I realize rather quickly that this isn’t what homelessness is about. I ask what homeless shelters are in the area, and an old man unloading a truck of bread looks at me and explains that I could go to “the Men’s Mission, the Salvation Army, or the Unity Project.” When he mentions the Unity Project, there is hesitation in his voice. ”It’s violent and dangerous.”
I make my way to the Unity Project shelter as a naive amateur.
The city of London is applauded for its success and wealth, but as a city it’s suffering from a growing number of homeless. According to the London Community Plan on Homelessness of November 2010, a plan focused on Community Based Homelessness prevention and intervention Plans, there is an “absence of current reliable data [that] imposes some limitations on the Community Plan on homelessness.” It’s hard to even obtain a number of how many homeless individuals there actually are in London, let alone Canada.
The challenges to eliminating homelessness, according to Statistics Canada, are numerous; therefore, it’s difficult to make a plan that encompasses every facet of homelessness. Insufficient affordable housing, low income, mental health, substance abuse, job loss, and violence are all symptoms. And when it comes down to those living on the streets, there are so many types of homeless people that it is nearly impossible to diagnose the problem.
Yet, as I walk into the Unity Project, all the statistics in the world become meaningless. Numbers, charts, percentages, and words on a page melt away, and I am exposed to a gritty and cold reality that no one, including myself, wants any part of.
The Unity Project is a small emergency shelter and transitional-housing accommodation for men and women over the age of 18. It provides support for anyone who needs it, up to 70 people a day, and is open 24/7. It provides what are called “crash beds”, which are overnight accommodations for men and women over the age of 18. These crash beds, military-style beds with blankets and a pillow, are for individuals who are looking for a place to stay for the night, but they can extend this one night to 42 days if needed. They also allow “drop ins” for anyone who needs to eat, find warmth, make a call, do laundry, take a shower, and just talk to someone.
The shelter also provides what is called “Phase I and Phase II Transitional Housing”. Phase I transitional housing is for residents who have developed a plan to get off the streets, with the help of the staff. This phase exists to help individuals set goals for themselves. For example, an addict who is trying to wean himself/herself off drugs and find a job is given a room in the basement for three to four months.
Phase II transitional housing goes deeper: it helps give individuals a firm footing in society again. People can rent a room and share kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. There are only ten rooms available, however, which isn’t much, but it’s something.
When I first walk into the shelter, I instantly feel uneasy and nervous; there are homeless people all around me, many of whom are intimidating.
One man furiously tears through a basket of clothing as he mumbles to himself. The basket is full of clothes, yet it seems empty. Another man sits on a long, wooden bench in the reception area with his head in his palms. I wonder what he’s thinking. A middle-aged woman next to him fumbles with the contents of her purse until she finds a pack of cigarettes, only to realize that it is empty.
The black and white painting of the homeless man in my mind floods with colour.
I snap out of my momentary daze, and make my way to the front desk. Jenny Butchart looks up from her desk and gives me a wholesome smile.
Butchart, one of the “Front-Line Staff,” reveals the essence of the Unity Project: “This is a small community, we say hello here.” Her motherly smile makes me feel at home instantly. She is used to seeing so much pain and suffering, but she defends her career choice adamantly: “I’ve been working here for years, and I can’t think of something else I would rather do”. She speaks softly about the homeless people she looks after, but her voice and message are strong. “[Unity Project] is not like other places. It’s not about what they’ve done to get here; it’s about where they are.” Butchart respects the people who come to the Unity Project in a way that other homeless shelters might not: she’s empathetic. She realizes that most here are stuck in a state of mind that is often difficult to escape. “That’s what they know; it’s what they’re used to.” Jenny is almost like a superwoman to many of the homeless people who use the services Unity Project provides. Like superwoman, Butchart had somewhere to be.
One of the volunteers, Brian, picks up where Butchart leaves off. He is skinny but rugged and has a very determined look on his face. I ask if I can interview him; he looks up and laughs. Brian, who refuses to give me his last name, was homeless for three years before he decided to change his life. But it wasn’t a snap decision; living without a home does strange things to one’s mind. “You begin to feel suicidal and homicidal after a while. You always ask yourself why I should even live anymore,” he tells me with a sort of sadness in his voice that he tries to disguise with indifference. Brian lived on the street and in emergency homeless shelters for a year, then finally got lucky and moved into an apartment with his wife. She passed away that year; eventually, Brian was kicked out of the apartment, then spent another two years homeless.
He is very selective about what he tells me, but when I ask what homelessness is like, he stares at me for a few moments then replies: “It’s a cold and lonely lifestyle. You have to look over your shoulder constantly, and the only way you feel any better is getting fucked up.” He explains that are three types of homeless people: the people who have no homes, drug addicts, and those with mental illnesses, but most of the time it’s a combination of all three.
Another staff member comes by and lightens the mood: “Being homeless is like that stupid T.V. show, Survivor. Except, you can’t get voted off, and you’re not on an island”.
It is evening, and with only $8 dollars in my pocket, I decide to eat at the shelter. One of the guys, someone in the Phase II transitional housing, is cooking spaghetti and meatballs. To my surprise, the meal is delicious. Eating at a table with six homeless people is quite an odd experience. After the meal, I speak with the chef. He tells me to refer to him as “Joke”, and I soon realize why. He is constantly cracking jokes around the others, and it seems that everyone is in a better mood with him around.
Joke, 26, was abandoned on the doorstep of a random family in Ireland by his parents when he was eight years old. He had been homeless on and off until last year when he was allowed to take part in the Phase II program. “You have to make your own bed, you can’t expect others to do it for you,” he tells me. “Reality sucks, but you have to find things in this life to love. If you don’t love life for what it is, what else can you love?”
Joke, whose short life is punctuated with hardships, still believes in love and hope. “The Unity Project isn’t like the other places. It’s the kind of place that treats you like family; like one of their own.” Joke aspires to be a chef and own his own restaurant one day; with the help of the Unity Project, he thinks it’s possible. “I am happy for the first time in a long time. I used to stay up at nights and see the faces of people I hurt, and it was awful, but I can finally say that I am a changed human being.” It’s ironic that a man who goes by the name Joke gives some of the most valuable and human advice I have ever heard.
I decide it is time to spend a night on the street. Butchart smiles as she gives me a blanket: “good luck, you know where we are if you can’t make it”. As soon as I leave the Unity Project, the cold winter air stings as it hits my face. I walk down Dundas Street with just a blanket covering me. I have no idea where I am heading, but I keep walking aimlessly.
I reached Victoria Park and decide to sleep on a bench. I’m standing alone in the middle of Victoria Park with a blanket, and I catch myself laughing. This is ridiculous. As I wipe the snow off of the bench, my smile begins to drown in uncertainty. The hard, wooden bench is uncomfortable, but after an hour it becomes manageable. I stare into the sky and wonder what it would be like to lay on this bench day in and day out. At least a dozen people walk by and not one even notices me laying there on the bench.
I hear Brian’s voice: “It’s a cold and lonely lifestyle.”
I begin to doze off, but wake after what feels like 30 minutes. I am disoriented. I can’t feel my fingers and my toes; I am overcome with fear and anxiety, and so badly need a place to sleep. I feel so alone and removed from everything and everyone that I begin to talk to myself to convince myself that it is only temporary, a luxury that many don’t have. I hurry back to the Unity Project as quickly as possible. All that I feel is fear and loneliness.
When I get back to the shelter a few hours later, Jenny is standing there with the look a mother gives a child. She laughs because she knew I would be back, but gently taps me on the head and leads me to one of the crash beds in the basement. I don’t fall asleep all night. It is dark, and the only source of light is the dim red glow of an exit sign. One of the men who is sleeping in the bed next to mine is laughing in his sleep; it is a cold and daunting laugh. Another man is mumbling to himself and swearing at the man who is laughing. At one point, he sits up in bed and gazes around the room, staring at those who are asleep. He turns his head my way. I can’t see his face, but his silhouette is motionless for a moment as he stares at me. One has to embrace the lack of comfort to be able to survive homelessness.
Spending a night there is difficult, but it is unbelievably better than spending a night on a bench in -10C degree weather. More than 150,000 people have experienced this over and over again.
In the morning I have the choice of trying it all again or going home. I told myself I could handle a few nights away from home, but I am mistaken. I look around and shake my head in disbelief. There is no way I am going to try this again. I tell the staff that I’ll be back, say my goodbyes, and then make my way to the bus stop. I’m not going back. The #2 Dundas bus is full of low-income individuals, but as it makes its way through downtown London and then towards the University, the individuals are slowly replaced by students.
I once again feel like a student.
As I get to my front door, I sigh for a moment and try to shake the last 24 hours away as if it was just snow on my shoulder. I feel like I accomplished nothing, and I am too tired to think or care. I climb the stairs to my room, then collapse on my bed and remember instantly what it is like to have a home.
GP PARHAR is finishing up his 3rd year in a specialization in Philosophy and a minor in Creative Writing. He has taken the following writing courses: Headline to Deadline, Short Fiction, Short Flicks, and Writing for the Big Screen.