Winter, on Vancouver Island where I live, is pretty tame – compared to the harsh difficult reality experienced by most north of the 40th parallel. This winter night however, was brutal. Dec. 1, turned out to be one of the coldest nights on record!. There was no wind, in fact the only sound was distant and abstract and ethereal like from the soundtrack to a Hitchcock movie — strays dogs having a debate of some kind, I thought. I was here, alone in my makeshift camp/bivouac in an empty 53 foot truck trailer. My accommodations consisted of a fold out camp bed I had bought at auction the previous year, a minus 30 degree rated sleeping bag, a Coleman camp lantern and a bunch of well placed insanity. The cold was so intense I could feel it punching through the cracks in the closed and locked rear door of the transport. I had, a month before, pledged publicly to live and work from this trailer–24/7– until full of donated non-perishable food items destined for the local food bank. With the bone chilling cold and the Hitchcockian sound effects; I was beginning to doubt my bravado. It was night one. What a night it would turn out to be.
The mission was two-fold. To bring awareness as to the horror of homelessness and to stock the local food bank with donated food to feed hungry people. I was about to use the weight and frequency of my local radio station–also my employer–to bring my community together like never before. A marathon radio broadcast in the worst conditions possible. I had no idea how long this would take. I offered a little prayer, asking for the strength to use my voice to speak for so many others who didn’t have one. I was hoping to be home by Christmas.
Stephen came into my life, however briefly, as an immediate and unmistakable answer to my quick shout-out for inspiration. Through a gentle rap on the rear door of my closed up for the night truck, my mission and my life would never be the same. “My name is Stephen, are you the man giving out food?” he asked, somewhat unclear on the concept. I said nothing. A million thoughts raced through my mind. I remember feeling immediately ashamed for assuming, like most, that this clearly homeless man had intention to do me harm and was probably a criminal. He was a pathetic sight, and hauled everything he owned in a rusted grocery shopping cart. The irony of that as obvious to me as the cold striking upwards through my boots. I was cold. He was even colder and hungry. If epiphany had a measurement; a “miracle” Richter scale of some kind, then this was the big one. Standing there shivering and delivered right to me, was the exact reason I was here — to try and help people just like Stephen. I asked him in out of the blistering cold with the intention of giving him some food from the early donations that had begun to trickle in during our set up earlier in the day. He shuffled up the ramp holding his own body tight trying to conserve every bit of natural heat available and once inside he moved quickly to the electric heater I had set up. He removed his gloves to warm his hands and caught me staring in horror at the gruesome scarred-over cut marks on the tops of both his hands. He said, without me asking the question, “The cuts on my hands are from slashing up. A doctor told me I slash myself to turn emotional pain into controllable physical pain.” He said this so nonchalantly and with a matter of fact tone that it left me feeling dizzy. “It’s not usually to kill myself he continued, just to help cope with the pain of the past.” That shocking and extremely awkward opening began a discussion that took me down and through Stephen’s deep decent into darkness. Stephen survives, as he describes it by being an “Urban Ecologist”; collecting scrap metal, cans and bottles. He gets meals from garbage bins and the doughnut hole, behind the doughnut shop. “The free meals are mostly for old people the mentally ill.” he said, at this point, clearly not linking his scarred hands to some deep seeded emotional crevice. “When you live on the streets with no money, crime becomes a big temptation. So far, I’ve been able to ignore the temptation, but for how long I don’t know.” he said ominously.
“It’s scary out here.”
Stephen was 37 and grew up Catholic in an alcohol-infused and detonative household with repo-men and bill collectors never far off. As the oldest of 5 children — it was left up to him to keep the whole thing from imploding. My alarm clock was a lit cigarette butt bouncing off my forehead flicked from halfway across the room, with the drunken proclamation ‘BREAKFAST’!” he said. “The cutting started at around 13, I still don’t know why.” he continued, not making the obvious connection. I was shocked. I also noticed that Stephen had a pretty decent vocabulary for a homeless person, as if being uneducated was a pre-condition for living on the street — me being stupid, again. It turned out, despite a brutally fractious start to life, Stephen graduated from High School and got into College on an Engineering program. The slashing had stopped and was explained away in social circumstances as a childhood accident. Stephen met a girl, got married, had 2 children.
“I had been using marijuana since high school” he said, obviously leading me
somewhere — “and cocaine, not that it was ever a problem” he said, seemingly oblivious to his present situation!
“One night at a party, I tried heroin for the first time.” he told me.
“The next 3 years are a blur of disappointed family members and friends, and pissed off bosses.” he said. “I was never home, I was always late for work with unfinished assignments, my family bank account was almost empty and I absolutely did not care.”
“How could you let that happen?” I asked.
“I was a junkie” he said.
“I still am.”
He went on to explain that how, after a very understanding employer had paid for a third rehab stint, he relapsed again; they fired him. Not long after, his very understanding wife left with the kids, he got arrested for heroin possession, did 3 months and had — officially hit rock bottom.
The root causes of homelessness are myriad and the hyper-massive need for well run, community supported local food banks is imperative. Certainly, the historical deinstitutionalisation of long-term health care; the subsequent lack of such long-term care; an overcrowded and overburdened hospital system in which mentally ill patients are routinely shuffled in and out of emergency care daily; a lack of supportive housing; a shocking lack of care for dual-diagnosed patients who are both addicted and mentally ill; a Mental Health Act that makes it difficult to get the mentally ill of the streets and into extended care and an almost complete lack of information sharing on patients’ medical histories between hospitals and health care officials, are contributing factors to this huge social problem. However, it’s not just people with a mental and/or a drug addicted history who are seeking the assistance of local food banks these days. In fact, there is no single, typical profile. The people helped include families with children, employed people whose wages are not sufficient to cover basic living essentials, individuals on social assistance, and those living on a fixed income, including people with disabilities and seniors.
Consider these figures from HungerCount 2011:
- 93,000 people each month access a food bank for the first time
- 38% of those turning to food banks are children and youth
- 7% of adults helped are over age 65
- 10% of people assisted are Aboriginal
- 52% of households helped receive social assistance
- 18% have income from current or recent employment
- 13% receive disability-related income supports
- 35% of food banks ran out of food during the survey period
- 55% of food banks needed to cut back on the amount of food provided to each household
“I realized I needed to get as far away as possible from where I was to try and get clean and make a fresh start.” Stephen said. “I had $2,500 dollars left to my name, I went cold turkey in a shelter and than bought a bus ticket and headed west. I landed here 10 months ago.” he continued. “ I rented a cheap apartment for $450 a month and tried to find a job. I really tried” he said, emphatically. “Nobody would hire me” he said. “How many why reasons do would you like?” he asked rhetorically. “My money didn’t last very long and after not paying one month’s rent my landlord kicked me out. Welfare and social assistance won’t help because I don’t have a permanent address.” I thought about how difficult a process that must be. No address, no bank account . With no bank account, how would you cash a social assistance check, that social assistance won’t give you anyway. What a truly vicious circle of poverty it is. “How long have you been on the streets?” I asked. “Three months” he said. “This is your first winter outside? How do you survive?” I enquired.
“I’m really scared.” Stephen said.
I gathered up a bunch of food for him which he promptly filed away in the kitchen section of his rusted shopping cart. Stephen put on his gloves, to once again cover up the physical and emotional scars of a childhood begun somewhere just this side of hell; and to keep his fingers from freezing. I told him to return when he needed more food and to get warm and to please take care. As he wandered off into the cold dark night only his shadow now visible between the tall willows and the police station, I realized that the food I had given him, required kitchen utensils; can opener, perhaps a pot and heating of some kind. I had a lot to learn about feeding hungry people.