There are posts that take me some time to write. They usually involve experiences that are so profound or troubling that they take me time to process, to roll them around in my head until I have managed to sort them out enough to express my thoughts. This is one of those posts, and one of those experiences. I have never been homeless, people. I have never experienced any level of homelessness, sleeping rough on the ground or sleeping in a tent or a car. When I have done those things - slept in a tent, or in a car - I did so by choice, not by default. It was called "camping", or "getting some rest during a long drive". But this past weekend I slept on a park bench, again by choice, but in order to gain a better understanding of the true nature of homelessness. It was at an event organized by The Centre of Hope, a place that has become so important to me, and it was called "Hope in the Dark". The idea was to allow people to experience homelessness, to get just a tiny taste of what it feels like - and to raise awareness. What I found was an experience that was not only profound and troubling but also enlightening. It explained so very much, answered some questions, and it humbled me.
On Saturday at 6 pm I arrived at the parking lot behind the Clearwater Public Education Centre. There were a small number of participants registered, and we were all going to be "sleeping rough". Just as there are different ways to be homeless so would the participants experience it in different ways - some sleeping in their cars, some in tents, some in boxes, and some, like me and my friends, in the open air, protected only by sleeping bags - and each other.
The evening began with bottle picking, and a warning. The bottle picking was so that we could eat. Just as homeless individuals often have to do we had to collect bottles to earn our food, and two bottles would get us one burger. I paired up with my good buddy Blake, and out we went into the field. Blake found his two bottles quickly, but he helped me find mine. He spotted the one on top of the goalpost, a place where at 5'3" I could have never reached it, but he is very tall and was easily able to collect it for me. And that was my first inkling of how valuable it would be to work as a "team" on the street, to be able to help each other. That point was driven home repeatedly during the night, the need to find community on the street and work together.
Blake and I also found a roll of toilet paper, a precious commodity when sleeping on the street. And once we received the warning - that personal belongings left unattended could be "stolen" - we guarded that paper with our lives, more precious to us than the one ring that unites them all. In fact we guarded all our things carefully, although at one point the organizers stole Blake's blanket and he had to sing to get it back. And there was the reality again, people. I have spoken to many homeless individuals who have had items stolen from them, clothing and shoes and blankets. For you and I this would be upsetting and angering and annoying - but for someone homeless these items are crucial. The loss is devastating.
We had supper and there were some speeches and then we headed down the hill and into the park to set up our spots. Those who had raised enough money to sleep in a tent pitched them, and those who chose to sleep in boxes set up their spots. Even though several in my group had raised enough money to sleep in a tent or a car we chose instead to sleep on the ground - and I picked a park bench, because I have never slept on a bench. I have often seen people, though, curled up on park benches, and I wanted to experience that. I wanted that to be my experience of homelessness.
It was a beautiful early summer evening in Fort Mac, people. The field in front of us filled up with some of our culturally diverse community gathering to play soccer, and we enjoyed some amazing footwork. We chatted briefly with some of the players, and we entertained each other. We had a visit from Mike Allen and Don Scott, our new MLAs, and from Melissa Blake, our lovely mayor. Councillor Russell Thomas dropped by, and councillor Phil Meagher stayed overnight with his son. And then it was time to set up for the night.
We took cardboard boxes and laid the on the ground to ward off the chill. We unrolled sleeping bags and we put on warm sweaters and socks. Towards midnight we had more visitors - a friend well known in the community brought coffee and donuts (and had earlier that evening made me snort with laughter, my hooting echoing through the valley, no doubt), and we had another delivery of coffee from Tim's. And then the visitors left, and we were alone.
I went up the hill for a bit to brush my teeth (yes, we had a bathroom facility, another luxury not often available to the truly homeless), and when I came back down I did a head count of the huddled up sleeping bags. I knew how many were in my group, my little "homeless" group of Michelle and Matt and Blake and Michael and Ken and Christina. When I counted, though, I realized there was an extra person - and I had no idea who it was. I crawled into my sleeping bag and stared at that extra bag, wondering who it was. I suppose I was freaked out because it was very late, and very dark. When I had known everyone that was around me it was okay, but seeing someone in a bag and not knowing who they were disturbed me. I ended up staring at that bag for an hour, fretting about it, texting a friend and saying that it was worrying me, that it could be anyone.
My friend Blake and I tweeted back and forth, making each other laugh. I huddled deep down in my bag, fighting to find "comfortable" and failing, the cold metal park bench impossible to adjust to. I spent hours on Twitter and texting, taking small jabs for being "homeless" and having a smartphone (and yes, people, I acknowledge there was some lack of authenticity). I could not sleep. And then the bats arrived.
Blake looked at me and said "do you hear the bats?". Bats? No one warned me about bats, but there they were, swooping through the night sky, eating the bugs. I was slightly terrified, not because I am afraid of bats but I suppose because it was so unexpected. And then tragedy struck. I had finally gotten comfortable - and I had to go to the washroom.
The thought of leaving my warm sleeping bag was horrible. I had finally managed to get warm, and now I needed to pee. It meant unzipping my bag and putting on my boots and navigating across the dark field. It meant coming back and trying to get warm again and trying to get comfortable.
It took an hour to convince myself to leave my bag, and the texts from a friend who told me to go. I put on my boots, not even bothering to zip them up, grabbed my almost dead cell and the charger, and traipsed up the hill. I used the bathroom and then I sat and plugged in my phone. My excuse was that I needed it charged to keep tweeting and texting, but that was truly an excuse. It was simply a reason to stay indoors, to not go back out there where there were bats and where I was wearing socks on my hands to keep them warm (gloves, I forgot gloves!).
A couple of people came in and found me there, huddled on the floor. We chatted briefly, and I could see their experience, whether in cars or tents, wasn't going much better than my own. As I sat there I suddenly understood why the homeless congregate in the lobbies of apartment buildings or outside ATM's. Because it is warm. Because there are no bats. Because it is relatively safe. And because being outside not only sucks the warmth out of you over time it sucks your soul out, too.
I got a tweet from Blake then, telling me a fox had come to visit our little site, digging at one friend's tarp and staring Blake in the eyes. I headed down the hill then, hoping to see our nocturnal visitor, but he was gone. I climbed back into my bag, huddled far down inside until none of me could be seen, and began texting and tweeting again to anyone who would answer (and several who didn't, too, comfortable and warm in their own beds, I suspect). I was worried about the bats and the fox - visions of rabies shots danced in my head. I was still worried about that extra sleeping bag. I was still cold. And finally, at about 3:30, I fell asleep. And at 3:45 the birds woke up, and began chirping, and sleep became even more difficult.
I woke again at 4:00, and peeked out a bit. The scene was quiet, and there was dew on top of everyone. I looked around and then huddled back in my bag again, to sleep for another hour or so. And then it was 6:00 and time for some oatmeal. We headed up the hill, my little group and I, and we had breakfast together, talking about the bats and the fox. We talked to those who had stayed in tents (or, as those of us on benches and the ground dubbed it "Club Med"), and those who had slept in boxes. And then my friends left and I headed down the hill to pack up my things, alone.
I will be honest. I was in tears as I packed. I was exhausted, my entire body hurt, and I was still cold. I had learned that you never drink coffee late at night when you might have to climb out of a warm sleeping bag in the cold at 3 am and find someplace to use the bathroom. I learned that without friends existence on the streets would be a struggle, because without Blake I would have never reached that bottle and would have had to keep looking. I learned that the connection with friends was what keeps you going, that you watch out for each other and their things, and that they become your lifeline, as Blake and the rest of the group became mine. And suddenly I understood the community I have found in the homeless in this city, and I realized that when they told me they found their family on the streets they meant it. After that night on a park bench I had such respect and affection for everyone in my little group. I could see that it wouldn't take long for them to become my family if we were truly homeless, that we would forge a strong bond and find our own little community with each other.
I packed up my gear, headed up the hill, said my goodbyes, got into my car and drove....home. I crawled into my warm bed, and slept for hours. Because I was home. Because I had one. Because I had that option. And as I fell asleep I was heartbroken for all those who had also spent that night on the streets in our community - and who would do so again the next night, and the night after that, and the one after that. One night almost broke me. The thought of doing it again? Unfathomable.
Sunday night I had another commitment but I broke it. Instead I went down to the Centre of Hope, and participated in the candle light vigil for the 32 homeless individuals who have died in our community since 2005. We lit candles, and a pastor said some words, words that resonated with me, about how the homeless have a community and family, and about how we have so many more questions than answers. And then the names were read, 32 names, each with a story and each with an ending on the streets of Fort McMurray. I managed to choked back tears until I reached my car, and then they flooded me. I thought of 32 souls who experienced what I had the night before, but for real, and who died living it. I thought of all those in our city still doing it, and about how they are often kicked out of lobbies and back out into the cold, and about how devastated I would have been that night if I had been kicked out of the warm spot I found. I looked at those little candles, and when they were snuffed out by those attending the symbolism almost overwhelmed me. 32 lives on the street, snuffed out. 32 stories ended. And so many more still on our streets.
People sometimes ask me why homelessness is so close to me, since I've never been homeless. And I can't really answer, except to say that after having experienced just a taste of it, lacking in authenticity as it was, it made me not just aware but humbled. I saw how this existence could break even a strong person, and how quickly a fragile one, made fragile by mental illness or addiction, could spiral into an uncontrollable downward path. I had played at being homeless for a night, but so many others aren't playing. They are living it. And the funny thing is I not only had new understanding for them but new respect, too. Because they are far, far tougher than I ever will be. Because they have far more courage than I ever will. And because I think they understand the value of friends and community perhaps even far more than I do. I was tired and sore and humbled in absolutely every way, people. I went to my park bench that night and woke up seeing the world with new eyes - and I doubt I will ever see it the same way again. I was homeless for a night - and, perhaps, changed forever.
My deep and sincere thanks to
The Centre of Hope
"Hope in the Dark"
but more importantly for the work
they do every day in our community.
My gratitude to my "homeless" friends
Blake, Michelle, Matt, Michael, Ken, and Christina,
who got me through the night.
Truly, I got by with a little help from my friends!
My thanks to those who replied to my
tweets and texts through the night -
staying connected with you was my lifeline.
To those who are homeless on our streets -
your strength amazes me.
To those who are homeless on our streets -
your strength amazes me.
And to the 32 people who are now gone,
and who died on our streets - you are gone,
but you are not forgotten.
Your community remembers you.
Fort McMurray remembers you.
And I remember you, all of you...