Features(Archives)

Feb
27
2013
Volume
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Invisible at 25 Below. A Day In The Life

(1 Vote)

8 a.m.    Nine people wait outside the Centre of Hope, on Franklin Avenue.  It’s minus 23C.  Some walked over from the Salvation Army, where they slept the night before. Others slept in apartment building lobbies or around cars. It’s referred to as “sleeping rough.” One man says that he slept in the snow, and he invites you to feel his hands. They’re warm.

8:15 a.m.     Once inside the doors, you take off your boots and wait in a line outside “the bubble” – that’s what they call the reception desk. Everyone walks around in socked feet. You’ve dropped in here several times now and your boots have never been stolen. This is either a testament to the honesty of the patrons or the ugliness of your boots.

At the desk, you check in your bag, and it gets stored near the entrance, on an open shelf. You can store it there until Friday afternoon. After that point, everything gets disposed, without exception.

This is also your chance to sign up for the computer or phone, schedule a shower or laundry slot, or arrange a meeting with an intake worker, who can help you with anything from starting a treatment program to getting a Social Insurance Number. A meeting with the intake worker is your best shot at real change.

Everything runs on a first-come, first-serve basis, so you want to make sure that you get here early.

You also sign up for chores. Patrons are expected to carry out tasks: take out the trash, clean the yard, sweep the floors. Chores seem to be done gladly and willingly. Some guys will tinker around the place; replace a light bulb, or fix a broken chair. The Centre is home, after all.

Once signed in, you grab a spot on one of the many leather couches in the room. It’s a large, square space that’s never occupied by less than forty people at a time.  At least 100 people will pass through this spot today.

There’s an In Memoriam board with photos of patrons that have passed away. Forty-eight deaths since 2005. Underneath that is a computer station, where a man is spending his allotted time on reuters.com.

8:30 a.m.    Toolbox. Someone from the Centre of Hope gets in front of the crowded room and explains the house rules. She (it’s usually a “she” – the place is staffed by fifteen women and one man) announces that a nursing student from Keyano College will be arriving at 10:00 a.m. to do a hand washing presentation.

9 a.m.    Throughout the morning, people check the message board hanging outside the bubble. If you’re waiting for a call from your family or a prospective employer, you can retrieve it here. Right now, there are several messages waiting to be picked up, along with two OSSA/CSTS cards.

If you want, you can leave a copy of your identification on file here.  It’ll save you a lot of hassles in case it ever gets stolen.  Besides, you’ll need that ID, someday, when things start to turn around.

On the wall, is a framed $1 bill. American.  Once, a well-dressed man came in and handed over $701 to the administrators.  Said he woke up that morning and God told him to make a donation.  It was the same morning that the plumbing system at the Centre of Hope completely failed.  The repair bill was exactly $700. 

10 a.m.    Everyone is respectful during the hand washing presentation. Afterwards, a patron approaches the staff in the bubble; “thank you for arranging that. I think we all know how to wash our hands, but I guess it’s nice to be reminded.” You laugh. He wasn’t being a dick – he sounded earnest. Thoughtful.

10:40 a.m.     Not much has happened since the presentation. People continue to come in and out of the centre, which creates a constant chill in the air. There’s no wall between the entrance doors and the seating area. You can’t get entirely comfortable.

11 a.m.    Chore time. A clean-cut man asks the ladies in the bubble for two garbage bags and a Pepsi. Has to be Pepsi because Coke will wreck his stomach. They can accommodate the garbage bags, but not the soda.

11:30 a.m.    The room clears out and almost everyone makes their way over to the Fellowship Baptist Church, across the street. Weekends and holidays, you have to head back to the Salvation Army for lunch. In the summertime, they barbeque. 

You enter through the back door, into the basement.  It’s bright and spotless.  About 20 round tables are set with cutlery and centrepieces.

11:35 a.m.    The pastor offers a three minute sermon and prayer. Lunch is served.

This is no soup kitchen.  Soup is served, but so is an entrée, a salad and a dessert. Today’s menu: cauliflower soup, spaghetti and meat sauce with garlic bread, caesar salad, and a brownie.  Average cost is $3 per person, but the church picks it up.  It’s free to anyone that needs it. 

Who’s here? You look around, but don’t stare.  About thirty people (a slow day, says Lesley Miller, who runs the program).  

There are some surprises.  Young guys in hip hop gear. You guess they’re second generation Canadian, by way of Toronto, Calgary, or Vancouver, via Africa.  They carry themselves with pride. 

12:30 p.m.    You make your way back to the Centre of Hope.

2 p.m.    The Executive Director, Amanda Holloway, walks through the room. A man tells her that she’s looking beautiful. He might be drunk (not that Holloway isn’t beautiful).  The Centre of Hope is a “tolerant” facility, which means that it accepts clients in any state of sobriety.  So long as they don’t disturb anyone, they’re welcome here. 

Only a handful of the people here remind you of your Uncle Wayne at a Christmas party. Slightly inebriated, slightly inappropriate, but harmless

3 p.m.     You meet Boogie. He’s instantly likeable.

You ask him if he’ll participate in an interview, and he obliges. At the offset, he informs you that he’s named Boogie as an homage to his father, who was called Boogie by his friends. Boogie has never met his father.

He takes the list of questions from your hands and reads them. He laughs when he reads that you were about to ask him where he plans to be in five years. “Five years from now? I won’t be talkin’ to you! I’ll be working again.” He tells you bits about his past, dodging questions about his childhood.

“I’ve been an alcoholic for 37 years. I’ve been livin’ on the streets for about three and a half years. I don’t blame anyone or anything. I can go back to work as soon as I stop drinking. I was working up north, making $64 an hour. I was a big-time operator and I knew everything. I’d get a paycheque and where do you think it’d go? I’d give most of it to my family and save $100 of it for myself. I’d spend it all on alcohol. I don’t care about myself. I have a house in MacKay, but I gave it to my niece and her baby. I always put everyone else first. If I had a lot of money, I’d give it to the SPCA. I love puppies – they’re so cute!”

Later, Boogie tells you that he’s gone to three consecutive meetings and plans to go again tonight.

He tells you about the time, four years ago, when he rescued a policewoman out of a crashed patrol car, minutes before it went up in flames.  The RCMP offered him a commendation, but he refused it.  That’s not the point of the story, though.  Really, he just wanted to tell you that he gets along with everyone – even the lawmakers.

He doesn’t like crackheads, though.  They’ll mess you up just to take fifty cents off you.  Alcoholics, he understands.

“My mother died in my arms. We were drinking – the lot of us are alcoholics – and she went to go up the stairs, but she fell. I caught her but she had already hit her head. You know it’s bad when you see blood trickle out of the ear….”

At the end of the interview, he picks up your collar and lifts it further up your neck, covering the cleavage that you had unwittingly exposed. “Boogie is so protective of women and children,” someone within earshot says.

You initially laughed when he covered you up, but hours later, you replay the conversation in your mind and have an ugly cry in your car.

3:30 p.m.    Afternoon round of chores starts

4 p.m.    The place clears out in time for closing. People loiter for a while before going their separate ways.

6 p.m.     There’s a line up in the basement at the Salvation Army.  This is where thirty men and five women will sleep tonight.  Last night, they had to turn away four guys.  It was minus 33C, but they have to adhere to the fire code. 

If you get a mat, you can throw your gear into a numbered bin that is, once again, stored near the front of the building, unlocked.  Maybe someone steals your shoes, and maybe they don’t.

The mats are numbered and hung on the wall.  The man in front of you gets the last one.  Mat 21.  Not in the greatest location, but what can you do?  The mats can’t be moved. 

The wait-list starts.  The deal is this: you can come in and sign up for a mat.  Then you’re allowed to stay in the basement and watch television and have a bowl of soup, or you can go out and do your own thing.  If you’re not back by 10:30 p.m., though, the doors are locked and your mat will be given to someone on the wait list. 

It’s a clean, rectangular room. Male and female washrooms, a small kitchen, a laundry room, and the separate area where the women sleep (referred to by patrons as the Beaver Pen). They love that you find this so funny.

6:15 p.m.    A huge guy puts his arm around you.  You’re a sizeable woman, but you’re certain that he could crush you without breaking a sweat.  No need to worry, though.  The man is a sweetheart.  Polite and razor sharp.  A gentleman despite his bawdy humour.  His name is Daryl.  He offers to chat with you.

He sits you at a table and introduces you to his friend.  They used to work together as crane operators.  Both had plenty of cash – and cars – before their DUIs caught up with them.  If you rack up enough of them, you have to go to jail.  And your license gets taken away.  It’s hard to get hired with a record like that.  The friend, though, is becoming a scaffolder.  Did the practical test the other day and scored very well.  The written test is tomorrow.  He’s a good looking guy.  Showers daily.  He’s got three kids and  keeps in touch with them regularly via Facebook.  His granddaughter has over forty Barbies.

7 p.m.    In the blink of an eye, a fight breaks out in the corner.  Your heart races but you try to act cool.  Daryl calls your bluff and assures you that you have nothing to worry about.  You’re okay.  He’ll make sure of it. 

There’s a lady wearing glasses sitting nearby.  She’s drinking purple Benylin out of a Styrofoam cup. 

Boogie enters the basement and he motions for Daryl to join him outside.  Daryl explains that they’re part of the Lizzy Crew.  Listerine is 27% alcohol and costs $7.  The Wild Vines that your mom drinks on special occasion is  6% in comparison. He declines Boogie’s offer and continues to chat with you.  Where does he get the cash for booze?  Panhandling.  “I never ask women and I never approach guys with kids.  But guys at the casino – just regular working guys – they’ll give you ten bucks here and there.”  He also gets told to fuck off a lot, too.

Something god-awful is playing on the television. Is it Xena, Warrior Princess?  You ask who’s in charge of the programming, and Daryl points to the man that you saw at the Centre of Hope – the one who asked for the Pepsi.  He goes to the library a few times a week and takes out movies for everyone to watch while they’re here.

7:30 p.m.    Boogie comes back and creates a ruckus.  Demands that everyone shuts up and eats.  Apparently he does that from time to time.

8 p.m.    After the interview, you stop at the grocery store on the way home.  In line, you skim through a magazine and read a tutorial about how to apply velvet to your fingernails. 

December 23

2 p.m.     You take your niece to the mall.  She’s three and you just gave her $80 so she could buy her mom a necklace with a dolphin on it.  It’s bloody ugly, but it’s the first Christmas gift that she’s ever picked out all by herself. 

She wants to go on a ride. You find a loonie in your purse and you let her hold onto it.  As you approach the ride, you slow down a bit and divert her attention to the remote control helicopters for sale at a kiosk, while you watch Boogie get handcuffed by two RCMP officers.  He told you that he would be in Fort MacKay today, visiting family for the holidays.

LITTLE KNOWN FACTS

  • The Centre of Hope provided 7,000 showers last year. Each shower requires single-use sized shampoo and soap, for hygienic reasons. The showers are scrubbed down after each use.
  • Because foot sores/ailments are common to those experiencing homelessness, white socks are preferred. The dyes in coloured socks contribute to odour and can leave stains.   
  • If there’s a choice, patrons will pick the pink razors to shave with.
  • The Centre of Hope recently opened a medical clinic, making healthcare more accessible and comfortable for the vulnerable population.
  • The average age of Centre of Hope clients is 43 (male) and 39 (female).  Half of them sleep rough each night.

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ALANNA BOTTRELL

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