When the businesses are closed, and it is -25C, Winnipeg’s streets become a formidable and unforgiving place; it is urban tundra, but in some ways more harsh than the wild, because the cold reality is that it is made to keep people out. Yet, there are people everywhere, walking to stay warm, finding a corner to huddle in, and sometimes relying on the compassion of strangers for the next meal or a pair of mitts and a scarf. Who are these people, huddled in bus shacks and running around in the streets at night? They are all different, but they all have something in common; they are human beings, with hopes and dreams, needs and they all come from somewhere, a place, a family, but not always knowing where they will go tomorrow, or even today.
Today, George is in his usual spot, alone in the bus shack outside City Hall. Sometimes there are others, and on the odd occasion George is missing, but most days he is there, either sitting up or laying down, bundled up and trying to sleep. George is quiet; we aren’t sure if it is more a language barrier or more of a mental health issue, but he is very quiet, barely uttering more than a “thank-you” for a hot coffee. He is dressed warmly with felt pack boots and a parka, and sometimes he has food wrappings beside him. He doesn’t seem drunk, but might sometimes be, it is hard to tell in the bone chilling cold. Yesterday, as we pulled up there were a couple of people there in the shack and as we walked in with our gear, George got up, walked outside and urinated on a tree in the courtyard in City Hall, 10 feet from the bus shack. Such is life in the street; there is not much to be shy about, and not many ways to preserve your dignity when there are no bathrooms, you do what you have to do. Today I asked “George, where are you from? He said without hesitation, “Wayway.” I asked Waywaysakapo?” George said “Ya.” Wayawasakapa is a reserve in Northern Manitoba. That was our whole conversation as he slurped down the soup we left, but did say a quiet “thank-you” as we packed up and left.
Billy (pictured here and above), is in the bus shack by Portage Place, not sure he is homeless, just trying to make his way home up North for the holidays. As soon as my daughter Chelsea offered him a hot coffee and a soup, Billy (not his real name) was happy and thankful for something warm; at 4:00AM it was -25C with wind-chill that could take your fingers off if they were exposed too long. He was excited to receive anything and even get his picture taken, as well as hoping to get a ride back to his community that day.
Isabel (not her real name) is sitting alone in a bus shack by Eaton Place, wide awake, sober, with the apparent patience of the Buddha, not expecting anything to happen and not trying to make anything happen- just sitting there. She is elderly, Indigenous, well-spoken and well-dressed, a walker and some makeshift luggage sitting in front of her. “Hi Isabel, would you like some hot soup and a coffee today?” She quickly says, “Oh yes, that would be nice.” Isabel has a warm smile and a kind demeanor; she could be anyone’s grandmother, and no doubt is. Every time I see her I think she should be sitting in a rocking chair by a fire, maybe with a baby in her lap. Isabel took the coffee and soup with some kind words and I asked her “what are your plans today, on Christmas eve?. Isabel was quick to answer with a bright smile, “I’ve been invited to dinner at Siloam Mission today.” She said it as though she was going to the governor’s ball. Not wanting to pry or open old wounds, I was curious and had to ask, “why are you out here?” Isabel smiled and said “well things happen” and did not elaborate.
Many sit there as we approach them (my daughter and I) and when we actually get face-to-face with them, we can feel their story. Whether they are intentionally where they want to be, or marginalized by family or work struggles, the ultimate lesson is that everyone is different. People are homeless for various reasons, and needing help, and we have found some fulfillment in offering a small gesture of compassion. It is heart-breaking to really embrace the many challenges that different people face, many who are homeless and struggling. The different stories, the people, it’s tragic and painful, but people need to know that it could happen to any of us. We’ve met people who have fallen astray of loss of work, in transit- trying to get home to their supports, and people who seem to be couch surfing and bus shack squatting, sometimes with a goal and sometimes aimless; they are all different. Regardless of why someone is out in the street or hiding from the wind in a bus shack, in -30C weather in the middle of the night, we have learned that a small compassionate act, an act of unconditional love, sharing a laugh or a short story, is incredibly rewarding as we connect with humanity.