Happy New Year! Another year has passed and we all have great hopes for the future. There is no point in having regrets; they are like pulling your hand out of the passing river; the ripples have had their affect and we have all moved on. The water is constantly flowing and so are we in the river of life. What we can control is the compassion we show towards others; it will make others happy and us as well. May you all experience and give unconditional love in the coming year; we all have value and our own path in life, and each fulfil our destiny in a unique way; may you have a fulfilling and joy-filled destiny, and ignore the things that detract from it.
With the windchill, it’s -44C (-47F) and this is the scene outside City Hall at 4AM this morning, the day before New Year’s eve. Three men huddled in a bus shack, because it is enclosed and blocks the wind. With shaking hands, one doesn’t even have gloves, they eagerly reach out as Barb and Chelsea offer them a hot bowl of soup and a coffee. Surprisingly, they are joking around, “hey could I get a foot massage, naaa” says one young man with big a smirk on his face. A sense of humour is probably the best defence against the unforgiving elements. It’s day 33 of our 4AM coffee run and it might be time to reassess, as the last couple of days we only found a few people downtown. There are still lots of people running around, but most of the regulars are missing and even the changing face of homelessness has diminished substantially. Speculating that increased holiday spirit in combination with the dangerously cold temperatures has resulted in more people either taking folks in or even the die-hard street folks seeking refuge. Winnipeg’s shelters, and the wonderful people who work at them have also taken up the slack, seemingly taking more folks in. Winnipeg’s culture of compassion and care is tangible in these conditions; humanity matters.
Devon Clunis, spreading spreading inspiration through his book, The Little Boy From Jamaica, showing youth from all walks of life that anything is possible.
In one of the coldest winters on record, there are still people out all night, sometimes with no gloves and wearing only runners. We (my family and I) have found people out, huddled in bus shacks every night over the past month, despite the great efforts by wonderful organizations like Siloam Mission, Salvation Army, the Main Street Project and others. We found the numbers of people out there over the last few nights, over Christmas and as the temperatures got more extreme, dropped a bit, BUT, we still found 6 to 10 or more each night who were out at 4AM and not in a shelter. They all have a different story, but no-one should be out in this cold.
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.
How much effort does it take for another person to affect your day, with a smile or a small gesture of thanks, recognition of your work, or even just being courteous? The answer is, not much. Imagine now how a small act or gesture might affect your day when you have nothing, if you were out in the cold with no home, no food, no money and not even proper clothes, or bandages for your wounds or medicine for your infections.
We have shelters and food banks, soup lines, many agencies and wonderful people providing all kinds of humanitarian aid for our less fortunate citizens, but there are those who fall through the cracks, those who do not get into a shelter at night, and many who, for a variety of reasons, do not participate well in organized charity efforts. Aren’t those the most vulnerable among us? When we slow-down from our busy lives and look around, we can see that there are a lot more unfortunate, homeless, and challenged people than most of us realize. They are hidden in plain sight, having learned to be unobtrusive for fear of being pushed out, we even sometimes step over them, barely distracted from checking our cellphone for texts and e-mails while running for a break at work. Admittedly, we all have our problems and life to deal with, and it is overwhelming to think about all that is going on in the world; but there must be some balance; we also have responsibilities as citizens. We should find some balance between responsibility for our own private lives and for social problems in our community.
On my 4AM walk to work in downtown Winnipeg, I see people sleeping in bus shacks, and running around in the streets. A person could freeze to death or lose fingers and toes to frostbite in minutes in our frigid winter weather. Inquiring with the shelters that exist, I found that, for a variety of reasons, there are a lot of people stuck (my daughter Chelsea above) out in the elements at night, from teenagers to elderly, some in wheelchairs, some with obvious substance abuse and/or mental health issues, and some who have run into financial problems. They are from all over, and their stories are as diverse as their backgrounds; not all are homeless; some are displaced only for a few days and some choose to be there. Whatever the reason, it does not seem right that some people are cowering in cold bus shacks and doorways on a cold winter night while the rest of us sleep soundly in our homes.
My family decided to try a small gesture and see if it helps. We started bringing hot coffee and soup for those who seem to be lost in the system, in the middle of the night, after everything is closed, when the bus shacks are some of the only places to escape the cold. They are disturbingly easy to find, and amazingly appreciative. We’ve had some laughs and heard some (my daughter Chelsea above) interesting stories, just offering a non-judgmental gesture with a compassionate intention. There are some who we wonder about when they suddenly aren’t in their regular spot. Surprisingly, there are different faces each day, an endless parade of different people, each with their own story. Some are unresponsive, obviously struggling with their issues, but many are bright, sober and are just getting by, day-by-day, to overcome the challenges life has dealt them.
Most are thankful for a hot cup of coffee, hot chocolate or soup to warm their belly in the wet snow and the cold night air. It has been a heartwarming experience, and has taught us that we can respect a person’s human dignity with very small acts. All of us have daily opportunities to do something nice for someone. It doesn’t have to be someone homeless; you never know what challenges other people are struggling with. These are chances that should not be wasted, because life’s lottery could have placed any of us in a different position than we have in life, and a compassionate act can give us the feeling of restoring some balance, some social justice in the world, one small gesture at a time.