By Kevin Adshade
TRURO – It was a simple premise: I tried to imagine what a person would do if he suddenly blew into town on a wintry day, with no money in his pocket, no food and no safety net that he knew of.
Editor's note: How does it feel to be homeless and what services are available for those who are? Those are two questions we wanted to find out as we sent out reporters for a day to experience homelessness. Truro reporter Ryan Cooke and New Glasgow reporter Kevin Adshade swapped coverage areas in search of answers. The shelters weren't aware ahead of time that they'd be coming and were not told that they were entertaining reporters, in an effort to keep the experience as real as possible. Our reporters made sure they weren't taking a place needed for someone else and a small donation is being made by The News to cover the costs associated with the stay at the local shelter. We hope you enjoy reading these stories.
In the early afternoon of a late-January day, I started walking on east Prince Street in Truro, through a light snowfall, temperatures slightly below freezing and light winds – the weather could have been worse. Yesterday, when I was warmer, it had been.
Peering into large green bins, trying but failing to find a full bag of returnables – which would have made the afternoon much easier.
Around 2:30 p.m., a man is scraping snow off a walkway alongside the Truro United Church and when asked if there was a shelter in this town, he pointed to a hall behind the church, saying it opens at 8 p.m. and closes at 7 a.m., every day during the winter. He had non-judgmental, friendly eyes.
••• “What would the homeless do if this place wasn’t here?” •••
Maybe I don't want to know. Lots of people don’t want to know.
By 4 p.m., still walking the streets, I’m very hungry. The thought of entering a coffee shop and asking when they toss out the leftovers crosses my mind, but I’m not yet desperate enough for that indignity.
Soon could be, though – out on the streets, desperation isn’t far away.
This isn’t a brave thing to do – I did have safety nets, of course, and also the comfort that this was only temporary, that my future is far less uncertain than it is for those who do this for real. At least that's what I think, although we never know for sure, do we?
No, it’s not a courageous act, but it’s hard. Walking the streets for hours, save for a couple of trips to the library to get warm, one thing you notice is that time moves slowly. And, more concerning: despite two layers of socks and sturdy old boots, my feet are cold.
At five minutes past 8 p.m., a woman with a smiling face opens the shelter door and invites me inside.
“We have some hot pizza,” she says, before serving the five of us.
One of the volunteers asks me if I have any weapons or drugs, illegal or otherwise. I tell her no and offer to let her search through a kit bag I’d been carrying around all day, nothing in it but a toothbrush, an extra sweater and another pair of socks.
She didn’t accept the offer, and the first thing I thought was that if they’re not searching my stuff for weapons, then they aren’t searching anyone else’s, either. The nagging fear would soon dissipate – it didn’t take long to learn that they know each other well here, a little family in a world of their own.
A volunteer shows me to a large room on the top floor of the hall, where there are a half-dozen cots covered with sheets and blankets. This isn’t going to work for me, for a couple of reasons: for one thing, I snore so loudly people will think there’s freight train rolling through the room. But more than that: the idea of sleeping in a room full of strangers makes me extremely nervous. I asked for, and was granted, a chance to bunk in a part of the building where I would have some solitude.
I feel exhausted, but it takes me hours to get to sleep and, last I remember, I peeked at my cellphone to see that it was 2:15 a.m.
I would awaken at 5:11 a.m. and be served breakfast. It amazes me again – maybe it shouldn’t – that there are people so compassionate they would give up their nights to run a shelter where the next person through the door might be the last person you’d want to meet.
Just before leaving, I notice that in a bathroom stall in the basement of the shelter, someone had scratched a question into the aging paint: “Where is God?” it asked.
I don’t know for sure that God is anywhere, but if so, then He is here, looking out for those in need of help.
At 6 a.m. I’m out the door, homeless no longer. One of the people who had slept there was standing on the steps outside, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He said he would be staying there every night until spring, but after that, who knew?
We wish each other luck and I move on, into the day.
1:45 p.m. – Car drops me off on East Prince, with no food and no money in my possession. Walk up the train tracks to Victoria Park, looking for garbage cans that might contain recyclables. Didn’t know where my next meal would come from.
2:30 p.m. – Enter the library and receive directions to the local food bank.
2:40 p.m. – See a man cleaning snow off a walkway at First United Church, ask him if there was a shelter in Truro. He points to a building behind the church and said it opens at 8 a.m.
2:50 p.m. – Go to the food bank – it’s not open and no signs on the door indicating when it would be open.
3:15 p.m.– Look inside a large green bin on a downtown parking area. No blue bags. Did this several times throughout the day.
4 p.m. – Hungry now. Return to the library and ask them if I could use a computer. Was going to Google “Truro soup kitchen” but with no ID and no library card, request is denied. Stay for about an hour to keep warm, and to kill some time reading. Time passes slowly on the street.
5-6:30 p.m. – They roll up the streets early in Truro. The sidewalks downtown are almost desolate. As darkness and colder temperatures settled in, I walk through the downtown, circled back up to the west Prince Street area, entered a café to ask for a glass of water. Despite a handful of customers in the café and a red “open” sign blinking in the window, I am told they were closed.
7 p.m. – Walk back to the library to get warm then stroll again through the downtown – waiting for 8 p.m. – considered entering a coffee shop to ask if and when they were going to throw out any food products. Not desperate enough, but saw a time in the near future that I could be.
8 p.m. – Shelter opens, I’m in! Hot pizza delivered weekly from a local pizzeria. Can’t remember when I enjoyed pizza so much.
8:30 p.m. – Get shown to the large room I would be sharing with four others. Later, ask if I could sleep elsewhere because my snoring could wake the dead. The volunteers at the shelter give me a mat, blankets, sheets and a pillow and allowed me to bed down on a stage in the small auditorium contained in the hall.
10 p.m.: In bed, feeling exhausted, but can’t sleep. Would not get to sleep until well past 2 a.m.
5:11 a.m. – Wake up tired and cold.
5:45 a.m. – Have breakfast (bacon, eggs and toast). Checkout, they said, is 7 a.m., but they offer me a bagged lunch to take with me (I decline) and a $5 Tim Horton’s gift card (which I also decline).
6:05 a.m. – Thank them for their hospitality, then leave. One of the other people who had stayed at the shelter is having a cigarette outside and says he would be there every night, all winter. I wish him luck. He reciprocates.
ANY GIVEN NIGHT