I'm not alone here

Ryan
Ryan Cooke
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Warmth of strangers keeps local reporter out of the cold during night spent homeless

NEW GLASGOW – I must have fallen asleep. Was it for a few seconds? Minutes? It didn’t matter now.

Ryan Cooke, Truro Daily News reporter.
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 Truro Daily News to cover the costs associated with the stay at the local shelter. We hope you enjoy reading these stories.

Hunkered down behind a dumpster, I slowly pull my knees into my chest, praying not to make a sound in the fresh, crunchy snow. I was alone here at the end of this narrow and dark alleyway, my own secret hiding place from the wind, snow and the outside world. I was.

I’m not anymore.

Behind me, I hear voices. Two men. My heart is pounding in my chest, every breath held inside until my lungs explode for air. I make myself as small as possible and bury my face into the collar of my jacket. Maybe they won’t see me.

They root through the dumpster, just a quarter-inch of steel between us. The bright beam of a flashlight peeks around the corner occasionally as they climb in and out of the trash. The light stops on the toe of my boot and their voices go silent. They’re whispering to each other now. They see me.

More time passes in silence until I hear footsteps heading the other way. I’m safe and alone again.

I look up to the brick wall in front of me and there are the faces to match the voices, staring down at me.

“There is a person down there!”

For all my fear, the two young men were more afraid of me than I was of them. I didn’t know what to say next.

“I’m just… hanging out.”

“You aren’t going to stay there all night are you? It’s going to get pretty nasty tonight. You shouldn’t stay out here, man.”

“Thanks guys, I’ll be fine. I have somewhere to go.”

“Are you sure? Do you need anything?”

Welcome to being homeless in the Maritimes.

For me, it’s just one night – one cold, wet, snowy night. After walking all over town for a few hours, my clothes bore the weight of a suit of armour. Soaked with melting snow, every uphill walk felt like the last leg of a marathon. Every step in the slushy muck on the pavement was a battle. My legs twisted and slipped. My left knee, a sports injury from eight years ago, twinged and ached.

Finally, when I could bear it no longer, I headed to the Life Shelter – an emergency shelter for those in need. I had walked past it five or six times during the night, putting off ringing the buzzer to go inside. What would I say? What’s my story? What would they think of me?

It turns out, it didn’t matter. I was met at the door by two volunteers who happily greeted me. They asked for my name and a piece of ID. The woman asked me a few more questions while the man phoned in my information to the RCMP. A police check is needed for anyone staying in the shelter.

Her questions were nothing intrusive. She had no interest in how I ended up there. She was just happy I was there, asking for a helping hand. They hadn’t had any visitors for a few days, she said. They worried they weren’t well-known to the public. They worried they were failing people.

I didn’t feel judged. I didn’t feel less than human.

After a couple minutes, the man came back and said I was OK to enter. He immediately brought me to the storage room, where I had my pick of any food I wanted. He then took me to the kitchen, where he heated up some vegetable soup and poured me a glass of lemonade. He gave me cookies and crackers while his co-worker put clean sheets and quilts on a bed for me.

When the food was gone, I began cleaning up until he brushed me aside.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll clean up. You can go watch TV.”

I opted instead to hit the hay. It had been a long, cold night. The shelter had three sleeping rooms, each equipped with two cots made of 2x6 lumber, plywood and a mattress.

Knowing I was inside, safe and out of the cold, I had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks.  

TIMELINE:

5:45 p.m. - It's a beautiful night, big snowflakes falling lightly all over town. Mild, not too cold.

6:10 p.m. - The snow is quickly changing from beautiful to annoying. My clothes are getting pretty heavy.

6:15 p.m. - After walking around a while, I take my first break on a park bench.

6:25 p.m. - Back on the road again, I find myself scouting places sheltered from wind and snow.

6:45 p.m. - The Temperance Street School is my first shelter-seeking stop. The homeless shelter will be open any minute, but I want to get a better outdoor experience. Sitting here, I'm blocked from the wind on three sides. Still snowing.

7:30 p.m. - I find the perfect hideaway behind two dumpsters and two tall brick buildings. There's a stone wall in front of me and some trees. No wind, no snow. There's a shopping cart behind the dumpster already. Looks like I’m not the first one here.

7:55 p.m. - Another lap around town

8:42 p.m. - Back to my dumpster hideaway.

9:25 p.m. – There are two guys looking through the dumpsters. Do they know I'm right here?

9:35 p.m. - They turn silent. I hear whispering. I take it they spotted me. They come around and ask if I’m OK, where I'm staying tonight and if I need anything.

10:05 p.m. - I check into the shelter. I give the woman my ID, she hands it to another man and he calls police for a background check. She's nice. Not judging me. I'm honest in answering questions but avoid mentioning I'm a journalist.

10:10 p.m. - I'm allowed in. The man, Bob, brings me to the storage room and let's me pick out anything I want to eat – vegetable soup, crackers, cookies and lemonade. He makes it all for me and insists on cleaning up after. Not too bad.

10:30 p.m. - My bed is all made up, with extra blankets. They offer to wash and dry my clothes. The bed is hard, but the blankets are warm and clean. There's nobody else here tonight besides me.

10:45 p.m. - One last note before sleep – I had walked past the shelter four or five times tonight before going in. I was worried I wouldn't know what to say. But no explanations were needed; no judgments.

3:32 a.m. - I'm awake and pretty hungry. I don't usually sleep that early, so I'm probably up for the day now. I don't want to take any more food from this place, not when I don't need it.

5:48 a.m. - Awake again. Have to be out by 7:30, so I leave early, hoping not to disturb anyone.

ANY GIVEN NIGHT

• Homeless in Sydney - Cape Breton Post

• Guardian reporter seeks shelter - The Guardian

• No home, not sure where to go - The News

• Home free - Journal Pioneer

• Homelessness is a lonely street - The Western Star

• Lessons in generosity - The Telegram

• You can't fake homelessness - The Telegram

• A night in a cold tent is not homelessness - The Digby Courier

Organizations: RCMP

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Recent comments

  • Victoria Abbott
    February 02, 2015 - 16:32

    Ryan, this is an excellent piece of writing. Lucky for you, there was a shelter available for you and nice people to help you out. A reporter here in PEI did a similar story and, unfortunately, did not have as "good" of an experience as you did. To the comment made earlier about "glorifying homelessness," I do not agree. I look at this piece as showing some people that there is hope for some homeless people in certain places. Yes, the reporter only "lived as a homeless person" for 5 hours, but I think he did get a small glimpse into the life of a homeless person. If nothing else, he drew attention to the fact that there are homeless people out there living in such harsh conditions.

  • Steve
    January 31, 2015 - 12:01

    This article glorifies being homeless and the end message is "its basically not that bad if your homeless". I can't believe you even think living on the streets for FIVE HOURS can allot you the expierence to write an article on the experiences of homeless people. This is god awful insight to a realm that needs much more attention than sitting behind a dumpster for 5 hours and thinking you've lived that life. Get real.

  • Chris Backer
    January 31, 2015 - 11:48

    Great story. Thanks for a great glimpse into a wonderful group of maritime re going above and beyond to lend a hand to those in need.

  • Doris Grant
    January 31, 2015 - 10:05

    What an amazing story about an issue that we need to know more about. You were very smart in the way you approached this issue and need to be commended for you efforts to bring this to light. THANK YOU