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.
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.