At 8:32 a.m. on Wednesday (December 7) I was one of perhaps five homeless people who were inside the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway. At that point in the day the outside temperature in Vancouver was about –3° C.
I was eating breakfast when the two plain-clothed Vancouver police officers showed up. My friend Ivan and two other homeless fellows that I recognized but didn’t know by name were sitting drinking coffee in different parts of the restaurant and a fourth street person, completely unfamiliar to me, was crashed out on a corner booth seat, sound asleep.
The sleeper was the lesser of two problem homeless people that the restaurant had called the police to deal with, well over an hour earlier.
Before the two officers finally arrived, a foul-mouthed and filthy young homeless man that police had principally been called to eject (and not for the first time), had finally left of his own volition, after an hour or so of digging through the garbage and aggressively panhandling restaurant patrons.
This disruptive fellow returned in the early afternoon but for the time being he vanished into the adjoining alleys, pushing some homeowner’s wheeled grey garbage bin (still full of the homeowner’s garbage) and leaving behind the hot coffee that a McDonald’s customer had purchased for him.
One down, one to go
The two police officers went straight over to the homeless sleeper and politely woke him, got him up on his feet, and explained to him that they needed to run his identification outside.
I didn’t pay close attention. For lack of a better place, homeless people are always falling asleep in McDonald’s and sleeping in a restaurant is not, by itself, any kind of arrestable offence in Vancouver. I therefore missed what it was that led the officers to actually arrest the young man.
Perhaps it was the I.D. check. All I know is that when I looked up, the fellow was being physically restrained and handcuffed by the officers. And within minutes they took him away—hopefully somewhere nice and warm.
Cold truth of homelessness in Vancouver
In the sub-zero temperatures that Vancouver is experiencing this week, McDonald’s restaurants become even more vital to homeless people than they normally are—serving as low-barrier, nonjudgemental, long-houred warming stations.
McDonald’s are especially important to those homeless people living in Vancouver neighbourhoods other than the Downtown Eastside, with its unique abundance of homeless services.
No two people (homeless or otherwise) are quite the same but it’s a fair generalization, I think, to say that most homeless binners in the Fairview neighbourhood will stay warm on cold days by only occasionally visiting McDonald’s for a hot coffee break and washroom access and trying to actively bin for returnable beverage containers—if they can.
Binners who use shopping carts may find themselves sidelined if signifigant snow and ice piles up on streets and in back alleys, as it did on Monday.
Homeless hardcore street drug addicts who support their expensive habits by panhandling would seem to me to be at particular risk in sub-zero weather. Not only does their mode of earning income require them to sit still for long periods of time (and lose body heat in the process) but the drugs that they panhandle to buy tend to make them insensible zombies in the face of the elements.
I recall Henry, a crystal-meth-using binner, telling me about one of his all-night binning runs, when he could find no returnable containers anywhere and how he ended up, with the meth coursing through his body and keeping him wide, wide awake, literally standing stock still in an alley for several hours in the pouring rain.
It sounded horrible, I declared. “No. It was wonderful”, he explained.
We should all fear the power of such drugs as heroin and crystal meth to enable their users to suffocate or freeze to death without hardly a care!
Enough about everyone else, what about me?
Speaking of rude awakenings, when this homeless blogger awoke in his parkade at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, all snug and warm in his sleeping bag and counting the minutes until he had to get up, the air felt and tasted—I’d say—like about –5° C.
On brisk mornings like these, I am often reminded of a scene from the 1982 film Blade Runner—when the two replicants, Roy Batty and Leon, question the eye manufacturer Hannibal Chew in his sub-zero laboratory and the menacingly placid Leon rips open Chew’s heat-fed and insulated parka.
As I unzipped my ice-blue sleeping bag I could almost hear the long “Pffzztttt” sound from the movie, as all the hot air escaped out the back of Chew’s parka and that poor man (played by the wonderful character actor James Hong) was left shivering for dear life.
Personally, I only shivered long enough to pull on my socks, boots, T-shirt, still excellent seven-year-old Thinsulate MEC parka and Polar fleece-lined, nitrile-treated, winter work gloves.
By the time I had packed my sleeping bag and drop sheet on my trailer, folded up the newspaper sheets that I lay under the trailer and bicycle to catch drips, and otherwise erased every trace of my presence in the parkade, I was warm again. And after pushing the bike and trailer uphill for a block I was actually a bit overheated.
So I unzipped my parka and then I was off to join all of my peers at McDonald’s, that home for the homeless on a cold cold day.