Homeless in Vancouver: Why did the homeless person cross the road?

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      On the evening of June 7th I finally took note of something I had seen for some weeks and continue to see: a homeless person bundled snuggly and tidily in a sleeping bag in the covered walkway of a building on the north side of the 1200 block of West Broadway.

      It wasn’t  the sight of someone sleeping rough on West Broadway that caught my attention.

      It was where this person was sleeping and where they weren’t—and why.

      A cure for rough sleepers that is worse than the “disease”

      The permanently ugly cure for the occasional nuisance of rough sleeping on the south side of the 1200 block of West Broadway.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Exactly across the street from where this homeless person could be seen in their red sleeping bag, dreamily counting sheep of no fixed address, was another location that—until a month or two ago—had seen its share of rough sleepers.

      This was an empty ground floor retail unit of one the unlovely high-rises on the south side of the 1200 block of West Broadway. Formerly occupied by a small green grocer, it has sat empty for over a year. Homeless people, noticing the vacancy, have occasionally used its covered entrance as a sleeping spot.

      By “sleeping spot”, I do not mean around-the-clock “camping”, with possessions strewn about. I mean short-stay sleeping between, say 10 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., with the homeless person vacating the spot early in the morning and not leaving anything behind. (So far as I ever saw, at least and I have ridden my bike past this spot early every morning for the better part of four years.)

      What happened a few months ago is that the owner of the building—apparently to deter these harmless occasional rough sleepers—took the extreme step of blocking off the entrance of the unleased ground floor unit with an ugly jumble of steel construction fencing.

      To recap: a building owner went a bit overboard and spent time and money to permanently junk up the front of their building, just to keep the occasional homeless person from sleeping there and possibly making a mess.

      It’s always moving day when you are homeless

      Imagined travel path of a sleepy homeless person on the evening of June 7.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Fencing the storefront on the south side of the 1200 block was a waste of time and money. Homeless people, like the person I saw on June 7 and another Sunday evening (June 10), have simply walked a few metres and slept in the covered walkway on the north side of the street. And they needn’t have walked that far out of their way. Next door to the barricaded storefront is another identical but unbarricaded storefront.

      Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! And for no good reason.

      So, why did the homeless person cross the road? To get to the better sleeping spot on the other side, of course.

      If you don’t think that’s funny, I’m inclined to agree with you. The joke (if any) is on the owner of the fenced-off unit on the south side of the 1200 block.

      Where do I get off criticizing a building owner?

      Two of my homeless years (between December of 2007 and December 2010) were spent working more-or-less full time for the Masonic Centre—a concrete carbuncle from the 1970s, located in the 1400 block of 8th Avenue, which is currently in the early stages of being demolished. Nominally I was employed by the building’s directors as a custodian but in truth I often served as the de facto building manager.

      Over the two years of this memorable job I dealt with many homeless people sleeping in the building’s two-level parkade. Some I never needed to bother about, others mended their messy ways after I spoke to them and a few I had to eject forthwith because they insisted on leaving their crap (sometimes literally) for myself and my coworkers to clean up.

      One of the homeless folk I stopped from sleeping on the property was a good friend. I knew his habits well and I knew that between his self-absorption and absent-mindedness he tended to leave a nightmare mess of garbage and hazardous sharps and bodily fluids wherever he slept.

      The fact that I kicked him off the property did no harm to our friendship but I recall how, at the time, he stomped off in a huff, declaring in a suitably injured tone as he went:

      “It’s a fine thing when one homeless person stops another homeless person from sleeping somewhere!”

      A fine thing indeed. But, to be perfectly candid, the only shit that I, or anyone else employed by the building, was paid to clean up, belonged to the more elderly Freemasons, who sometimes had little accidents in the washrooms. Cleaning up those messes never bothered me.

      But I would be damned if I was going to put up with a homeless person who thoughtlessly made a mess and/or defecated on the property like—well, like they didn’t care—like they were dogs, or something similarly innocent of personal responsibility.

      It’s true that I sometimes slept in the Masonic Centre, especially if I was shifted to close the building at 3 a.m. and open it back up at 8:30 a.m. but I had to do so secretly. The building directors would never have hired me and would have instantly fired me had they learned I was homeless.

      More often than not I left the building for the night to sleep in one of the two regular sleeping spots I maintained. These were the entrance way of the old Royal Canadian Legion offices on Arbutus Street (long since demolished for a condo) and the same parkade which is my main sleeping spot today, nearly a decade later.

      So I believe that I have seen the issue of “sleeping on private property” from both sides and that I know when an uninvited rough sleeper is a problem to be forcefully addressed and when they are no problem at all.

      Of course, I recognize that the building owner in the 1200 block of West Broadway is entitled, fair and square, to manage their property and spend their money as they see fit, even if they look foolish, or stupid, in the process—that’s another thing that I learned working at the Masonic Centre.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.

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