Not all of the unconsciousness you may see these days on the sidewalks and in the back alleys of Vancouver has anything to do with intoxication or opioid use.
A good deal of it is due to sleep deprivation aggravated by the change of seasons.
For homeless people grown accustomed to more than two months of our hot, dry 21st-century summer—when all one needs to comfortably sleep outside is to be tired—autumn’s sudden overnight temperature drop can come as a rude awakening—literally.
Daydreaming of a good night’s sleep
As one of Vancouver’s homeless people who sleeps “rough”, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t beginning to get a tiny bit chilly overnight. And if I didn’t have both a nice sleeping spot and a warm sleeping bag I might have trouble getting the beauty sleep that I so desperately need.
The sudden chilly overnight temperatures will certainly be making it more difficult for less-prepared homeless people to get a good night’s sleep and some are obviously being forced to do their rough sleeping in the light of day and preferably in a place with direct sun.
This strategy will work for the time being. While overnight lows are falling like leaves from the trees—8 °C and dropping—Vancouver is still enjoying relatively warm afternoon temperatures in the range of 15 to 17 °C.
Soon however (within a month), the days will get brisk, then downright cold and wet (perhaps even cold and snowy).
By that time hopefully, a few more of Vancouver’s 2,000-plus homeless people will be snugly rehoused in temporary modular housing. Certainly more shelter beds will be open—though none of them are likely to be in my neighbourhood of Fairview.
The problem with emergency shelter beds—one of the problems at least—is that they are only open overnight.
Nowhere in Vancouver, so far as I know, is there an indoor space where it is welcoming and/or safe for a homeless person (man or woman) to sleep during the day.
And do not—I repeat—do not try sleeping in a Vancouver community centre or public library branch. If you do, I hope you are lucky enough to be woken up and chided by staff before you are robbed blind by thieves.
Every time I have nodded off in a library branch I have had something stolen. And homeless friends who have used the city’s winter “warming centres” (a.k.a. select community centres open 24 hours) similarly complain of having had possessions stolen when they fell asleep.
I haven’t been in the City of Vancouver’s homeless-friendly Gathering Place drop-in centre for a few years now. But even there, I recall, I was not allowed to so much as doze off in the TV room, after my shower and while I was waiting for my laundry to be done, or have my feet bare, for that matter.
If you are homeless in Vancouver and you want to nap during the day without fear of organ theft, then you have the same binary choice as if you want to cook yourself a dinner, or have a hot shower before you have to start work at 6 a.m.
You can figure out how to get yourself a complete apartment, with all of the utilities and obligations, or you can get stuffed.
Governments treat homelessness like a disease
I understand why governments may not want to normalize or facilitate homelessness and why they may prefer to treat it like an outbreak of infectious meningitis, to be contained and cured.
If homelessness isn’t deliberately stigmatized and kept beyond the pale then, I guess, it has the potential to become acceptable. And who knows? Everyone might want to do it—or so I imagine government planners may worry.
Governments in Canada might normalize and effectively decriminalize homelessness—but only if it meant that they could then tax it, like cannabis.
As things stand, governments have the choice whether or not to provide 24-hour shelter spaces, or drop-in centres where someone can safely doze for a few hours during the day.
But homeless people have no choice, sooner or later they have to sleep.
Remember that, the next time you see someone who is obviously trying to get some shut-eye on a public sidewalk in broad daylight.
They may not be there by choice, so much as necessity.