Since I woke up in my parkade sleeping spot at 6:45 a.m. this morning (December 6) and left the comfort of my sleeping bag, the temperature in Vancouver has risen a whole five degrees Celsius—from minus one to plus four (as of 2:20 p.m.).
People have expressed concern on social media about my sleeping outside in the Fairview neighbourhood since the overnight temperatures have dropped to near-zero— particularly as none of the emergency shelters, or warming centres are located anywhere on the West Side of the city.
However, rest assured that so far, I and every Fairview homeless person I have spoken to (with one notable exception) have been just fine sleeping outside these last few days.
And the one sleepless peer that I found explained that it was crystal meth and not the cold that was keeping him up at night.
When I quizzed this friend of mine about the merits versus the hazards of going all night zapped on meth, he readily admitted that the cheap drug only kept him wide awake.
It did nothing to protect him from the freezing overnight temperatures the way that, say, a decent sleeping bag or blankets protects those of us who prefer to sleep at night.
“You have to stay on top of that,” he said—meaning that he had to remember to bundle up against the cold, despite the tendency of meth to make you oblivious to your surroundings.
And finally, after staying awake on meth for three days, even this fellow was off to find himself a spot to sleep—for about a day!
Not so sleepless in Fairview
I cannot speak for any homeless people other than myself but my experience sleeping rough in the cold generally matches that of the other homeless people I know in Fairview—even the wide-eyed meth users (when they choose to sleep).
To sleep comfortably outside in the near-zero temperatures we are now experiencing, I need either an adult-length, zippered sleeping bag (even a summer-weight bag will do for me), or two large blankets, plus a dry and quiet sleeping spot that is well out of the wind. It also helps to have some corrugated cardboard, or a some kind of mat, to insulate me from the concrete, or ground, that I am laying on.
If anything, I may be a bit more tolerant to cold than my peers, who—to a man and woman—all prefer thicker sleeping bags or more blankets than I could comfortably stand. I actually dislike sleeping too hot.
Normally I sleep with bare feet, wearing underwear, pants and (in the fall and winter) a T-shirt. But, because I’m still rocking a summer-weight sleeping bag, for the last three days I have added thin “sleeping socks” to my overnight habiliment.
Getting out of my warm sleeping bag is no problem so long as I’m not just waking up.
In fact, the last thing that I usually do before going to sleep is get up and toss any garbage or recyclables I have in the blue bins and Dumpsters located across a side street from my parkade. And I do this with all the informality common to navigating one’s living space, meaning that I usually make the trip in bare, or socking feet unless there is heavy rain, snow and/or ice in the hallway, er, side street.
And, like many long-time rough sleepers I know, once I settle in for the night in my sleeping bag or blankets, I love being able to breathe the fresh, cold outside air.
So sleeping and getting in and out of bed in near-zero temperatures can be easy with the right gear and circumstances. It’s waking up from a good sleep and having to trade that warm embrace for the slap of a cold new day that can be hard.
In my case, the process often involves procrastination and/or negotiation, as in:
“I really don’t need to get up for another 10 minutes.” “Two more minutes to get my core temperature up.” “Okay, okay! On the count of three I’ll unzip!”
“One two three. Three-and-a-half…”
When the zipper does finally get unzipped all the way, or the blankets are flung aside, hesitation evaporates with the enveloping warmth.
The shock of the invading cold focuses the mind wonderfully; socks, boots and jacket go on with a speed and precision that would make an industrial efficiency expert blush.
I know that I can dress and pack up all my bedding and gear and be riding my bike out of the parkade in well under 15 minutes.
But whether I am actually awake and conscious at this point or simply reacting dumbly to the cold like a frog leg jolted by electric current is open to debate.
Certainly I didn’t feel awake this morning until I was sitting in a warm restaurant and halfway through drinking my first cup of coffee.