Wednesday afternoon (February 6) a Union Gospel Mission (UGM) outreach truck made a rare visit to the Fairview neighbourhood to drop off sleeping bags for two homeless people.
This was no a big deal, unless you happen to have been one of the two homeless people I know who have been sleeping outside in this week’s subzero cold snap with only a blanket and the clothes on their back.
If you put yourself in their shoes—the ones they have had to sleep in to keep their toes from freezing—you can probably imagine what a big deal a sleeping bag might be for them.
With warmest regards from the Downtown Eastside
The visit of the UGM outreach truck on Wednesday was the result of a question I had been asked in an email three days earlier, on Sunday, by Sharon Townsend, executive director of the South Granville Business Improvement Association (SGBIA).
Was I aware of any homeless people in the area who would be at risk if the temperature dropped to the predicted overnight low of -8° C?
It was a good question. The dramatic cold snap in Vancouver promised a week of exceptional overnight lows, which could be life-threatening for homeless people who were only dressed and equipped for Vancouver’s average February overnight low of 2° C.
One person was immediately identified on the Sunday as being without any sleeping gear whatsoever. A flannel blanket was quickly procured for them from within the neighbourhood.
In all, I wasn’t able to speak to more than a quarter of the homeless people I know who sleep rough somewhere in Fairview. And of those I spoke to, almost all told me that they would have no problem come what may, temperature-wise.
Many homeless people, to be sure, do not like to ask for help, or to admit anything less than mastery over their situation. But Fairview’s homeless population—in the absence of any emergency shelters in the area, or all that much in the way of regular outreach services—have a proven tendency towards resilience and stubborn self-reliance.
Only a few of my homeless peers actually explained how they were prepared to meet the cold.
One friend told me that he would take the extraordinary step of accepting a standing offer to sleep over at a friend’s place, if necessary. Another explained that his need for a better sleeping bag had been filled by his mental health team. While a third individual said that he too had just gotten sleeping bag upgrade—from the Vancouver Police Department.
For my part, on Saturday I had switched to a big old, 1990s-vintage, winter-weight sleeping bag that had been sitting, waiting for cold weather, in my storage locker ever since I had found it in a back alley in the spring of 2018.
So, after checking off everyone that I thought would be at risk, I unexpectedly found two homeless people in immediate need very close at hand—just a few metres away from me in McDonald’s.
My homeless friend Ivan usually starts his day with a coffee sitting a seat or two away from me in McDonald’s. Tuesday morning I learned that, for some days, all he had had to keep himself warm at night was his boots, clothing and a single blanket.
This after someone had stolen his sleeping bag off the rack of his bike. (Still the second bike Vancouver Twitter users raised money to buy for him.)
I emailed a few government and NGO agencies that do homeless outreach but received no definite offer of assistance.
I finally received a prompt and engaged commitment to supply the necessary sleeping bag from Jeremy Hunka, a homeless advocate with the UGM. This is a faith-based charitable organization based in the Downtown Eastside, which tasks itself with providing a range of services to the marginalized populations of the entire Metro Vancouver region, as well as the city of Mission.
Wednesday morning, Hunka agreed, via Twitter, to deliver one sleeping bag to me in the 1400 block of West Broadway between 2 and 3 p.m.
Later he was happy to increase the number of sleeping bags to two after I found another homeless fellow in McDonald’s, named Mike, who said that he was likewise down to sleeping in just a blanket. (And boy, was he cold!)
I explained to Mike the arrangements I had made with UGM. With cordial skepticism he agreed to swing by the restaurant after 2:30 p.m. to pick up his sleeping bag.
I would hold onto Ivan’s sleeping bag until I saw him later in the evening.
UGM delivers the goods as promised
Just after 2 p.m., UGM’s white and green outreach van nosed into the alley beside the McDonalds in the 1400 block of West Broadway.
The van’s big cargo door slid open and a member of the outreach team named Nathan handed me two Outbound-brand sleeping bags, snug and puffy in their grey and red nylon sacks.
At the same time it was explained to me that UGM outreach had a lot more to offer besides just sleeping bags.
That was born out by what I could see of the inside of the van, which was equal parts commissary and outfitter—with visible stock of socks, blankets, and jackets, as well as hot beverages, sandwiches, fruit, and other snackables.
I thanked the outreach team for their prompt help, accepted an offered paper sack lunch, and then left them to spread more warmth and sunshine elsewhere.
I also left my homeless friend Henry, who had materialized at the open cargo door of the van. He was eyeing a warm jacket that he needed, while a bagged lunch was being put together for him.
A few minutes later I saw UGM’s Nathan on West Broadway. He had struck up a conversation with an elderly homeless man and then he escorted the gentleman back to the outreach van. I’m sure I heard him say to Nathan that he could use a sleeping bag.
Nathan and company might not be done spreading their warmth and sunshine among the homeless and street-embedded binners and Dumpster divers in the back alleys of the Fairview neighbourhood for a while, I thought.
A better night’s sleep is in the bag
When Mike appeared toward 3 p.m. to ask if anything had showed up, his tone indicated how low his expectations were. However, he was very happily surprised when I handed him a sleeping bag.
Ivan was likewise pleased to receive his sleeping bag. Relief at the prospect of a night free of shivering could be seen in his expression. He wanted to personally thank Jeremy Hunka and everyone else at UGM.
I told him I would pass the sentiments along.