Homeless in Vancouver: How life ground to a halt in Wednesday’s snow—for me at least

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      Just before 5:30 p.m. Wednesday (January 15), with no more white stuff falling from the sky, the head of snow atop a newspaper box at the intersection of West Broadway Ave. and Spruce St. equalled the length of one of my hands.

      According to an on-screen ruler, the length of that hand is about 20 centimetres—the amount of snowfall predicted for the day.

      Whatever it totalled, by all accounts, Wednesday’s snowstorm proved to be another Vancouver classic, straining both transit’s ability to move people and the city’s limited capacity to clear snow from streets and sidewalks. As a result, untold scores of residents were unable to go to work, keep important appointments, or just leave their homes.

      I had been especially concerned whether one of my homeless friends in Fairview would be able to make it to their medical appointment in the Downtown Eastside.

      In fact, my friend showed up on time but they still managed to miss the appointment. That was because no one who worked at the medical clinic showed up and the place was locked up tight.

      A woman who did make it to work on West Broadway explained to me how her company had already given employees specially configured laptops and was moving to a paperless work flow, all in order to allow the company’s work to be done from home—in part to avoid inevitable disruptions, like occurred Wednesday.

      I did not have to ask any other homeless, and “street-embedded” people to know how the heavy snow would be affecting them.

      Shopping carts and buggies and bins full of personal possessions would, I knew, be all but immovable in the snow—abandoned in place, along with many of their owners, who would find themselves effectively snowbound for the day to the area immediately around their sleeping spots.

      That was certainly my experience on Wednesday.

      Vancouver blocks can get very long on a snow day

      My bike and trailer—having made the uphill journey separately—about to be reunited at West Broadway at 9:38 a.m. Wednesday.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Normally I am up and out of my parkade sleeping spot by 6:30 a.m. but Wednesday I pushed my luck and didn’t even budge from my sleeping bag until 7 a.m.

      For one thing I was tired from battling the second night of a cold—one that had expanded from my head to my chest. At 6 a.m. I was just ready to sink into peaceful sleep. For another thing, the cars that normally arrived to park by 7 a.m. were all no-shows.

      But I did finally get up. And while I alternated between coughing up and packing up, I deliberately ignored the trouble awaiting me outside—one thing at a time, I thought.

      But I couldn’t help but draw conclusions from the ongoing absence of cars in the parkade, or the utter lack of vehicle sounds coming from the street.

      So, when it did come time to face the outside world, I was not surprised to see the snow—just as predicted—filling the streets and sidewalks—deep and unshovelled, as far as the eye could see.

      Of course I have exit strategies for heavy snow. One of them involves begging, borrowing, or improvising a shovel, with which I can clear the sidewalks leading up the slope from my parkade toward West Broadway Avenue. Another involves decoupling my bike and trailer and taking each through the snow in their turn.

      Wednesday’s snow was a big enough problem that I needed to employ both strategies.

      Thanks to the fact that I slept in I was able to cadge a good shovel from an employee who showed up for work on foot, just before 7:30 a.m., at the building attached to the very parkade I was trying to get out of.

      Dutifully I cleared the width of the sidewalk leading from the parkade for half a block—wheezing and pausing regularly to catch my breath.

      All the while the shovel’s donor made a point of coming out of the building at intervals to hover, nervously, just out of snow’s throw.

      I guessed that they were worried that the homeless guy might steal their shovel.

      Perhaps they were thinking that on a snow day like Wednesday, I thought that I could sell it, or use it to earn money shovelling other people’s sidewalks.


      I endured the supervision and made sure not to stretch my luck by using the shovel beyond the sidewalk adjacent to the employee’s building. However, this meant that I was able to clear less than a quarter of the sidewalk I would have to travel.

      So I detached the bike from the bike trailer. This was a trivial process, thanks to my careful purchase last year of a second-hand bike with old-style side-pull brakes on the back wheel.

      Those side-pull brakes allowed me to attach the bike trailer using a Burley Classic Connector, dating from the 1980s, which I prefer over any modern skewer connector.

      Thick snow can be such a drag if you pull a bike trailer

      By itself, a bike rolls easily through snow. But with a trailer attached it is like dragging a dead weight.

      Even by itself, pulling the trailer up the slope was a chore; it did not roll so much as it plowed.

      When all was said and done it took me about 2 hours to travel from the parkade to West Broadway—a short trip that normally takes five minutes, at most.

      Along the way I saw three cars and and one van incapacitated and spinning their rear wheels in the thick snow. I would have like to help but I had my hands full.

      The one hope that had driven me forward, as I inched my way up the snow-clogged side streets, was that West Broadway—when I reached it—being one of the city’s most important arterial roads—would be shovelled and plowed to a fare-thee-well.

      But when I finally topped the slope I saw that all six lanes of West Broadway were a churned-up mess of deep snow and the sidewalks on both sides and in both directions were shovelled to an even lesser degree than the side streets I had just escaped.

      Then and there my resolve deflated like a balloon and I simply gave up.

      But rather than falling down and allowing myself to expire in the snow I did the existential equivalent in the closest coffee shop—at Broadway and Spruce.

      For the next eight hours (while my money held out), I subsisted on pricey Canadianos and red velvet loaf—not to mention free Internet.

      How many of my homeless peers in the rest of Vancouver were so lucky, I cannot say.