As part of a national initiative for Raising the Roof, Campbell Riverite Sue Moen spoke to a few of the unhoused community in Campbell River and was invited to join them in sleeping outside for one night to give people a small taste of what hundreds of Canadians experience each night. Raising The Roof participants sleep in their cars or sleep rough for one night and raise money for homelessness prevention programs.
By Sue Moen
Special to the Mirror
My friends are already sleeping. They told me at dinner held at theHem’?aelas Community Kitchen that they usually go right to bed after they eat and then get up early to be out of the way for when this tolerant business opens. The number of people sleeping here ranges from four to ten, depending on the space available at Kwesa Shelter. They take turns – sleeping inside for a few nights and then giving up the beds to others. Many in this group used to stay at Spirit Square and during the Farmers Market season would help with clean up and set up early Sunday morning. Some would come back to help with tear-down. They were pushed out of Spirit Square and set up at the longhouse at Robert Ostler Park. They kept it clean and looked after each other and their belongings – someone would stay to watch the stuff so others could get a meal, a shower, and look after personal business. This new location — the longhouse has been fenced off — is well lit. It’s not that conducive to sleeping, but safe. We’re tucked away and so it’s unlikely that we’ll be the targets of vigilantes.
All the folks here (and many more I’ve spoken to) have been targeted. They’ve been assaulted, and their belongings burned or stolen, their tents set on fire. I often wonder if the residents who talk about not feeling safe downtown ever think about this group’s safety. I am feeling my privilege acutely. I have a job (privilege one) where I spend a lot of time outside and I’ve been able to invest in expensive ski socks, long johns and more than one sweater – and I am wearing all of it along with a pair of lined pants. I have the option to stay in my truck (privilege two). I can leave anytime and return to a warm home, have a shower, make coffee, and read the news in my bathrobe (privileges three, four, five and six).
I’m going to try to sleep.
It took me quite some time to fall asleep and I am someone who seldom has a problem sleeping. I’ve fallen asleep in front of the speaker stack at a rock concert and once nodded off on stage in front of 600 people. But the sounds outside in these circumstances are different. The cars sound a little menacing, Stan really snores, and it took me a while to identify what that noise was. I miss my critters and the familiar weight of my partner beside me; all of them keep me warm and secure. Although the blanket I brought smells kind of doggy and that too kept me awake for a while.
The rain on my roof woke me. Wayne and Marguerite were up. Wayne was having a smoke and Marguerite’s coughing worried me. I got up for a bit and chatted. They teased me about cheating by sleeping in the truck. I did try to lie down outside but realized I didn’t have enough layers and blankets to stay out. I think I could have managed but would have had to keep moving.
We talked about how they look after each other. ‘T’ has a survival suit and a lawn chair, but Wayne added a tarp for extra protection. We talked about not being able to sleep deeply. For them it’s to ensure their belongings are secure and that there are no incoming threats. For me it is the same reasons, but I’m sure my imagination makes it seem riskier than it truly is.
Every time I turn over, I must tuck the clothes and blanket back around me to stop the draft, I find myself listening intently to my surroundings and to the four folks outside to make sure they are okay too. Margeurite showed me their set up: seven blankets keeps them up off the ground. and a blanket and comforter on top keeps them warm. We are all sleeping in our clothes, and I can’t help but think again how I have easy access to laundry and another full set of clothes in the morning, a private place to wash up and change and it’s unlikely people will know I slept in my vehicle.
But after several days outside, even if they’ve had the chance to shower and change, these folks often look like they’ve been outside, and I know that opens them up to stigma and judgement. It’s quite amazing to me still (and it should not be) how well so many of our unsheltered neighbours present outwardly despite how they may be doing internally. Like most of people, they take pride in their appearance, keeping as clean as possible, dressing as well as they are able, getting haircuts and cleaning under their nails.
I am struck again by their courage and strength. Think hard about what it would take you to sleep outside in this weather, stand in line to have a shower and do a load of laundry (and your turn might not come up for a couple or three days), brush your hair and your teeth. Now repeat that scenario across months and for some, across years.
Wayne and Margeurite are trying to sleep a little longer and so shall I. I’ll head home by six to get ready for work and they must move along by eight. Their coughing still worries me.
I managed to sleep fitfully for a little longer, but I am up now. This is my usual time to rise, but I do not feel rested. My expensive socks are cutting into my legs, my pants are too tight, I put my mitts over my toes, but my feet are still cold, my nose is cold, and I have a headache. Little miseries in the scheme of things, but what is really sending me home? I have to pee, and I cannot face going blocks to the one public (outdoor) washroom downtown and dealing with the layers of clothing I have on. I am done, and will be much more consciously grateful for my privilege and circumstances for a long time. Stan is up reading. He and I talk about, and exchange books often. Marguerite is coughing again but she, Wayne and T are still trying to sleep. I am hesitant to start the truck even though other vehicles have started coming by and there are folks on the streets now. It seems impolite.
Everyone else woke up when I started my truck and asked how I was doing and if I was leaving now. I explained why I had to go and thanked them for accepting me into the group for the night. They graciously agreed to let someone take our picture together later - I’ll swing by the kitchen for the breakfast club on my way to work for that.
The dogs are happy to see me, and the cats are just waiting for breakfast as usual. My house is dark, warm, and welcoming and I cry a little. I cry for 40 years of poor policy at all levels of government, for the abuse and vitriol I see directed at the unhoused. I cry for the real possibility that no one will be moved to think or act differently because of this small gesture. The folks don’t often cry for themselves, they live their lives and take care of each other. The last thing I heard as I closed my truck door…”Love you Sue” and that mutual love is a very large part of how I get through every day without breaking something.
I worked an eight-hour shift today and although I didn’t feel impaired or that I would put anyone at risk due to my lack of sleep, by the end of the shift, I was definitely not 100 per cent focused or as alert as I like to be. I then participated in an on-line meeting at 5 p.m. and very definitely demonstrated impatience with the others on the call.
I could feel myself disengaging and wanting it to be over, instead of happy to be involved (which I am!) and open to the questions and ideas being generated. I cannot imagine what my day would have been like, had I slept on the ground or done it for more than one night. I think next year, it will be a multi-day challenge to get a closer to real experience.