Monthly Archives: January 2012

shopping cart sleigh rides

ray was standing in one of his usual spots as i made my way up spring garden road. his cart sat a few feet behind him, holding only a few bags of cans and some boxes of bottles.

‘you still sick?’ i ask.

‘its down in their deep, i tell ya,’ is his reply.

‘you best be getting to the doctor before it turns to pneumonia again’.

‘pfft, what do doctors know? they’re just trying to make the drug companies money, anyways.’

hes got me there.

ive been hard getting to know ray over the past year. hes kept me at a safe distance for some time, trying to figure me out before he will let me figure him out. eventually his wall began to lower (though its not gone yet) and we could talk more openly about things. his past, from what i know about it, makes it hard for him to trust. i understand that all too well myself, though i wish i didnt.

ray is homeless. he lives in the south end of the city in a sleeping bag beside his only companion – his shopping cart. he could come to the shelter i work at or one of the other two men’s shelters in the city but chooses not to. he says he doesnt like the drama among other things. he likes living off the grid. most of his days are spent pushing his cart around the city collecting cans and bottles. in all my years doing outreach on the streets, ive never seen anyone pack a cart like ray. it takes some serious skill and ingenuity to load one the way he does.

last week i caught up to ray in the middle of a snow storm. blistering wind and blinding snow caused me to almost run into a few telephone poles (ok, i hit one). ray was laboring to push his frozen cart down the sidewalk on his way to timmys.

‘want a hand with that?’

‘nah, its good exercise for my legs.’

‘youre going slower than a snail.’

ray just grunts and pushes forward. he comes to the cross walk and finds it blocked by a giant snow drift created by a plow. undeterred he attempts to force his way through it. the snow drift grabs hold of his heavy cart and refuses to let go.

i grab the front of the cart and begin pulling it free.

‘you dont have to let anyone know i helped you.’

‘i just about had it anyways,’ he grumbles.

another snow drift is coming up and i turn my head to look him in the face.

‘well, dont just stand there. ya might as well get me over this one too.’

if you havent pushed a shopping cart in the snow, let me tell you – its bloody hard! the cart always wants to go sideways and the wheels lock up instantly. youre better off grabbing a rope and towing it. yet, ray tells me he doesnt mind pushing it in the snow. i dont know if i believe him but i dont say.

‘its just another obstacle is all,’ he tells me.

i dont know if he says it out of pride or if he really sees it that way. its hard to know with ray. either way, the man is not easily put off his task at hand.

i bid ray a good night and shake his hand. his hands are big and strong. they feel the same way my grandfathers hands felt. i think about my papa and that its been almost 2 years now since he past away.. where does time go? sometimes i wish i could be 9 years old again, riding bikes together down the trails on vancouver island.. fishing up near the old mining town.. throwing a baseball around at the baseball diamond..

wheres the button for the 20 year rewind?

i always find myself wanting to bite my tongue when i tell ray to have a good night, while i go home to my warm apartment and he pushes his cart along all night. why should i be so lucky?

all my problems and concerns dont seem so bad right now.

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the writer and a loonie

shawn already had a sheepish smile painted thinly on his face when i walked into the church’s basement doors. the phone call he promised to place to my cell phone never made it. i played mad and walked by him without shaking hands or giving a hug. he made his excuses, i pretended not to hear. beaver chimes in with some funny quip and we shake hands. im not really mad at shawn and decide im not really in the mood to pretend today. we shake hands and sit down to talk.  im a pushover when it really comes down to it.

earlier in the week there was a death in shawn’s family. its been a rough couple days for him. i can see on his face that his heart is hurting. his uncle that had recently returned from combat in afghanistan couldnt take the voices and images from war any longer.. the funeral is soon and shawn doesnt want to attend the funeral. we all grieve differently, i tell him. i think of old friends who’s lives were stolen by the thief and my heart begins to hurt along with him. time heals wounds but scars can still carry the original pain, if just a bit.

we change gears. shawn is interested in becoming a writer. when i told him about the street newspaper we want to create he lit up brighter than a christmas tree on fire. instantly the ideas started flowing faster than his mouth could keep up. i knew i had myself our first writer. we talk vision and spit ideas back and forth. figuratively, of course. i mention my idea of creating a blog for street guys who want to write and let their creative juices flow. shawn tells me hes in. (ill be attaching it soon here when its up and running) we’re both pumped and dream collectively about the impact its going to have. just a couple guys imagining a brighter future.

we head out of the church, saying bye to sister jo and make our way up spring garden. ray is sitting in his regular spot outside the library. hes trying to put on a poncho someone has given him to stay dry from the coming storm. we help him put it on and kat gives him a coffee she picked up for him. he sips it and sighs. perfect taste, he says. beaver pokes ray once and then twice when ray doesnt acknowledge him.

‘what do you want?’

‘i guess you dont want this, then?’ beaver asks his hand still extended.

ray reaches out his hand just under beavers.  a loonie drops in.

‘youre not standing here for nothing, right? a little help from one poor guy to another.’

maybe that doesnt strike you much when a street guy giving another a loonie. to most that doesnt seem like much money.  probably because to most of us it really isnt much.  we can rummage through our couch cushions and find at least a few looines hidden in there. often when we give (if we give..) we do so out of our abundance. its a whole other thing to give out of your poverty. 

would you still give if it meant going without something yourself? 

my day was made complete by witnessing that giving today. nothing screams love and community more than that.  if i could only bottle that and sell it to the masses maybe we would grow together more instead of growing further apart..


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sunday bloody sunday

i woke up sunday morning. no, thats not an incomplete sentence. i woke up! that means i actually slept. its pretty sad that waking up passes for an accomplishment these days but i best acknowledge them when they come. too bad it wasnt much sleep. beggars cant be choosers, i suppose.

church was packed when i arrived late. i parked myself in the back and attempted to focus. when that didnt work i resolved to count how many words my pastor used in each sentence. you do weird things when youre sleep deprived. this is just the tip of the iceberg. it gets much weirder.

what i love most about my church is the community thats developed over the past year and a half ive been there. after the service everyone just mingles and catches up with each other on their past week. except for this sunday im not really feeling the whole catching up bit. my patience is below par and im not particularly interested in anything or anyone besides closing my eyes and dreaming about sleep.

finally, its time for lunch with someone ive been actually wanting to talk with for awhile. i cant tell if its the sleep deprivation, stress or situation but im overly nervous and anxious. i think im hiding it well but even that im second guessing. the first restaurant we go to is too busy. its -20 outside and my breath looks like smoke. we slip into a small greek restaurant on the main drag and grab a small booth. we talk. its nice. my anxiety and nervousness melts away within moments as i knew it would.

time flies by and almost 3 hours later im looking for the rewind button. its never there when you want it to be. God really needs to fix that glitch. i tell Him so and He laughs. maybe this sleep deprivation is making me crazier than i thought or maybe i always was this crazy. its too hard to tell and i dont seem to care right now. this is good.

the walk in-clinic doesnt take long to admit me. the doctor has an accent and looks iranian. or syrian. or maybe palestinian. i think im following too much world news in my spare time. he interviews me about my intentions for coming. i feel like im being interrogated. i tell him im not here for narcotics and his tone changes. damn, clinic doctors. he writes me a script and sends me on my way.

sunday supper is busy as usual. lenoard tells me a joke that i know i should laugh at but my funny bone must be broken. no laughter comes out. he seems displeased with me reaction and i apologize. he laughs and we’re both content with that.

when the supper wraps up we break out the nets and start street balling. glen is back out but hes complaining about bruised ribs or something. he agrees to play net but in no time is flying all over the place. when i ask him about his ribs he holds them and grimaces. i call bullshit with a half-dirty look shot in his general direction. he ‘toughs it out’ and we get back to the game.

one of the guys who has been accessing my shelter this season decides to join us. it was only a month ago when we asked him to play that he told us that he hated sports, now hes running around kicking a ball with a big smile plastered across his face. thats the power of sport right there. afterwards he cant stop talking about it. hes hooked.

i walk with shawn downtown to where he panhandles and part ways to grab my insomnia meds so i can sleep tonight. im so excited to grab these little pills that i just about trip on my way into the pharmacy. im denied. excitement gone. the pharmacist tells me she cant give me the prescribed meds. the doctor shouldnt have chosen that medication as it doesnt mix well with sleep apnea. im about ready to punch a hole in anything i deem soft enough to not hurt me but still give me some temporary satisfaction. i decide that a violent outburst is probably not the most mature reaction to the situation and slink my way home.

a few phone calls from some amazing supports later and im journaling my up and down, up and down day in a journal given to me by someone special. my journal is black, in case youre wondering. you werent but i like the fact that its black. i flip through the past months worth of insomnia-filled scattered thoughts and semi-crazy ideas. i laugh a bit, shed a few tears and pop some sleeping pills.

just another sunday.


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learning the hard way

ive heard all the warnings before. ive seen other people go through it. ive even given advice on how to avoid. all of that doesnt matter now though..

im sitting awake in my room. i refuse to look at the time on my phone and my clock has been blinking the wrong time since my fist smashed it a few nights earlier. or was that a week ago? its all the same to me now. i havent slept properly in a long time now. insomnia has become my new unwanted friend that wont leave.

burnt out.

ive done what i could to avoid it and yet i find myself here in its grip. its a tight grip right now. its refusing to let go easily. sleep deprivation is the monster that fuels it. worse than those monsters that hid under our beds and inside our closets as kids. i always reassured myself as a kid that i would kill the monster if i ever saw it. id be the hero. right now i barely have the strength to write my thoughts here. so much for being a monster killer.

yesterday i sat down with some of the board members at the shelter. they expressed their concern for me. genuine, heart-felt concern. i think it was then that it really clicked. this is a bigger problem than i realize.. up until then i had convinced myself that i was fine. amazing what the mind can convince itself of. the conversation feels more like an intervention. i feel like my staying awake has become an addiction, yet im not getting any rush or high from it. how fair is that?

i walk home in the snow. i usually cant stand the snow but tonight it doesnt bother me. it seems really peaceful the way its falling all around me and somehow begins to make me feel more peaceful. anxiety seems to be creeping in slower and slower with each day of no sleep so this new-found love for snow is an unexpected but pleasant surprise. i wonder how long it will last.

this wasnt supposed to be a blog. i just wanted to write to keep my mind in check. i think its working but then again i cant tell if any of this makes sense. i think i understand now why they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture.

when will mine end?


well, i dont want to end this entry on that note.  thats far too depressing. 

tomorrow i get to see someone special.  i can feel all the negative stuff melting away simply thinking about it.  hopefully i can sleep enough tonight to really enjoy it.  if youre reading this and you have a second, fire up a prayer for me would ya? 



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a day to remember and forget

jimmy was already up when i got to the shelter this morning. hes been staying with us since being bullied out of his apartment on halifax’s skid row. he feels safer at the shelter and i feel better knowing he is safer. we’ve been able to spend the mornings chatting over coffee about his recovery and what needs to happen next. i feel like hes close to kicking his addiction and moving forward but im not ready to commit my hopes yet. i dont want to doubt, i really dont, but its hard not to doubt when ive seen so many guys get to this stage and backslide. praying he pushes through this final important stage.

the shelter is packed. -25 weather will do that. we’re over capacity, with a few guys in the hang out room getting warm while the rest snore zzz’s in the sleeping room. our extreme weather policy is in effect today. every time its -15 or colder we open up an hour earlier and stay open an hour later. its not much but its the best we can do to keep our homeless guests warm for as long as possible. if the government would take the housing crisis seriously this wouldnt be necessary. im not prepared to rant on government irresponsibility today, so i digress..

despite the fact that they know they are being woken up because they have to leave to head out into the frigid cold weather, our guests are in fairly good moods. the police visit last night doesnt seem to have much of a lasting effect, neither. we sit in the hang out room watching a disney flick, the prince of egypt. everyone is captivated, if for only a few minutes before venturing out into the cold. for a few minutes it seems we’re all transported back to our childhoods where going outside for the day meant playing with friends and exploring the world, not trying to stay warm and finding food.

dave seems really clear. i havent seen him this clear in months. again, part of me is happy to see him looking, talking and behaving better, but another part of me wonders already how long this will last. i hate these doubts. i wish sometimes i was more naive. dave tells me hes been to church the past three weeks and wants me to go with him tonight for a meeting. i know how positive of an influence our church community has been and can be on him when hes in a good state of mind, so i agree to go with him. tonight im praying for a miracle. tonight im praying that maybe, just maybe hes ready to give up all the junk and start walking the line again. he gives me a big hug before leaving the shelter and trots off singing a tune. i desperately want to believe this time is different and want to do everything i can to make it happen.

after a shelter meeting with the organizing committee i head down to the sandwich church (as its called on the streets) to meet up with some more of the guys. jimmy and john are playing crib, shawn is buried in the newspaper and dave is trying on a new jacket he found in the clothing hamper. i sit down at the table and sister jo puts a big plate of lasagna in front of me. everyone starts talking, bantering back and forth about this story and that story. lots of laughter. i cant help but smile. friends and food – what more could i ask for?

an old friend back.

today is the day i dread every year. 12 years ago my friend, nate died in a car accident on his way to a high school basketball game. nate was the friend who drove me to become a gym rat and spend countless hours alone on a basketball court trying to get better than him. in some way, he drove me to discipline myself in a way i never had. by the time senior year rolled around, i was ready to test myself to see how well i stacked up against him. only weeks before we had that chance, he tragically lost his life when he fell asleep at the wheel on his way to a game. my tears arent as many as they once were but theyre still there and the pain still lingers, even though i know hes in a better place. i miss you, nate..

dave should be coming by soon to grab me so i better wrap this up..

do yourself and those around a favor and tell them you love them. as cliché as i know it sounds, sometimes you dont get another chance. i wish i had another chance..


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weight and patience

the morning started off like most mornings. me, hitting my snooze button a couple of times, realizing i hit it once too many, throwing the first available clothing on and setting off for the shelter before the sun had a chance to melt away the ice on the sidewalks. the criticism my colleague and i took from the on-call committee for allowing an annoying and disruptive youth to reaccess sooner than he probably should have been allowed weighs heavy on me during the twenty-minute walk. lately i cant make anyone happy with my decisions. im not ashamed to admit that part of me (however big or small) doesnt care. trying to make everyone happy while doing the right thing isnt always possible.

the warm air hits my frozen face as i walk through the shelter doors. things are unusually quite and the overnight staff look like they need some well-deserved sleep. we do a quick shift change and my team takes over for the rest of the day. brewing coffee, making breakfast, catching up with some guests, sharing a couple laughs as the sun makes its way up through the horizon. typical day at work.

dan, the youth i allowed back into the space after some issues, is respectful and in higher spirits than usual. we engage in a couple small conversations surrounding his health and his housing situation. i hook him up with some phone numbers for some places i found online last night. he tells me that this is more help than he has received from anyone in the last year, including his social worker. sad state of our social system slaps me in the face again. we talk about not letting people fall through the cracks but do we really do anything to prevent it?

not really.

mark shows up right before we’re going to close for the day. i havent seen him in a few weeks and the growth on his beard tells me he hasnt shaved since our last talk. hes one day removed from his latest visit to the psych ward and needs a change of clothes. while i get him his new outfit we talk about his life lately and whats transpired. his schizophrenia caught up with him again in a bad way and, being a man quite in tune with his own mind, checked himself into the center to get help. he tells me that hes still doing well despite the setback and that God has been keeping him strong. i want to explore it more with him but hes done talking and heading out the door. i tell him to come back tomorrow morning for breakfast. he nods as he disappears behind the closing door.

our guests leave and my team follows them shortly after. i sit alone in the office looking over some paper work that needs to be done before i head home for my afternoon nap, which has become necessary lately due to limited sleep. i hate paper work.

my other colleague comes in, perky and ready to take on her day. her energy is high, mine barely registers. as she begins talking to me about work-related items that need to be tackled today, my mind drifts off to another place. i start thinking about my homeless friends back in vancouver. i wonder what aj is doing and if he stopped drinking. i hope jimmy is still sober. i wonder if peter still has his job and is keeping the crack pipe out of his mouth. i hope yesterday still isnt mad at me for leaving to come to halifax. i hope others dont feel like ive abandoned them..

is it weird that i think a trip back to the dirty streets of east vancouver would be a vacation right now? maybe im not thinking straight (am i ever?) . maybe im just homesick (though ive never felt like it before). maybe im just frustrated with all my current circumstances and just want to run away to somewhere familiar. whatever it is weighs heavier with each passing moment. i need something to lift this because im too tired at the moment to do it myself.

/rant over

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jack frost can kiss my..

winter has officially hit halifax. on my 20 minute walk to the shelter this morning at 530am the -24 temperature froze my face into the grimaced scowl i only reserve for such terrible weather. i need a scarf, maybe a heated bubble to place over my head. ya know, like the ones the jetson’s wore in the cartoon (short childhood flashback). my version would heat your head, play music, make phone calls and have a built-in clock. i might have a money-maker here..

the shelter was packed when i arrived at 6am as i imagined it would be. no one can sleep outside and live to tell about it when its this cold. ron greeted me as i entered through the side door. he is still battling with mental health issues that just recently came out of nowhere. imagine being a mid-60’s man or woman, with no real family or friends, an apartment far away from any real public resources, and having trouble holding on to reality. ron looks like your typical soft-spoken grandpa, and in many ways he acts the part as well. but his mind has begun to go on him and it scares him. he has told me so.

shawn stopped in like he told me he would, despite the desire to stay home and stay warm. shawn used to live at the shelter last season. between the shelter and street soccer ive gotten to know him pretty well. hes become one of our most dedicated players on sunday nights and most entertaining. this morning he just wanted some coffee, cereal and conversation to get his day going before heading off to panhandle near the business district.

since our shelter is 99% volunteer-led we often have problems with consistency. being one of the few staff members that are paid to work as the shelter its part of my job to bring consistency and do so consistently. some times i feel like a parent – ‘you cant do that’, ‘you cant say that’, ‘you cant go in there’. i dont like feeling like a parent much less sounding like one, as it makes me feel more like a cog in another mechanized institution than simply a person working to help other people.

some of the guests that stay with us play our inconsistencies to their advantage whenever the chance arises. if they are able to talk one volunteer into doing something one way, they use that example to get it that way again.. and again and.. it can wear on my patience at times watching and listening as our services/programs are manipulated by people who dont seem that grateful. i convince myself that a few bad apples wont spoil the bunch. i continue to repeat this to myself often.

dave wakes up late as he usually does and hes grumpy and loud as he usually is. dave recently lost his apartment. his mental health and addiction got the better of him for the time being. ive seen dave sober and ive seen dave not sober. two very different people. one is a very kind, caring guy who loves to reach out to others on the street, the other is an angry, explosive guy that has a very short fuse. this morning was a short fuse day. hopefully tomorrow the fuse is a tad bit longer.

hopefully the temperature is a tad bit warmer too. at least until i create my bubble helmet!

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working the streets

many of ‘my guys’ panhandle for a living. on my way to the coffee shop to get some writing/work done i passed a few of them working away, trying to get a few dollars to get something to eat, maybe a cigarette or two. some of them are very good at what they do. some use a simple empty cup and wear a warm smile, others create elaborate signs that play on peoples emotions. different strokes for different folks.

pirate plays guitar on the corner right by the coffee shop. hes good. really good. his guitar case usually is filled with loonies, toonies and the occasional cigarette. he does better than most on the strip. mike has a whole get-up: blue wig, helmet, shield, sword, sign – the whole deal. he makes money entertaining people; making them laugh. it pays off well from what i can tell. jason doesnt take their approach and opts for simply looking the part. you know jason is a street guy because he looks like hes a street guy. his rough appearance influences people to drop their coins in his cup or stay altogether away from him. its too bad that (it seems) that most people take the latter approach to him. ive met few people in this world with a heart like his.

the more i have watched panhandlers and gotten to know them over the years the more im fascinated by the profession. yes, panhandling is a job. for some its better than anything else they can get with their limited education or other restricting factors (eg. rough appearance, mental illness, addiction, etc). people stand on a corner or sidewalk asking passersby for some of their spare change. the exchange is quite simple: the panhandler performs a service (music, art, conversation) and the passerby gives them some of their change. the giver usually comes away with some positive feelings of having done some good for someone else, too.

ive often wondered if i would be humble enough to stand on a corner and beg for money. if push came to shove and there was no other options for me, would i be able to do it? ive talked with guys that panhandle and asked them about their feelings. do they feel embarrassed? guilty? ashamed? while a couple have admitted to me that they have felt a sense of shame begging for peoples money many others have expressed a sense of empowerment; like they are running their own business. in many ways they are.

street entrepreneurs.

if you lost your job and had no way of making rent, would/could you take to the street corner and ask people for their money? could you be a street entrepreneur?

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