Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The homeless in winter

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"Is anybody home? Paul Miscavish shouts.

Photographer Boris Minkevich and I are sliding down the icy bank of the Red River, a few blocks from the Alexander Docks, on a dark and frigid night. We're looking for a man named Mike, who's said to be camping here.

It's about 10 p.m. It's been snowing all day, but we come across fresh footprints, so we know Mike passed this way recently.

Miscavish knows the territory. His life used to be like Mike's: drinking too much, sleeping where he could, staying alive. Now he's been off the street for nearly four months, living at Mainstay, transitional housing run by the Main Street Project.

We met him there and now he's volunteered to be our guide to this hidden world.

It's 25 below zero and the wind, though light, pushes the windchill to minus 34. Miscavish presses ahead on Mike's trail and then calls back: "There's a bonfire going. Come warm up."

And so we meet Mike.

His shelter is roofless, but a discarded tarpaulin hanging from the tree branches creates four walls. That helps keep out the wind, which any winter soldier will tell you is deadlier than the temperature.

Inside, there is indeed a fire, fuelled by old newspapers and deadfall wood. Even with the fire, it's so dark we can barely make out Mike's face. He's wearing a long jacket and what look like new winter boots. His hat is sitting so far back on his head it doesn't even cover his ears.

His hands are bare.

Mike gestures for us to take a chair by the fire. "It's not wet," he says. There are a couple of plastic chairs and a crate with a pillow on top.

Off to the side there's another big tarp lying on the cold, wet ground. It doesn't look like much, but Mike pulls it back to reveal blankets and burning candles.

It's his bed.

"Go sit inside for a couple seconds, see how warm you get," Mike says.

Mike has this piece of riverbank to himself. Over the summer there were a few other campers down by the river, but the weather has driven them out. "A couple of other guys chickened out," is how Mike puts it.

The next night, we hitch a ride with a Downtown Biz Outreach team, Lise Aquin and Michael Reid. They spend their time travelling around the downtown area in a van, looking for people who need help.

They tell us most homeless people find indoor shelter when winter hits. They "couch surf" at an acquaintance's apartment or they find a bed in a social agency's shelter. But a few, like Mike, stay outside and it is Lise and Michael's job to seek them out and help them, if they'll accept help.

Heated bus shelters, stairways in downtown parkades and vents outside that give off warm air from big, downtown buildings are all likely spots.

How many homeless people are there? Nobody knows.

"You can't count the homeless. It's an impossible task," said Salvation Army Maj. Al Hoeft, executive director at the Booth Centre.

What he can say is there are 562 indoor spots available to Winnipeg's homeless population including treatment and detox beds, transitional housing and emergency shelter spots.

They're all being used.

When it gets terribly cold, some shelters squish in a few extra people, or open up extra rooms that are usually not used to house people. The Salvation Army has just changed its rules to allow intoxicated people to come in out of the chill.

But the drink has to stay outside. Maybe that's one of the reasons Mike won't go to a shelter; as he tells us his story, he's sipping a beer.

Hoeft acknowledges that some people, like Mike, just don't want to come inside. "We have to still honour people's choices," said Hoeft. "They have to consent to be here."

Brian Bechtel from the Main Street Project tells us that mental illness and addiction to alcohol, solvents and drugs are what keep most people from seeking shelter. "We don't have a good handle on this, and that's part of the problem,"

He explained that it's not that people want to sleep on the streets, but that they're not comfortable or willing to sleep in a shelter. A possible solution would be more transitional housing and programs that get people into their own home. Once they have a warm, safe place to sleep, it becomes easier to work on helping people to overcome addictions and treat their mental illness. "It's a big challenge."

Transitional housing, like Paul Miscavish's place at Mainstay, provides a room with strict rules. There can be no drugs or alcohol, not even cologne or mouthwash. The resident has to be working to get clean -- taking a treatment program, for example -- and the help is temporary.

It's dangerous, of course, to stay out in the cold, but it's not often fatal. Frostbite, amputation and disfigurement are another matter.

"A lot of people have lost fingers and toes," says Reid, the BIZ worker. He hasn't heard of anyone freezing to death, but three times he has found someone passed out in a snow bank.

One man fell asleep on a metal bench at a bus shelter. His nose froze to the bench and when he awoke and sat up, the tip of his nose was torn off. He's still on the street and Reid and Aquin see him from time to time.

Mike, though he is drinking, is nowhere near that man's state of intoxication. He's lucid and coherent. He is neither begging nor even feeling sorry for himself.

He says he likes his privacy, and that's why he's not in a shelter like Siloam Mission or the Booth Centre. "I can't handle people. It's the way I am."

He's not asking for help. He's not blaming anyone for his misfortune either. "You think I want to live like this, I don't," he explains. "Right now, I'm just at the bottom. I can't get any lower than where I am now."

He talks about looking for work and how his broken collar bone has made it even harder for him to find casual jobs. "That's what set me back."

Mike says he's not giving up. Living on the streets isn't permanent for him. He had a place in Ontario, before he came here in June. He hopes to get his own place here too. "Nobody put me here, but I'll get myself out of here."

It's getting near Christmas, we remind him.

He looks around the shelter and grins. "I'm still trying to figure out where to put my tree." He laughs.

Will he be all right?

He takes another sip of beer and tells us not to worry. "I know how to keep warm," he says. "I know how to survive."

 

alana.cole@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2008 B1

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