Winter on the streets
Jesse Vincent sees a lot of generosity over the holidays, but it peters out soon after.
Charity and giving overflows during the holidays, according to Jesse Vincent, who has been living on the streets across Canada on and off since he was 18 years old.
“You get drops sometimes that you don’t get usually,” says Vincent, 42, when we spoke to him outside the Shoppers Drug Mart on Spring Garden Road. “Like, one guy dropped me $250 one time.”
The problem is, he continues, when that generosity slows down again after the new year. “I’m grateful for all the help I get out here,” he says. “I wish they were all year round. I don’t think it should just be a Christmas thing.”
Winter has barely begun when the holidays conclude. People live and die on the streets of Halifax each year, and the groups that serve this population are stretched thin.
Linda Wilson is the executive director of Shelter Nova Scotia, and has been working with the homeless community in Halifax for over 30 years. “We get all this interest at Christmastime,” she says. “But they’re still homeless in the summer.”
Shelter Nova Scotia operates a number of programs throughout the city, but the one most homeless men in the city are likely to pass through is Metro Turning Point on Barrington Street. It is an alternative to sleeping on the street at night, but according to Wilson, there are many who would rather take their chances outdoors.
“In my experience, no one prefers to be homeless, but some prefer not to stay in a shelter,” says Wilson as she describes the living conditions at Turning Point, which can house as many as 78 men between two rooms. Compare that to the conditions of Shelter Nova Scotia’s women’s shelter, Barry House, which has 20 beds between seven rooms. “This is a pressure cooker.”
Wilson adds that in social work, there is a concept of worthy poor vs. unworthy poor, where people see the former as victims or survivors of happenstance by society, and the latter as “willfully poor,” due to laziness or vice.
People tend to feel empathy for those they see as members of the worthy poor, such as women and children. Services and conditions that are available for men, therefore, can come up short.
“The men have never been appropriately serviced,” says Wilson, who paints a vivid picture of bedrooms packed edge to edge with bunk beds, where privacy doesn’t exist. “There are people who are 16 to in their 80s. Some people have mental health concerns, some people have addictions, some people have head injuries. And every single one of them doesn’t want to be there . Everybody’s in crisis.”
Patrick Kinsella has been sporadically homeless for 16 years. Even though he’s seen first hand the kind of danger that comes with a life in the cold, he chooses to sleep on the streets, likening it to camping without paying for a campsite, because he’s more afraid of the shelters than exposure.
“Be careful which shelter you go to, because I find them disgusting and dangerous. That’s why I sleep outside,” says Kinsella, who travels with his five-year-old dog Onyx.
Alternatives exist, like Out of the Cold, a volunteer-run program providing about a dozen beds between December and May at St. Patrick’s United Church. Jeff Karabanow, a professor with the Dalhousie social-work school, is one of the co-founders and operators.
“We basically take populations that can’t go anywhere else,” he says. “We’re kind of that last resort. Anybody can come: we allow pets, we allow couples, we allow anybody over 16.”
Karabanow says that the shelter system is but a bandaid applied to a larger wound. Out of the Cold is volunteer-based, in part, to try and raise more awareness of the institutional situations that lead to homelessness, like the need for better mental health services and sustainable housing initiatives.
“A lot of what has brought a lot of people to living on the street is structural,” says Karabanow, who adds that most Canadians are a couple of paycheques away from experiencing intermittent homelessness themselves. “I think we’re always going to need some emergency shelter, but we really need to be turning some of our attention to much more sustainable, thoughtful, humane services.”
Wilson, who runs some of Nova Scotia’s housing-first initiatives like Herring Cove Apartments, thinks society must be starting to see the need to help homeless men, if the problem is starting to get federal funding. But she wants to see people be more thoughtful of what they donate, and to do so at times other than just the holidays.
“You can tell that they’re not thinking about who they’re giving to,” says Wilson, who has seen too often donations made of sheet cake to a population that have not had a proper meal in days. “Try to think it out. You don’t need cake; you need stew.”
But if nothing else, pleads Wilson, treating the homeless with dignity is something powerful anyone can do. “Not everybody can give money, but you can give the eye contact,” says Wilson, who says being ignored is dehumanizing and demoralizing for people desperate enough to ask strangers for change. “But it takes courage, right? It takes courage to stop and look at somebody and say, ‘no, I’m sorry, I can’t help you but have a good day.’ Engaging people in conversation is just as important.”
Vincent and Kinsella echo the sentiment. “I would just ask them to please give us a break, and don’t be so judgmental,” says Kinsella. “We want to work on our lives, and we’re not always going to be sitting here on a street.”
“It’s just good to be good spirits, you know,” says Vincent. “Society’s a work in progress. There’s people who fall through the cracks. They’re not like you think they are.”
An earlier version of this story misquoted Linda Wilson about funding for Byrony House, Adsum House, and Phoenix Youth Groups. Wilson says she has no knowledge of how those organizations are funded. The text above has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.