When I Was Homeless (For A Night)

Keep a roof

I spent nearly an hour huddled in a corner of the parkade with my hood pull down tight, not looking at anyone. At first it was comfortable, my sleeping bag a decent cushion, but after 30 minutes the cold started to creep in and I got cramps. I was waiting to get into shelter for the night. It was supposed to be open at 630, but as often is the case with these things, it didn’t open on time. No matter, I had nothing but time.

As a radio host, a very small ‘c’ celebrity in town, we are asked to pitch in and highlight charitable efforts. I’ve run races, emceed events, decorated Easter Eggs, eaten pies and starred in fashion shows. However one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been asked to participate in was the YWCA‘s Keep a Roof Over Their Head. A night where we would experience a typical night in the life of someone on the streets of Calgary.

That started with waiting in line for the shelter. Then we shuffle inside and are given a mat to toss on the floor. Nothing more than the sort of thing you’d use for gymnastics in elementary school. A meagre soup and coffee would follow. There were more than 100 of us who signed up for the experience. A chance to spend 13 hours in someone else’s shoes and have a deeper understanding of how the other half lives.

Honestly? I was a skeptic. I bristle at the notion of “affordable housing” noting my family has to find something affordable to us and we work hard to make ends meet. Then again, I have a job that doesn’t pay minimum wage. Then again, I’m not fleeing a violent or abusive situation. Then again, I speak the language. Then again, my wife and I work together to make things work.

There are various organizations in Calgary who actively seek out buildings they can buy, then fund raise to pay off the mortgage and then donate the rooms to organizations like the YWCA. With no debt, they can keep the rents for the tenants affordable in perpetuity. That’s what affordable housing means – these are people in need getting the most basic of necessities.

Minimum wage in Alberta is $8.80 an hour. I pay my 15 year old babysitter $10. Alberta Works (welfare) for a mother and child is $550 (ish) a month. They’re to spend $300 (ish) on accommodation and then use the rest to pay the bills, clothe themselves and eat. That’s a complicated piece of budgeting to make those ends meet.

I am a firm believer in personal responsibility, but sometimes the circumstances one gets backed into have dire consequences. Even single mothers with decent jobs can be a car repair or dubious landlord away from being out on the streets.

The YWCA’s Mary Dover House in Calgary offers a transition, a place for women to escape and find support and the resources they need to get back on their own. They have 86 beds that each cost $20 000 a year to run. The math on that means they need $1.7M in operating expenses to keep things going. That’s half of Matt Stajan‘s annual salary for the Calgary Flames. If former Mayor Dave Bronconnier had decided to be more frugal with his furniture, he could have funded the society for more than a decade.

I chatted with Pam before we settled in for the night. She fled to Mary Dover House in January 2010, escaping a violent situation. She was 9 months pregnant. 4 days after she arrived she gave birth to her son. A son born into homelessness. Pam is now back on her feet, ready to take some schooling and get a job in Alberta’s lucrative oil and gas industry. She says without the YWCA she would have likely had to have given her son up to social services, unable to cope with the situation.

Back in the gym, the lights were turned out at 11pm and we all huddled on our mats and crawled into our sleeping bags. The lights didn’t ‘really’ turn out though, it was a big gym and needed to have ‘running lights’ on at all time. It was barely dim.

I had chosen a spot right by the door complete with a mid spring blast of arctic air breathing on me all night. I had 4 layers on and could never get comfortable.

I had more than 100 roommates that night, not all of them the lightest of sleepers. To say they snored was an understatement. The echo of buzz saws called back and forth. First a lady on my right, then a man on my left, then a choir of a few more all at the same time. I woke up every 90 minutes or so, unable to get comfortable or completely fall asleep. At least there were no fights or swearing or assaults, the sort of things that keep even the hardiest of the homeless away from some drop-in shelters. It was just loud snoring, still I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep.

The clock said 1:40am. Then 3:15. Then 4:25. I couldn’t wait for 6am to finally arrive when we would all be handed a coffee and muffin.

At 730, we all quietly packed up our bags, stacked our mats and humbly shuffled back into the grey parkade and a late spring snow. I couldn’t wait to get home.

If I was truly homeless, I’d have 12 hours to find ‘something to do’ before I would huddle in a corner again and wait for the shelter to re-open. 12 hours to try and recover the rest I didn’t have the night before. 12 hours to try and keep warm, clean and entertained before the entire aching cycle would begin again.

When I got home, I spent an hour in my own bed relishing each cushiony coil. I hugged my kids and gave thanks for what we have. I had a long, long shower.

We raised more than $100 000 for the YWCA that night, enough to give 5 rooms the chance to help a woman and her family make a positive change. We had walked in someone else’s shoes, our perspective forever changed.

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