On October 18, 2006 with six dollars in my pocket and with no identification, I set out to document life in all the men’s homeless shelters in Alberta. Through December, during a winter of record lows, I hitchhiked to the six municipalities in Alberta that have shelters, lived in those shelters and worked the jobs that are available to men in shelters. What I observed, I wrote in a notebook.
I have been poor my whole life. I’ve worked and had a home at times, but I’ve been unemployed and broke, too. Looking for seasonal work, I’ve often come to Alberta. I always found work here, but I also found a poverty that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the country. From the point of view of the poor, Alberta’s poverty seems more systemic. When you find yourself at the bottom of society, you find tremendous forces that conspire to keep you there. Homeless shelters can act as a stepping stone, but they can also act as prisons.
It’s 15 below zero when I get to the Herb Jamieson Hope Mission, known to residents as “The Herb.” (This is the shelter where Ralph Klein arrived on December 2, 2002, to curse and throw $20 on the floor.)
Inside the front doors it can’t be much warmer, but people are curled up sleeping on the mud- and salt-smeared stairs. Through the next set of doors is a reception area with a water fountain and an office encased in Plexiglas. Around the corner from that is a 40-foot hallway. down one side of the hall is a lineup for beds; the lineup down the other side is for food. In the “recreation room,” beat-up chairs and tables line the walls. Men smoke. There is a radio. From the waist up the air is stale and hazy, and beneath that the air is icy cold.
After 30 minutes waiting for a food ticket, I stand 20 minutes in another line to trade my ticket for a tray of pork and beans, a little scoop of defrosted vegetables and a stale bun. I sit next to a blind native man who shot his face off with a shotgun in a failed suicide.
To get a bed I line up in the hallway at 5:30 and secure fifth place in line. An Irish guy behind me tells me how last night he was eighth and they only had seven beds. Many men have given up on ever getting a bed, and get their sleep on the floor of the hallway, curled up next to each other while people thump past them to and from the recreation room. At 10:45 a man behind the Plexiglas window takes my name and gives me a blanket, two sheets, and a ticket with my bed number. There are 16 dorms, and mine has 36 men in bunk beds. The light from the hall shines perpetually on half of them. Men are joking around, blaming their flatulence on an old British man who gets very upset as everyone laughs. Every few minutes there is a loud BOOP BOOP BOOP from the intercom, followed by announcements from head office. A man tells me that if they call your name, it’s probably the police. There is only one really loud snorer in my dorm. By 1 a.m. I fall asleep listening to guys in the hall playing cards in French.
I wake up at 4 as the guy in the bunk above me steps on my foot with his workboot climbing down to go to work. Before 6 the lights come on and a man comes around hitting a metal rod against the metal bunk bed frames. One resident wakes up to find his workboots have been stolen. He just swears at the floor where his boots used to be. He is now without a job.
Fort McMurray’s shelters are across the street from the police station. An old native man lies down in the parking lot despite the 20-below temperature and incredible winds. Deep in the basement of the building I get a mat and no blankets. All my belongings must be left in a cubbyhole by the front door. The man two feet from my head snores like he has a mega- phone. For breakfast there is a slice of fried bologna (“Newfie steak,” the man in charge tells me). Everyone has to leave before 7, when nothing is open. I follow men who sneak through the back door of a hotel and wait in a stairwell for the employment centres to open up.
The Salvation Army shelter is upstairs from the Mat Program. The old man in the parking lot tells me it is next to impossible to get a bed here. But just as I come up to apply, two men get kicked out for fighting and a lady checks me in. She makes it very clear that if I ever have a drink of alcohol I will never be allowed back into the shelter. There is a good meal of meat loaf and mashed potatoes with assorted cakes. My dorm has 10 men. The wooden bunk beds are built into the walls. I get sheets, a good blanket and a pillow. The man next to me is from the former Soviet Union and has come in search of thousand- dollar-a-week work in the tar sands. He warns me of the Fort Mac “Sally Ann cough” that starts as a tickle in your throat and reduces you to a fit of hacking and wheezing until tears are rolling down your face and your body aches from gagging. Through the night several men erupt in such fits and some of the other men yell about how they’ll never get to sleep with all this coughing. Then other men yell about the yelling. Nearly all the men at the Sal have jobs to go to in the morning.
I apply for a bed at The People’s Place. I meet a man at a picnic table who has been waiting three weeks for a bed. He has a tent in the bushes up the river. Inside the building, two ladies take my name and tell me that if they get a clean criminal record check back in time, they will get me on the bus to the Inn F rom The Cold program, which drives 12 people to a different church every night. An hour later they tell me that they don’t have space and direct me to the Mat Program on the other side of town. There, a young lady tells me that the shelter is full, and I ask her what people do in this situation. She offers to show me Rotary Park, where homeless are permitted to have a fire.
Beneath a cone roof that keeps off the rain and snow but lets out the smoke, we find six men curled up on the cement around a roaring fire. An old man named Frodo tells me he participated in a survey in which he was asked what the community could do for the homeless. “More wood for Rotary Park,” he told them. He gestures proudly at a heap of wood 50 feet away. A well with an old fashioned pump provides water. All the men’s sleeping bags have holes burned by embers popping out of the fire.
At midnight, six young men show up to drink beer at the gazebo. They spit and yell, horsing around drunkenly. One of them hands out cigarettes to the grateful old men sleeping on the ground. After the kids leave I drift to sleep behind a bench, only to be woken up by a visit from the police. They circle the fire from out of the shadows. An old man mumbles something inaudible which sends one of the cops into a yelling fit. “Fuck you!” he screams at us, “You know there’s no fucking drinking here! How’d you like it if we kicked you all out of here?” He goes on yelling for five minutes while his partners kick at our belongings and spill out the beer the kids left. The ground is covered with foaming puddles. After 15 minutes of yelling, the police leave and we go back to sleep.
The next morning, park workers pressure wash the entire gazebo. I sit at a nearby picnic table with a young man who works nights cleaning McDonald’s and sleeps in parks during the day. Sometimes he doesn’t sleep at all.
That night I line up early at the Mat Program. A lady comes to the door and lets us in one at a time. She asks me in a whisper if I’m aware that the program is for people who are “on something.” Two staff sit me down and give me several papers to sign that authorize them to search me and to discuss my identity with several government agencies. My belongings are taken, to be returned in the morning. They pat me down and search my things. To get in, I have to say that I have been drinking. Inside the room where we sleep there are two dozen mats that go fast. Against one wall is a row of four mats designated for women. One couple has moved their mats so that their heads are next to each other. No one seems to be on any substances.
The Salvation Army is in a residential neighbourhood with several new condominium developments going up. Staff members scrutinize me from behind a huge window. They buzz me in and a man with a bushy moustache stops me at the door. “Ever had any trouble with the police?” “No.” “Any warrants out for you?” “No.” “Have you done any drugs?” “No.” “Have you had anything to drink?” “No.” “When was the last time you had a drink?” “I don’t drink.” “Okay,” he says, “go sit down over there and have a coffee.”
The place is immaculately clean. Several men and women sit on new couches watching the CFL game on a screen TV. There is a big picnic table for eating at. The kitchen looks more like a kitchen in someone’s house than one you’d find in a cafeteria.
After I sit for 15 minutes the young lady calls me into the office. She sits me down in a chair, takes a pen and looks down at her clipboard. “Any warrants out for you?” “No.” “Any problems with the law?” “No.” “Probation officer?” “No.” “Been in a prison?” “No.” “Will you consent to us running a criminal records check?” “Yes.” “Are you on medication?” “No.” “Drugs?” “No.” “Alcohol?” “No.” “Cocaine?” “No.” “Heroin?” “No.” “Crystal meth?” “No.” “Opiates, barbiturates?” “No.” “Prescription drugs?” “No.” Marijuana?” “No.” “Ritalin?” “No.” “Inhalants?” “No.” She turns a page on her clipboard. “So when was the last time that you used?”
I sign ten pages of rules including “You cannot quit your job!!!” and “You must report to a social worker within 24 hours or you will be barred for 90 days.” The girl searches through my belongings, confiscates my scissors, and shows me around. It’s like a basement suite: children playing on plush couches, a full home entertainment centre, and a smoking atrium in the backyard complete with shag carpet and cushioned benches. The only difference from somebody’s home is the video camera looking down from the corner.
It’s minus 40 with a howling wind. At the Lethbridge Shelter, a man takes my name, grabs me a mat, pillow, pillowcase and two wool blankets, then pulls it all into “overflow”—a big yellow room with tables of people watching an old TV. There are food machines everywhere but all they have are sesame snaps. At 11, they turn out most of the lights and I sleep with several feet between me and my neighbours. At 7 a.m., staff put out a box of baked goods that are gone in seconds. One of the staff says he has been watching that box sitting in the resource room for three days.
By my count, other shelters house about 30 to 50 per cent First Nations peoples, but in Lethbridge I calculate more than 80 per cent. Many are senior citizens. I sit down on a bench next to a very thin man with a cast on his arm. He tells me he was beat up. It’s been three weeks and he still can’t lie on his side because of his broken ribs, but it’s okay because the staff is watching out for those guys that beat him up. We watch someone vomit outside. I ask the man with the cast what language it is that everyone’s speaking. “Mostly Blackfoot and some Cree, maybe a little of the Sioux dialect from west of Calgary.”
People sleep sitting up at the tables. Lunch is served by volunteering senior citizens: one scoop shepherd’s pie; salad; cake; bread; grapes; a little juice; coffee or a tea. For supper there is a tiny Styrofoam bowl of soup and a bun. A phone call comes in from someone looking for an $8-an-hour labourer; many of the men rush to the front counter in hopes of work. I manage to get a mat in the “dry” room, where residents are sober. Outside the dry room, people joke and make silly comments long into the night. There’s an argument and the Lethbridge Police come and take away four guys.
Calgary’s New Drop-In Centre (NDI) is the largest home- less shelter in Canada. It made national news in November of 2004 when it was shut down for days due to an outbreak of Norwalk virus. As I wash my hands in the NDI washroom I hear violent diarrhea noises from the stalls. Sitting on a crowded bench outside, a woman suddenly leaps up to release an explosive splash of diarrhea only four feet from the bench.
Nestled between two bridges crossing the Bow River, the NDI stands like a stuccoed castle with towers and faux arches. A high fence of black steel bars surrounds the building. On my way there, I’m stopped six times by people trying to sell me hard drugs. Despite the minus 10 temperature, many people sleep on the sidewalk by the shelter, nesting in heaps of blankets. Inside the shelter, foul smells drift down the stairwell. People are everywhere. The main hall is over 1,000 square feet and stuffed with people sitting at dozens of round tables. I stand for a minute until a staff worker directs me to a line of overflow clients. I follow the line past a row of washing machines and around a column of showers until it doubles back on itself. After 45 minutes in line, I receive a lunch of dried-out noodles, a thin sauce with bits of some kind of meat, and a tiny glass of juice. The man behind me says it’s a better meal than usual. Some meals are nothing more than a banana or a bowl of applesauce.
I apply for a bed but a staff member recommends I come back at 8 to line up for the bus to the Warehouse Shelter. “That’s where you go if you want to work,” he tells me, “they have food.” I line up with two dozen men in the mud outside the fence and an hour later two buses come; one to Sunalta House and the other to the Warehouse. The men climb shivering into the bus and we drive for half an hour through town to a building beneath two overpasses. The men are quick to stake out mats for themselves on a dark warehouse floor covered with more than a hundred thin blue mats butted up against each other. A line gathers in the dining area as men reach down into a 10-gallon bucket of lukewarm chicken noodle soup. There is a little yellow room where men can smoke, and on the walls are memos warning of an outbreak of head lice.
There is no room for belongings. One wall is lined with lockers but a long list of people are waiting for them, sometimes for days. I notice most men simply put their things on top of the lockers and stuff their shoes under their mats. There is a cacophony of snoring, and when a big truck goes over the overpass the whole place rumbles, but I get to sleep by midnight.
At some point during the night I’m awakened by a man yelling at me, threatening to kill me. One of the staff comes over and listens to the man rant about how I had been touching him. The staff kicks our mats apart until two inches separate us, and I lie back down next to the man who said he’ll kill me if I touch him.
At 5 the lights come on and staff start yelling to get up. Everyone rushes to the front door in hopes of getting on the first bus. At just after 6 the bus gets back to the NDI, but all the places at the tables are already taken.
For breakfast there is a small scoop of instant scrambled eggs and five tater tots. I sign up for a shower and receive a towel. The shower button must be kept pushed down and the water comes rushing out hot with an incredible pressure that splashes everywhere and soaks my clothes. I sign up for the laundry service and get in at 2 in the afternoon, but the dryer I get doesn’t work well and my clothes are even wetter when I’m done.
The Mustard Seed Street Ministry runs a shelter in an old building covered in Christmas lights with a glowing cross on its roof. The building sits at the base of the Calgary Tower. The Mustard Seed offers a “community meal” at supper that does not require clients to have valid Mustard Seed identification cards. In front of me in line, an old First Nations man tells of having made it a week without drinking. His friends congratulate him while someone jokingly offers the man a sip from a bottle of Alberta Premium Vodka. When we finally get to the front door, the man giving out tickets for supper stops the recovering alcoholic and says, “You look a little wobbly. I’m not going to be able to let you in.” The old man seems used to this sort of thing and walks away without argument. The man with the vodka gets in.
For supper we get a plate of pasta with hamburger sauce. Coffee is 10 cents, with the proceeds going to help a village in Latin America. Above the window where the meals are given out is a mural with the inscription “Bring me your weak and weary and I will give them rest.” In the mural, framed by a Calgary skyline, is an image of a man injecting a needle into an exaggerated vein.
The lights turn off at 10 but a bright light outside shines through the window onto my mat, which is wedged between the office and the fire exit. People who occupy the permanent housing upstairs use the area on the other side of the door to smoke and I hear them talking long into the night. Staff and residents walk to and from the office door all night, stepping on my mat. Despite all this, I get to sleep by 2. Just after 6 the lights come on and staff start yelling for everyone to get up. The man on the other side of the walkway from me, a young Québécois, tells me that he didn’t sleep at all, but spent the whole night watching mice climb all over me. “They were even nibbling on your hair,” he says, “I tried to wake you up, but you were gone.”
When temperatures drop to record lows, the Calgary Stampede opens a building to house the homeless. Mustard Seed staff announce again and again that “the bus to the Stampede is leaving; you better get on it if you want somewhere warm to be tonight.” I sit for an hour on the bus. Drunken men make the best of it, joking, picking fights that are resolved before they become violent, and yelling at the driver, “When are we leaving?” The bus driver doesn’t know. Finally, a Mustard Seed worker with a bright yellow jacket gets on the bus and writes everyone’s names on his clipboard. We drive to the Stampede Grounds. It’s only six blocks away, but the drive takes over an hour because a hockey game has just finished and the streets are jammed with traffic. We sit on the bus another 20 minutes after we arrive, while the staff makes sure we are at the right door. Finally, the men spill out of the bus lighting cigarettes. The only person there to meet us at the front door is a little lady with very thick glasses and the uniform of Calgary Stampede security, complete with cowboy hat.
On the floor in five rows are 300 mats sectioned off with curtains. Many people sit at tables drinking coffee. One side of the hall is dark and warm, but all the mats are taken. The other side of the hall remains brightly lit. A cold wind blows down from the ventilation system and from the door to the smoking area. About 30 staff members walk around: Calgary Stampede security, Mustard Seed staff, Red Cross workers and security guards from a private firm. Because of a complaint about a skin rash the night before, the staff tells us we will not have blankets tonight. Nobody can give me any more information about the rash until a homeless man says he heard someone complained of scabies.
At 11 a man gets into a fight with the guards. The police come to take him away. At 11:30 paramedics come and take away a man with feet so frostbitten that they’re black. The next day he is back at the shelter in a wheelchair.
I meet a lot of people in the smoking area that looks out over the racetrack. Men talk about the work they do: there is a carny, a drywaller, a dishwasher trying to work his way up to prep cook, and a 16-year-old kid volunteering at the Stampede shelter with his Christian group home.
Many of the clients are upset that there doesn’t seem to be a bus leaving early enough in the morning for them to get to work on time, and they are told that if they walk off the site they will never be allowed back.
It isn’t easy to sleep with the cold wind rushing in and the constant footsteps of people going to the washrooms or the smoking area, but I’m asleep by 2. I wake up at one point in the night to find the man beside me has rolled over on top of me. I try to wake him up but he doesn’t respond, so I roll him back on to his mat. At 6 the staff start kicking mats and announcing that the bus is about to leave.
The bus drops us off at the Mustard Seed. The staff at the front door have determined that there is a chinook, and that at minus 10, not including the wind chill factor, it is warm enough not to provide shelter.
A man on crutches with only one foot mutters, “They should put a plastic bag over the cross on the roof.” Another man says, “I liked it better when it was cold; they treated us better. Now it’s warmed up and we’re just cattle.”
By noon it is minus 15 again.
Tavis Dodds is an occasionally homeless writer and a regular contributor to the Republic of East Vancouver newspaper.