I enjoy winters in Saskatoon. There is Wintershines, the Meewasin skating rink, turning down Blades tickets because I don’t want to drive out to the Credit Union Centre, and reminiscing about when Blackstrap used to be open.
No matter how cold it is at the end of the day, I go home to a warm house and to a dog that’s glad I’ve returned home.
But not everyone lives that way. When the Occupy Saskatoon protesters broke camp more than a week ago, a few decided to move from Friendship Park to Gabriel Dumont Park and live in tents.
I am not an outdoorsman, but I noted that none of these tents were designed for winter. I cannot imagine how cold and uncomfortable it must be to spend the night in the tents, no matter how many blankets they have.
Sadly, these aren’t the first people who have tried to take on Saskatoon’s winter outdoors and they won’t be the last. Every year, there are some who don’t know they have other choices or are told that they don’t.
Every year, when it is -40 C, we have men showing up at the shelter who are homeless and, because of funding arrangements from the province, don’t qualify for emergency funding.
Over the years we have realized that many people are sleeping in abandoned or condemned apartments. At -20 C you can generate enough heat from blankets to survive, but at -40 C with no electricity or fire, they come to the shelter out of desperation and hope that someone can help them.
There are also those who simply decide to take on the winter as an act of self-determination. As the recent Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan points out, for some the stigma of living on social assistance is huge and they choose to live off the grid.
Each winter we hear from concerned citizens who want us to do something about a tent set up somewhere. I visit the tent, chat with the person and offer a warm bed and food, and am told: "I’m doing quite well."
I can’t force someone to come inside in frigid weather so we keep the invitation open. But they prefer their own path for the very reason that it is their own path. As I hear their stories, I realize that having a house, a pet and coming home to someone who loves them has never been a part of their lives.
A couch to sleep on, a garage to warm up in or an emergency shelter bed has been all they’ve known for a long time. So, what difference does it make sleeping in a tent along 22nd Street?
At least it’s their tent.
For years when I talked and read about homelessness, I thought it was about shelter. It’s not.
Homelessness is a lack of home, a place to go to be safe, find someone who loves you and you love back, and a place where you have connections to others. A shelter that doesn’t have any of that is just a place to crash and stay warm.
The Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan’s report helped clarify the difference between shelter and home for me. As I read it, I noticed a story of a mother talking in a focus group about renting a floor of a house so that her children could attend school. There was drug activity on the floors above and below.
That’s not a home and none of us would want to raise our children in such a place, but it was all she could afford.
It was better than some other places she had seen.
Another participant spoke of an immigrant family who moved to Saskatoon. Within a week, their apartment was broken into and their children were being bullied.
The plan notes that it’s common to find up to six people living in a two-bedroom apartment. In my own neighbourhood it’s not that uncommon to find two-bedroom houses with up to 10 people living in them. How do any of those situations come close to being a home?
They don’t and that why we have people living in Gabriel Dumont Park, in the trees along 22nd Street, and in makeshift shelters along the railway tracks.
The solution isn’t emergency shelters, but a place where they can find what they are looking for – whether that’s safety, friends or just a quiet place to call home.
Until we manage to build the affordable and social housing that can make this happen, we will have people freezing outside because to them, it’s not any worse than all their other options.
Â© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
After reading a media report that Occupy Saskatoon were housing all sorts of homeless people at Friendship Park, myself, Wendy, and Bert (our caseworker) wandered down their protest. There was only one homeless person being helped and he wasnâ€™t around so we chatted a bit, took some photos, and then I had to head back for a management meeting at the Centre.
While I agree with some of their ideas, sitting around in cooking hotdogs in a park isnâ€™t solving any of them. There website has all of this revolutionary images while at the same time the protest itself isâ€¦ wellâ€¦ an urban camping trip.
Occupy Saskatoonâ€¦ brought to you by Coleman and The North Face.