It’s rare to get clear sunny weather in Vancouver in the winter. But, when it does appear, it’s usually accompanied by freezing temperatures, and in certain circumstances, is carried south on the train of a stiff, gale-force nor’wester.
Andrea and I had gotten into the habit of “doing” the sea wall around Vancouver’s Stanley Park on a regular basis, about twice per week. This day, January 7, 2010 began in spectacular fashion; clear, open-ocean windy, and -8ºC cold. She would do a walk/run in a clockwise direction, while I would run counter-clockwise, trying to turn back time on my 10km times, chasing the low to sub 40 minute milestones of decades past. Our paths would meet up somewhere around the last ½ km of both our routes, and we would finish up together.
We finished as we always do at Second Beach, and it was here that I ran into Dennis. I spotted him huddled over a cup of instant noodles at a concrete concession stand table. I walked over to talk to him, noticing that his possessions were organized in a cart, with what looked like a tarp hung loosely to dry, the condensed moisture frozen and waiting for a good hard shake.
I asked him how his night had been, seeing as there had been near record low temperatures, and it looked as if he had spent the night outside. He very quickly confirmed that he had in fact camped out, but that he preferred this to the shelter options that were available to him; shelter options that would not guarantee the security of his few cart-borne items of personal importance.
He was better prepared than most he said, thanks to time spent in the military. I was given a quick lesson in the realities of someone in his situation. He was homeless and depending on when whatever money he was entitled to through a pension, or some other means, was given to him in the fall, he might, or might not be able to pay for a room in a cheap hotel or hostel for the winter months. If he was really lucky, the dilapidated room might have cooking facilities that amounted to a hot plate, allowing him to boil water and cook simple fare like the noodles he was now slurping back in a cloud of rising steam.
He talked about how much better his situation was when he was able to cook something, anything. It was healthier, and much less expensive. Maybe it was the questions I asked, or the fact I knew a little about some of the pillars of his downtown east-side world like the Union Gospel Mission, and Reverend Rick Matthews’ First United Church, that prompted Dennis to ask me if I’d been on the “outside”, as he called it.
The outside? No, I hadn’t been, or come from there. But, I was taken aback by his choice of words; his perception of his situation as being seemingly “outside” that of the society that kept moving at breakneck speed all around him, often oblivious to the plight of people like him who roamed many parts of Vancouver. Had we relegated the homeless to the roles of “extras” in this film set that was our Vancouver?
We chatted for a while longer. I told him that I had not experienced living on the outside, although I felt that more people than our society would like to believe were closer to that reality than anyone would expect. Perhaps the only difference was in the individual’s support network, however someone wanted to define it.
I asked Dennis about the military. My experience in the production of the Combat School documentary series showed me the incredible camaraderie and support within the ranks of the army. Everything I had seen and heard while covering Canadian men and women preparing for deployment to the war zone of Afghanistan told me that the foundation for their dedication was the group of people immediately around them: the people they had trained with, the people they had sweated with, the people they had hurt with. There was a sense of responsibility to the person on their right, and on their left that is incomprehensible to anyone unless they have been the target of someone, Taliban or otherwise, whose sole aim is to kill them.
Dennis was a former member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry out of Edmonton, Alberta. The PPCLI are one of Canada’s most storied, and decorated regiments – think Ypres, think the Somme, think Passchendaele, think Ortona. He had served his country as a peacekeeper in Cyprus, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. He had been a blue beret, serving his nation, and the world in numerous thankless and dangerous situations around the globe. Now, he was eating cheap dollar-a-pack noodles in the chill morning air, with little more than the clothes on his back and a sleeping bag for comfort.
Where was his support network? Where were the fellow soldiers who covered his flank, who had his back? Dennis said he received a pension from the military. But, did the military know where he was? Did his regiment know his situation? Did they know he was homeless? The regiment’s old unofficial motto was “one, two, can do!” Dennis was a perfect example of this resourcefulness, and it was obvious that he was, as he said, better prepared than most. But, if he was, as the regiment’s new adopted motto states, “always a Patricia”, where were they now? Where were all of us fellow citizens now?