About Inn From The Cold

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shelter closing for a while

Well, the milder weather has washed away the snow, making the lawns green again and closing the shelter.  

I want to thank everyone for helping to make the past eleven nights so special for the eighteeen different people who spent the night with us (and the four who just came for a meal).   During this activation we offered a few new services, thanks to some kind donations:  TV, a laptop and pillows.  The TV is very popular and we're going to bring it out now and again.    We don't want it out every night because it tends to stifle conversation and socialization but it's a nice change of pace.  The laptop is also very popular, checking emails, facebook, searching for housing and at least two are job hunting, including 1 fellow who landed two interviews at restaurants in Richmond (he's an experienced cook).    We have one young man from Russia staying with us and he was up most of one night chatting with his family back home using the laptop.

The highlight of the run was that two of our regulars will no longer be regular guests -- they moved into a suite and you can imagine how happy they are.   Again, thanks to the kindness of the shelter community, they are fully equipped with all the essentials (and more) and are enjoying the comforts of their new home.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I remember a joke I first heard in elementary school.    Some monks lived together in a monastery in complete silence, aside from once each year, one monk could say one sentence.   This annual event was eagerly awaited.   The first year, monk 1 says "I love the porridge".  Second year, the next monk stands up and says "I hate the porridge."   Monk 3, a year later, says "I can't stand the constant bickering about the porridge".   It was a bit like that this morning at the shelter.

"Bobby" has stayed with us 3 nights this year.   I'm not counting the night he arrived very late for dinner.  Very late: ten to eight ... in the morning.   He looked incredibly disshevelled, barely moving.  But he devoured a plate we heated up for him and managed to leave with someone else's lunch all before 8 am.  Last night, he arrived early, clean shaven, talkative and I didn't recognize him at first.   This morning he was clearly in a foul mood and came up to the pass through and asked why we put salt in the porridge. "It was horrible.  Who puts salt in porridge?"  He seemed very upset.

When I told him it was time to leave, he still looked sullen.  I asked if he'd had plans for the day, if he'd like me to put his coffee in a paper cup so he could take it with him.  No response.  He just got up and left.    Ten minutes later, I saw he was back at the kitchen door -- the one that goes to the dining hall that is normally closed but was propped open as we were cleaning up, so I hustled over to see what was going on.  He leaned in and said "Sorry for my behaviour, it was childish of me".  And off he went.

I related this story to my wife Jan afterwards and she reminded me  that our Scottish brother-in-law Jim loved porridge and he always wanted it with salt -- never sugar.  Apparently this is common in Scotland.  Jim never understood why we put sugar on porridge.

Anyway, if the biggest issue of the day is whether someone likes or hates the porridge it's going to be a very good day.

Thanks to Wendy, Luc and Beth for serving up a great breakfast (we also offered scrambled eggs and toast) and making fabulous barbecued chicken sandwiches for lunch.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

First snow of the season

We got a fresh blanket of snow overnight -- enough to warrant shovelling the walk outside the church (at least before most of it melted).  Shovelling snow in lotus land is rare enough that I like doing it, but I thought I'd just set the snow shovel outside the door and see what happens.   I was pleased to look out a few minutes later to see "Milton" doing the sidewalk, still dark out, before he'd had breakfast.    He's got a gruff exterior and manner, but a big heart.       He's the kind of guy that when he sees something that needs doing, he does it.  After the Community Meal on Tuesday night, he also picked up the big broom and swept the whole dining hall.

Unfortunately, he also tends to pick up things that don't belong to him, and this has got him into trouble with the law.  He's one of those people known as "known to the police", so he gets stopped a lot just to make sure he's doing well.

He told me he spent last winter in a minimum security camp where he worked as a janitor.  I realized then that I had visited his home -- a tarped area hidden behind an abandoned industrial building near Budget Brake and Muffler on No. 3 Rd.   When I went in to get some brake work done the owner told me about a homeless guy who lived nearby who they'd pretty much adopted.  They'd let him sit in the waiting area, offer him coffee and the mechanics and owner would also bring food in for him.    But they hadn't seen him in quite a while and were worried about him. So I went over with one of the mechanics to his spot to check up on him.   The tarp had collapsed and his meagre belongings were covered in snow.  It was a disturbing sight, but we were relieved to have not found a body.  I learned from the RCMP bike squad later, that he'd been incarcerated for petty theft.  

The building where Milton lived is long since torn down and he now bunks down under a tarp somewhere else when the shelter isn't open.

Doing time for a wrongdoing, then getting out is like starting over with a clean sheet of paper, like a blanket of freshly fallen snow.  Watching Milton shovelling the sidewalk this morning from a distance, there are no signs of his gruffness or his past -- all you can see is a man with a big heart.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A refreshing cup of tea

Most of our shelter guests are coffee drinkers.   This winter, however,  two of our guests prefer tea so we've started brewing up a pot of tea each evening -- how civilized.

Aside from their preference for tea, "Jack" and "Ben" don't seem to have a lot in common.  They were born in different countries, have different cultural and religious backgrounds.  One's a vegetarian; the other doesn't like vegetables.  Jack has a long history of addiction to drugs.  Ben has no signs of substance abuse.

Jack was most recently in a residential recovery program in Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission, had been clean and sober for several weeks, but relapsed, so had to leave.    He wants to get back on the wagon and was so impressed with the progress he made at the UGM that he's planning to find a room in the Downtown Eastside so he can have easy access to the UGM during the day.  He knows the perils of the DTES, but feels it's better for him to be away from his buddies and triggers in Richmond.

Ben is well read, well educated and speaks persuasively on many topics, ranging from philosophy to alternate energies and homelessness.  Ben spends his days in the library, researching alternative energies and is planning to start a company in this area.  After that, he plans to move back to his country of birth where his parents and siblings live.

Ben intended to just stay one night with us, saying he was hoping to return to a "5 star" shelter in Surrey he's stayed at before: Hyland House.   (I've visited Hyland House and it's a model facility, purpose built for short and long term residents, including emergency shelter and supported housing.  It has individual rooms, showers, laundry, employment programs etc etc. It's run by Peter Fedos, who delivered us shelter training Nov 2010).  He returned the next night and the next and he ended up staying with us all six nights that we were open last activation.  He enjoyed his time at the shelter and told us that he was very impressed with the kindness we showed and the service we offered, despite our limited facilities.

So two very different individuals who came to us by very different paths, but both arrived on our doorstep with not much more than the clothes on their backs.  The most important thing they have in common is they each have a plan for a path forward, a path that could change their lives.  Quite different plans, but both very ambitious and both will require a lot of inner strength.

We closed up 15 Dec after six nights activation and haven't been open since.   That final morning at breakfast, I told our guests we most likely would be closing for a while.   Most left better fed, better clothed,  refreshed and ready to face another day.  For some, it will be back to same old same old.  For Jack and Ben, I'm hoping it'll be steps forward on their new paths.

I said farewell to Jack wished him well and I offered to drop Ben off at the library. We took the scenic route, dropping off the blankets at the laudromat and an overnight staffer at his home, so had more time to chat.  Ben shared his story of his own tragic path to poverty.  Then he explained that in his home country, they have far more and far worse poverty than in Canada yet there are no homeless shelters.  They don't need them.  Poor people are looked after by their extended families and neighbours.

I gave Ben a 2 zone bus ticket so he could get to Surrey and see if they had room for him at Hyland House and dropped him off at the library just before they opened.

I'm hoping these two fine, respectful gentleman developed a little more inner strength during their stay with us.  Perhaps those refreshing cups of tea helped.

I haven't seen or heard from Jack or Ben since.