Homeless in Nanaimo: A night in a shelter

By Spencer Sterritt
March 7, 2017 - 9:26am Updated: March 7, 2017 - 10:42am
Cots at the extreme weather shelter, which has been full or over-capacity for much of the season.
Cots at the extreme weather shelter, which has been full or over-capacity for much of the season. Spencer Sterritt/NanaimoNewsNOW

NANAIMO — The stereotype of a homeless person doesn't hold much weight.

It's a quickly learned lesson when visiting the extreme weather shelter at the Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo.

On March 2, roughly 28 people filled the cots, coming out of the drizzling rain for a warm place to stay before another day of walking around and struggling to fill the time before the shelter opened again at 6 p.m.

Byron Dunbar, 43, has stayed at the shelter off and on since December 2015 after an unfortunate domestic dispute left him homeless.

“I never wanted to be in this position,” he said. “I always had a job, always had a roof over my head.”

His days are filled with using the library computer to fill out housing applications and trying to get his life back on track.

“It's monotonous. If you're looking for housing you can usually have all your phone calls done by noon if you're smart about it. But now, from twelve until six, what are you going to do? You're gonna wander around and do nothing. If you don't do drugs, then you get really bored.”

He recounted his worst day on the streets, at the beginning of February when he was sick with the flu.

“You don't want to be anywhere, you just want to be curled up in a warm bed getting better and you can't because there's nowhere to go. I just had to stay at the hospital and hope I didn't get kicked out.”

After parking himself on a chair in the emergency room, he was asked by a security guard if he was waiting for anyone. He told her he was waiting for his mother, but did admit he was waiting for the shelter to open.

“She goes 'oh you're waiting for the shelter? Well OK, that's fair enough,' and she let me be. I slept there for five hours.”

The key to not being discriminated against and shamed by the public is to blend into the background, he said. With his sociable attitude and relatively put-together outfit, he said he doesn't often get pegged as a homeless person, which is fine by him.

“As soon as you say you're homeless, on go the gloves like you gotta have some sort of disease to be homeless. People aren't homeless because they're high on dope. Some people are homeless because their house burned down, some people are homeless because their house flooded. It's amazing how quickly your life can change.”

By the end of March, Dunbar hoped to have housing set up but it wasn't a done deal.

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That night, a bottle of Alberta Pure vodka was discreetly passed to and consumed by a man nicknamed Sasquatch, who perfectly matched the nickname with his tall, imposing frame.

He's come to the shelter for the last three years, on what he called his three year vacation from his old logging job.

“I'll go back one day,” he said. “Just not today.”

An early riser, Sasquatch fills the time pounding the pavement and seemed perfectly content to stay in motion all day. “They don't call me Sasquatch for nothing,” he said. “I've walked up every mountain from Seattle to Alaska. These legs have stayed strong, done me good.”

In his years at the shelter, Sasquatch said he's formed a close knit bond with the regulars since they all wake, eat and sleep together every night.

“You don't have to be blood to be family,” he said after returning from a smoke break.

Despite his seemingly content attitude towards being homeless, when asked, he said he and his friends suffer everyday and the stigma around homelessness hurts him to his core.

“The attitudes have to change.”

He said there's nothing worse than walking by someone and seeing them either avert their eyes out of pity or become defensive out of fear.

“We're here, we're homeless, please help.”

The shelter closes its doors for the season on March 31.

 

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On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit

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