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Homeless, ‘I’m Living in a Dystopian Sci-Fi’

On the streets for 15 years, Stanley Woodvine talks about what he’s living and seeing in this pandemic.

Christopher Cheung 10 Apr

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

If you’re homeless like Stanley Woodvine, you know what it’s like to be asked to get up and move on.

A few spots in the city offered some refuge to homeless people, but with a pandemic at hand these precious places are closing one by one.

The McDonald’s Woodvine frequented in his Vancouver neighbourhood of Fairview — “To blog,” he said, “I make much better food” — is closed. So is the washroom at the local Esso. The nearest library has covered up the outdoor outlet where he used to charge his laptop and phone.

West Broadway, a busy office corridor, has slowed to an eerie standstill; though many buildings have shut down, the homeless people who seek shelter in alcoves and under awnings are still ousted by security.

That’s why, on a recent Thursday, Woodvine biked out of his neighbourhood to run errands elsewhere. He eventually stopped in the upscaling neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant, where he was able to plug his phone into the wall of the restaurant Burgoo, currently closed for dine-in, which sells $18 soup-and-sandwich combos.

“It’d be that much better if nature raised the outdoor temperature,” he said. “But thank God that this didn’t happen in February.”

The eyes of security guards and the chill of a spring that hasn’t yet warmed up means one thing for homeless people, says Woodvine: “Gotta keep moving.”

For the street population, the loss of places like coffee shops and community centres is the loss of places to rest up, warm up, use the washroom and use the internet to connect with loved ones and learn what’s going on in the world — all the more important with a virus on the loose.

The shelters that are still running during the pandemic have reduced capacity and introduced new and stricter rules to guard against COVID-19. Though on Wednesday, the Salvation Army reported a client had tested positive at its transitional home and addiction treatment centre in the Downtown Eastside.

But even before the pandemic, not all homeless people feel comfortable checking into shelters with others, or fulfill the criteria for a night’s stay.

Now, there’s the new fear of catching the virus.

“We’re seeing a physical and mental toll on people,” said Jeremy Hunka of the city’s Union Gospel Mission. “There’s more tension, and they’re more tired because there’s nowhere to rest.”

As well as services like its shelter and take-out food line — which has become busier now than at Christmas — the mission also runs a Mobile Mission that drives around to check on homeless people and offer food and clothing.

“There’s a lot more people outside than normal,” said Hunka. “Some are actually moving further out into camps or wooded areas for fear of being around people, fear that they might get COVID-19, basically self-isolating further on the margins of society.”

In Vancouver alone, not including cities like Burnaby or Surrey, there are more than 2,200 homeless people, many of whom have underlying health issues. The city has been helping during the pandemic, creating new washing stations and offering space in two community centres to let people self-isolate, but most of it is downtown, near the impoverished Downtown Eastside. The province has also secured 900 beds at 23 motels and community centres across B.C.

“This highlights how everything in the world predicates on having a home,” said Woodvine.

The message from leaders and health authorities to self-isolate leaves Woodvine shaking his head.

“Well, they’ve lost every homeless person at number one. We actually know all about self-isolating, but they,” he said, pointing to a passing police car, “always tell you to go away.”

It is estimated that 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year.

Woodvine has been homeless for 15 years, putting him in the six per cent of homeless Vancouverites who’ve been without a legal address for 10 years or more. (The majority, 40 per cent, have been homeless between one and five years.)

His street savvy is especially important for a city in a state of emergency, though he admits it feels surreal to be in his position.

“I really feel like I’m living in a dystopian sci-fi,” he said.

While Woodvine, 59, might have the survival skills of some Last Man from apocalyptic fiction, he says it certainly doesn’t look like disaster-time where he’s charging his phone, with well-groomed young people strolling with their dogs and Apple EarBuds on Main Street.

Woodvine is a binner, collecting can and bottle recyclables and reselling them at the depot. As Vancouverites isolate at home, going through their trash reveals just how well they’re coping with this new way of life.

“What do you get when you have a bunch of people self-isolating? A lot of drinking!”

With the spike in recyclables and very few places for homeless people to go, Woodvine says they’ve been “binning like ferrets.”

A security guard recently gave him a container of Lysol wipes, which he’s been using to wipe down recycling bins to keep binners safe. (“I don’t know if you know,” said Woodvine, “but when we’re binning, we’re touching garbage.”)

Though the other day, an elderly resident who saw him doing so snorted and said that he wipes his bins all the time.

“‘OK boomer’ is not what I said in reply, but it was in my heart,” said Woodvine.

A curious thing he has noticed in people’s trash of late: wrappers from takeout alongside untouched fresh ingredients.

“It’s the food that people are stockpiling,” said Woodvine. “They’re buying fresh veggies, but then they order Uber Eats! I’m not seeing them shed their basic habits. They’re eating like the weekend all week.”

Woodvine says he’s doing “just fine” these days, though he worries how the growing limits on all but the most essential in-person services will affect homeless people if this goes on for months.

What happens if bottle depots close, cutting off binners from income? What happens if all the businesses homeless people depend on — cell phone providers, or restaurants — refuse cash, or close?

He’s also been thinking about the Great Depression, having heard stories from the Dutch side of his family. And as he cooks his meals of fresh vegetables and “good rice” with his camping stove, he thinks about the lesson from the Chinese side of his family of never wasting rice.

Woodvine is a blogger and frequent tweeter, chronicling and reflecting on everything from current events to working public washrooms, but the pandemic has made him especially philosophical about our world and where we might be headed.

On life after COVID-19: “Will it be like 9/11 with a tightening of rules across the board?”

On those hardest hit by the pandemic: “It’s the same groups ignored. It shows how wobbly our structures are.”

And on the stigmatization of homeless people: “There’s a new reason for people to look at us like plague rats.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Housing

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