Chris has kind blue eyes encompassed by a grey scraggly beard. His salt and pepper hair sticks out around his face in places his hood can’t contain. His hands are puffy and covered in sores; they shake from the cold despite holding a warm cup of coffee in the one and a cigarette in the other.
Chris has been sleeping outside for the past 20 years. I met him in the courtyard outside Our Place Society, a nonprofit “community hub” that offers food, shelter and other basic necessities to Victoria’s in need community.
Although Our Place has 45 transitional housing units and can sleep an extra 60 people on mats when it gets this cold out, Chris tells me he chooses to sleep outside instead of opting for one of the mats inside.
While Chris agrees, it is definitely cold, the key is having a good sleeping bag. He doesn’t want to be recorded, named or photographed because he likes to stay anonymous.
Chris is one of 1,300 people in Victoria that don’t have a permanent place to live.
According to Grant McKenzie, director of communications at Our Place Society, the cold brings in people that typically would avoid the shelter.
“It’s kind of a two-sided coin on the one hand, it can be a burden [to the staff] to all of the sudden have the facility really filled up to the brim, but on the other hand it really gives us the opportunity to help more people.”
According to McKenzie, the shelter sees about 600 to 800 people per day but during the busiest times in the winter they serve about 1,000 meals and 1,200 snacks per day.
Chris says he opts to sleep outside because it gets too hot in the shelter, and the smell isn’t great.
A big issue for people who do choose to sleep on a mat within the shelter or one of the overflow facilities in Victoria, is the lack of space to house their personal belongings.
Our Place Society has a small courtyard that people can leave their belongings in while warming up inside, but there isn’t any security and with all this snow, it’s bound to be wet by the time you’re ready to go back outside.
Another big issue identified by McKenzie is the lack of supervised inhalation sites in Victoria. The Harbour, a supervised injection site, sits right next to Our Place Society does not have offer safe inhalation.
“A lot of smokers are hanging around outside … and not going into the shelter because they want to smoke overnight but they want to be close to The Harbour … this is a place of safety for them,” says McKenzie.
McKenzie says the majority of overdoses come from smoking drugs because it offers a false sense of security as opposed to injecting the drugs.
Along with offering food and shelter, Our Place Society has a plethora of other programs that aid in any way they can, from grief counselling and vet care for pets to foot care services, the centre is focused on providing a better state of life for everyone that comes there.
“The cold weather definitely takes a toll on us … but we really appreciate the support at this time,” says McKenzie.
Our Place Society is always in need of monetary donations, but socks, gloves, hats and other warm winter clothing is just as needed this time of year.