Journal Pioneer reporter Colin MacLean along Summerside’s Water Street. Brad Works/Journal Pioneer
SUMMERSIDE – The sign said, "Come inside and embrace the warmth of God's love."
At this point I'd been walking around downtown Summerside aimlessly for about two hours and the cold wind now seemed to be penetrating my winter clothes with ease.
I decided this sign was some sort of providence.
It was the Summerside Baptist Church. The lights were on, so I trudged through the snow around back of the sanctuary and walked up the wheelchair ramp to the door.
I gave the handle a gentle pull, half expecting it to be locked. It wasn't.
A gush of warm air brushed my numb cheeks as the door opened.
I stepped inside. Holy ground. Reflexively my hand went to my hat - even though my ears were cold. Some things are ingrained deep.
The cautious sounding voice came from my left.
I turned to see three women crowded around a piano in the church proper.
I greeted them, introduced myself and apologized for interrupting.
I'm a journalist, I said, and I'd been tasked with putting myself in the shoes of a "homeless" person in Summerside for the evening.
I asked if they knew of anywhere in town where a person with nowhere else to go could stay on a cold night.
They exchanged a look.
Their answer, in short, was no.
"If it was -40 out I'd bring you home ... I don't know if I'd sleep. But you'd be welcome," said one of them.
They're friendly, and frankly it cheered me up. I'd mentally worked myself up a lot over this assignment. I was less than enthusiastic when I left the Journal Pioneer office at 5 p.m.
We talked for almost a half hour.
They thought my mission was funny - and more than a little pretentious.
But, now that I'd asked the question, that answer of "nowhere to go" was troubling to them.
They'd never really thought about it, they said.
Where would a person in need go in Summerside if they required emergency shelter?
There used to be a men's shelter in town, but not anymore – at least not as far as they were aware.
Maybe the police? They'd be one of the only 24-hour options.
Tim Horton's? They're open 24 hours and warm, right?
Other than that... options are probably slim they agreed.
"It's probably a need - but I said that to another lady recently and they disagreed. They said there was no need here," said one.
"I've never heard of anyone in Summerside literally living on the street," said another.
There's definitely people in need, they said, struggling to buy groceries, pay bills and put oil in the tank. But shelter? They'd never seen it.
And yet I felt that if I was truly in need, not just a pretender, these ladies would help me out somehow.
But I wasn’t in trouble, I was just trying to gain some perspective.
So I thanked them for their time, wished them well and walked back into the crisp night.
In total, I spent about eight hours walking around Summerside’s downtown Wednesday night. My editors had forbidden my use of money or phone (for entertainment) for that time.
So I walked. Stopping at various businesses along the way to warm up for a few minutes.
I spent a few hours in total sitting in Tim Hortons, writing notes, chatting with the occasional person I knew and generally just staying where it was warm. I got some water from the bathroom sink by cupping my hands.
Around midnight I decided to walk to the Summerside Police Station. They’d be a logical choice for a person in need at this hour, I reasoned.
Walking into the lobby, I took note of the sign asking visitors to use a buzzer for assistance.
A woman’s voice answered.
I asked her the same thing I’d asked the church women.
She didn’t miss a beat; asked if I needed help. I answered honestly. I was OK, I just wanted to know what my options were.
A few minutes later, a young male officer came down to the lobby.
“Are you looking for some help?” he asked.
No. Just curious, I said.
My options, if I was looking for short-term shelter, were limited, he told me. The local Salvation Army would be my best bet.
He offered me help again, asked if I was sure I didn't need a hand. He could put me in contact with the Sally Ann, he offered.
He wrote down the police office number and handed it to me, telling me to come back if I needed to.
I smiled, graciously declined, and shook his hand.
I headed back to my car then, back to my warm home where my fridge was pretty well stocked and where a warm bed awaited.
I’m not naive. I know I know nothing of suffering, of being helpless and truly in need of help. This brief experience has taught me nothing of those things.
But it has given me something to think about.
It’s a start.
5:10 p.m. – I leave the Journal Pioneer office. It's snowing out, light flakes with a cold wind blowing in from off the bay. I'm wearing rubber boots, tucked under my jean pant legs, a long-sleeve shirt, knitted mitts, hat and a grey winter coat. I'm pretty warm, all things considered.
5:58 p.m. – I arrive at the Water Street Tim Hortons. I take off my jacket and have a seat next to the fake fireplace.
6:30 p.m. – I've been sitting here for a while and nobody has paid any attention to me. Nobody asks me to leave, the staff are busy, but there's plenty of seats.
7 p.m. – I could stay here for a while, it's warm, but I'm bored. I decide to go for a walk and return later.
7:30 p.m. – I scout out some of the local churches. I figure if I really needed help, these would be logical places to go. The first one actually has the pastor's name and office and cell phone numbers printed right on the front door. The next one has no emergency number that I can see, but there's something going on inside. I might go back. The third church has a sign that says “Come in and enjoy the warmth of God's love.” I know they mean that metaphorically, but I choose to take it literally. Inside the unlocked door I find three church women. I introduce myself and we talk about homelessness in Summerside. Does it exist? How do you define it? That sort of thing. One said she'd offer me a place to stay if I need it. They're concerned for me.
8 p.m. – I leave the church and start walking back to Tim Hortons.
9:30 p.m. – Take another seat at the Tim's. Use my hands to get a drink of water from the bathroom sink. Take a seat.
10:30 p.m. – It's actually not all that warm in Tim Hortons. I think they have the AC on, alternating with the heat.
12 a.m. – I start walking to the Summerside Police Station.
12:40 – I buzz the dispatcher at the police office. I ask if there is anywhere a person can go in Summerside for shelter. A young officer, he looks younger than me, comes out into the lobby to chat. He asks if I need help. I say I'm just wondering what services there are for reference. He still seems concerned for me, but explains that there really are not any kind of men's shelter services in Summerside.
If someone does need help, the police contact the local Salvation Army and someone usually helps people out, he says. He says if I, or a friend, need help, to call the police station and they'd reach out to the Salvation Army on my behalf. Try to help me out.
I thank him, shake his hand and head back out into the cold.
1 a.m. – I walk back to the office. Don’t want to bring someone out into the cold to help me out.
ANY GIVEN NIGHT