British Columbia·Night Shift

'Everybody has a story': Shelter workers say their clients deserve to be treated humanely

It's a battle to survive when the sun goes down for homeless people in Vancouver.

Some homeless people in Vancouver prefer to take their chances on the streets

Stanley Woodvine has been living in Vancouver's Fairview Neighbourhood for 14 years. (Jake Costello/CBC)

For most of us, nights are for resting. For others, a battle to survive begins when the sun goes down.

Stanley Woodvine, who's been homeless in Vancouver for 14 years, is now an expert at navigating the streets after dark. But it was a tough learning process.

"Early on, I had difficulty finding a sleeping spot," Woodvine said.

"I have awful memories of being cold and wet and the wind and miserable … I felt all alone."

Woodvine spent most of his life working as a graphic designer and illustrator, but by 2004 found he couldn't carry on with his work. He ran out of money and was evicted from his apartment.

He's always shied away from sleeping at a shelter, though, preferring to find his own space.

"I know how to sleep out here," he said.

"Why am I going to go to sleep in the shelter beside complete strangers?"

There were about 2,000 people living without a home in Vancouver in 2018, according to the city's annual homeless count. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Woodvine frequently writes about his experiences in a blog which is sometimes published in the Georgia Straight.

He broke the story about 72-year-old homeless man, Ted, who died in a Tim Hortons restaurant after spending much of the last years of his life living out of the coffee shop.

Ted — whose last name is unknown — was 74 and died in a Vancouver Tim Hortons last year. It took hours before he was noticed slumped at his favourite corner table. (Michelle Ghoussoub/CBC)

Ted isn't an unusual case, according to Woodvine.

"I see a growing number of senior citizens who have retired into poverty and are collecting bottles in the back alleys," he said.

"They are embarrassed. They don't want people to know they're homeless. They paid their taxes, they worked hard."

Life overnight at the shelter

While Woodvine chooses not to go to shelters, many other people do.

Laura Muller works overnight at one of those shelters, the Metson Winter Shelter on Howe Street in downtown Vancouver.

"Usually, nights are fairly quiet," Muller said, since the majority of people are asleep between midnight and 2 a.m.

"Most of the guys have a job so we wake them up, give them breakfast and then they go on their way."

Laura Muller said she enjoys working the night shift at the shelter because there seems to be a greater sense of respect and acceptance at this job compared to previous ones. (Jake Costello/CBC)

Temporary shelters, like the one Muller where works, are usually only open during the colder months and close at the end of March.

Earlier this month, the province announced an extra $3.1 million in funding to keep eight temporary shelters throughout the city open year round, including 40 beds at the Metson shelter, until 2020.

Woodvine avoids going to shelters because he'd rather have his own space, but many others do use shelters in Vancouver. There are ten temporary winter facilities providing nearly 300 beds. (Jake Costello/CBC)

Muller said she often feels personally responsible for some of the people who come in.

"I've had a few cases when people have sadly passed away and I really took it to heart because I felt like I had failed them," she said

'Come 8 a.m., I'm ready to clock out - I'm drained,' says Lamar McCormack also works overnight at the Metson shelter. (Jake Costello/CBC)

For Lamar McCormack, a tenant support worker at the Metson shelter, not losing sight of people's humanity — no matter where they spend the night — is what drew him to the job.

"I've realized that, in life, the only true difference between people is chance and choice," he said.

"Everybody has a story, everyone has hopes and dreams and aspirations. Everyone also has their own struggles and bad days and are looking to find ways to cope with that."

Night Shift is a series that looks at life on the clock, around the clock. It's produced by Jake Costello and airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition from March 25 - 29.

With files from Jake Costello and The Early Edition

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