Manitoba·Point of View

Pandemic Perspectives: surviving on the street during COVID-19

While the pandemic has forced many to make the transition to working from home, remote learning and tighter restrictions, for Winnipeg's vulnerable and homeless, the need is more basic — survival. Tom Boucher tells us why.

'You don't want to get sick, because there's nowhere to go,' says Tom Boucher, who is homeless

Tom Boucher says he's always kept his distance from others, even before the pandemic hit: 'I have always been extremely careful about who I talk to and who I was near.' (Bert Savard)

When I heard in the news Winnipeg was moving to code red, I knew that meant libraries would close.

And then I started thinking, what am I going to do? Where am I going to go when it is colder? 

And then I found places I could go. Things kind of fell into place for me in a way that I could never understand.

I have been on and off the streets for twelve years now. I find a place to sleep at night away from the inner city, away from where people migrate to each other. Sometimes I would sleep in a nook in a French Catholic church in St. Boniface in the winter. Once in a while, the caretaker would let me come inside to sleep when it was really cold.

Tom Boucher uses his bicycle to keep moving throughout the days, winter or summer: 'If I am sitting in the park for a whole day, I start thinking about situations that could be depressing.' (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

During the day I would spend time in libraries to stay warm; mainly the one in St. Boniface, where staff would let me stay the day. I always physically kept a lot of distance from anybody else. The Siloam Mission shelter is another place where I would go in winter.

Nothing much has changed for me. It was the same before COVID-19 as it is now. I was on the street before and I am still on the street.

I have always been extremely careful about who I talk to and who I was near. When you are on the street, you don't want to get sick because there is no place for somebody like me to recover. You hear all sorts of things about what people might have — like hepatitis or a sexually transmitted disease.

I have no extracurricular activities like alcohol, drugs or gambling.- Tom Boucher

I don't really share. A lot of people do. A lot of people pass around a bottle of beer or whiskey and wine and drink from it. I was never into that. I don't drink. I was never into sharing anything or passing cigarettes around. I was doing all I could to protect my health.

This has kicked in even more with COVID-19.

Not wanting to get sick

It's not that I don't want to stand in line at a mission for a meal. It's more about not wanting to get sick. Agape Table, Siloam Mission and Union Gospel all offer meals, but as many as 400 people could be standing outside or inside. So I don't go there.

I get food sometimes from Winnipeg Harvest at the Holy Cross Food Bank where I volunteer. The minister at St. Matthews would give me extra food on the weekend — things that I can eat, that I don't have to cook, like lunch meat and bread. I pick up peanut butter and Cheese Whiz and stuff like that for sandwiches. 

I feel more confident in looking after myself. I am not without my resources. I know where to get food, water or where I can use a washroom. I know how much money I have to spend (if I do have money). I have no extracurricular activities like alcohol, drugs or gambling.

Tom Boucher volunteers at the Holy Cross Food Bank. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

The greatest challenge for me is learning to coast with whatever the day brings. I had made friends with the library staff  but now that's closed. Finding a good spot to stay warm for the day before I head to camp to sleep is probably my biggest challenge now.

One way for me to cope is not to stay in one place too long.

I ride my bike to keep moving. If I am sitting in the park for a whole day, I start thinking about situations that could be depressing. Like — why I am out here? How did I end up here? Stuff like that.

You start second-guessing yourself and it makes you feel down about yourself. The more I do, the more I am busy, the less I have to think about what is wrong or what is negative.

Depression has been my demon. It's not something planned. It attacks you from within and from without. You don't have control. I have been suffering from depression and have had suicidal tendencies since I was twelve.

I don't focus on the negative.- Tom Boucher

I wound up on the street because of divorce. I didn't get a divorce because I wanted one. I got divorced because I didn't want to put them through what I was going through. 

I went to university in Quebec and studied psychology for four years. That helped me to try and remain positive about what I have to face and deal with.

Sometimes I get angry at God. But the fact I get angry with God puts me in personal touch with him in a lot of ways people don't understand. I take my frustrations and difficulties to him, so I know he is listening. 

I look forward to libraries opening again and everything going back to normal the way it was before.

Nothing lasts forever

Since I was a kid I had this saying that "nothing lasts forever." I guess you can say that is part of my hope. Nothing will last forever.

Being out on the street, nothing will last forever. I talked to so many people who've been on the street for years and all of a sudden they had a place of their own.

Somehow I may end up in a situation where it will work out for me.

So I don't focus on the negative. Winter is coming. Something might fall into my lap without me worrying about it. 

UPDATE: St. Boniface Street Links Outreach Team has told the CBC that they connected with Boucher and offered him a one-bedroom apartment. Boucher called the news "pretty awesome."

CBC's Pandemic Perspectives is a series that invites Manitobans to share their personal perspectives on the collective experience of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Tom Boucher lives on the streets of Winnipeg.