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Stepping into homeless shoes

<p>Spoiled by a relatively mild December, your humble columnist was completely unprepared for how cold the last few weeks have been.</p>

Ottawa winter on the street ‘cuts right through you’

Spoiled by a relatively mild December, your humble columnist was completely unprepared for how cold the last few weeks have been.

Still, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Even with dozens of shelters and drop-in centres in the city, hundreds of people will find themselves with limited or no protection from the cold at some point this winter.

In order to get a small idea of what these people endure, I armed myself with layers of pants and sweaters and joined a group that spent 24 hours outside in the cold to raise money for Operation Go Home.

Things went rapidly downhill shortly after I arrived downtown at midnight.

In the -20C weather, my nose ran like a faucet, but without the foresight to bring tissues, I was forced to sniff it back. My eyes watered, freezing my contacts to the insides of my eyelids.

“The cold cuts right through you,” said one man, muffled inside a balaclava. It’s Pierre Belanger, chairman of the board of directors for Operation Go Home.

“I can’t imagine how a kid would stay out here in the winter,” said Belanger. “Can you imagine having to live this way?”

There’s definitely room for improvement in Ottawa, Belanger said. “The more opportunities they have, the more chances they have of breaking the cycle of poverty and becoming contributing citizens, he said. “Homelessness is definitely a problem in Ottawa.”

Allen Schultz agreed. Living on the streets of Ottawa since he was 18, the 31-year-old knows what winters here can be like.

“I’ve been down here a long time and I know a lot of people who have died,” he said.

Participant Jeff Morrison admitted he wasn’t entirely prepared for the experience. “It’s colder than I thought,” he admitted as he hunkered into his sleeping bag.

Several things kept Shaun Vardon from being able to sleep that night. “There’s a lot of noise,” he said. “And it’s a little unnerving, lying here. Anyone can come up and give you a kick and you’ve got no protection.”

At 3 a.m., I give up. My teeth are chattering so hard, my jaw hurts from the impact. I’ve stopped taking notes; my handwriting is no longer legible even though I’m wearing three pairs of gloves.

We’re here to get an authentic experience, but the reality is that I have a hot shower and a warm bed waiting at home. Someone without a home may not be able to find shelter. They may not own four shirts to wear over each other.

Operation Go Home board vice-chairman Chris Day summed it up.

“This is tough, but it’s temporary. For many people, this is reality.”


Metro Ottawa's Tracey Tong is an award-winning reporter. A Burlington native, Tong's career has taken her all over Ontario. Her Cityscapes column appears every Wednesday.

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