His name is Derek, and I met him at Starbucks.

He really stood out, and from the minute I saw him, I knew that meeting him would change me. In fact, he turned heads from the moment he stepped into the room – just by being there, his presence was felt.

I saw him first just as he left, and before I could think of what to say, he was gone. I didn’t realize until he was too far away to say something. But when he came back the next day when I was there, he recognized me, and we both smiled with the recognition. Looking at him, and having him recognize me, made me a little uncomfortable, but I sucked up my courage and said hello.

Other customers in the same Starbucks recognized him too. His presence caused a palpable shift – people moved uncomfortably in their seats and turned their heads away from him. People in line shuffled toward the till as if to spend their money before he came near.

Derek is about 6 feet tall, with dark, almost black hair that curls to his collar. At first his thick black beard reminded me a bit of my dad in the 80’s. The broken bag over his shoulder and worn baseball cap on his head hint at his difference – but his hands speak the loudest of his homelessness. They are thick, worn and grey-pink, scarred and wounded in places. They are the colour of cold.

Last night we had coffee and pastries together. Starbucks was closing and the deli sandwiches had been thrown out already. He told me that he slept on the street most of the time because the shelters kick you out early in the morning. He worried about his stuff in places like that. He didn’t know where to go and so he thought he’d sleep outside again tonight. Mostly, he looked like he’d run out of gas.

I looked outside at how hard it was snowing and told him that there must be a place – that the Extreme Weather Plan would be in effect. He demurred. I puzzled at where a person must be in their head to choose the street over a shelter – then wondered at what must shelters be like if people consistently chose the other option. In the pit of my stomach I wondered if he’d end up like Tracey, a homeless woman who died before Christmas when fire engulfed her shopping cart shelter. She’d refused to seek shelter that night when the temperature dipped below -12 with the wind chill. Nobody really knows why she chose that, either.

My phone was out of battery and I had no way to call a shelter for him. I wasn’t sure he’d go even if I did. So we talked – about the campus radio show he hosted back in Halifax. About keeping warm. About the career in graphic design that he had before he fell on “tough times.” He nodded off a few times while we talked and it was then that I could tell that it was related to the beer in his broken shoulder bag. Or maybe to the night after night he stayed on the street. I wished there was more I could do for him than just spend a time with him, two human beings just finding common ground.

Today he came in to the same starbucks and we smiled at each other. “You practically live here!” he said. I smiled and told him that it was “my office.” He’d spent the night outside near the Aquatic Centre. We talked a bit and I asked again if I could help him find a shelter. Again, he looked reluctant to go to one, but clutched his hands and said he’d rather not be that cold again for awhile. I felt a little torn today – I wanted to call a shelter for him, to put him in a cab and send him there… but I also didn’t want to insult him or his decision. He obviously knows that there were places and people out there for help, but for whatever reason, he stays outside. I reminded him that if he changed his mind, all he needs to do is to dial 0 on a payphone or flag down a police car or ambulance. All of them are authorized to help him find shelter now. He knew. I gave him a starbucks card so he could get a sandwich. He sat for a minute with me and ate it – then left just as the rain started.

We waved goodbye and I turned back to my computer and looked for help. I thought of him last night as I sipped my neo-citran and put myself to bed with a cold under a pile of warm blankets, and I wish I could think of him at least indoors, up off the ground, with warm hands and dry feet. It’s now raining hard, but at least the snow is melting. If he comes back, at least now I know where the shelter in Burnaby is, and where the Vancouver shelters are and when they open.

After-hours social services number: 604-660-3194 – they provide information out for shelters in any Greater Vancouver area.
Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy website and strategy
Extreme Weather Plans in New Westminster and Vancouver.

If you encounter someone who needs shelter, ask them if you can help.