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Winter homeless shelters are not the solution for one group

The city of Vancouver opened four temporary homeless shelters this week as winter weather sets in. But Shawn Smith, a homeless…

By Alexander Villegas , in City , on November 26, 2015

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Shawn Smith is spending his ninth winter on the streets.

The city of Vancouver opened four temporary homeless shelters this week as winter weather sets in.

But Shawn Smith, a homeless man who lives on the street near 10th and Granville, is not going to being taking up one of the 170 new beds.  

“They make you jump through all these hoops,” said Smith. He is preparing for his ninth winter outdoors.

The 2015 Vancouver homeless count reported that 488 homeless people did not use shelters on the night of March 23.

Only 14 percent of those counted were turned away because the shelter was full.  Others, like Smith, choose not to and represent one of the toughest-to-solve pieces of the homelessness problem.

Smith shuts out the cold by wrapping himself like an onion in layers of clothes topped with a woven blanket, but he’s open to talking about why he won’t enter a shelter.

“Too many triggers there,” he said. “There are too many people down there looking for crack and heroin. That’s all they go down there (in the Downtown Eastside) for. And the bugs, I hate creepy crawly things. No bugs out here.”

Smith tries to avoid the downtown all together. He says he’s been clean for eight months and he doesn’t want to return to his addiction. He’s been on the street for nearly 10 years after a back injury resulted in a morphine addiction.

“He’s been out here longer than any of us,” said Smith’s brother, Glen. After Smith’s family found out Shawn was homeless, Glen went looking for him but he ended up on the streets as well. Glen says he’s now terminally ill with HIV and endocarditis. The two brothers spend their nights together.

Over the years, Shawn Smith taught himself how to survive winter on the streets.

“The hardest part about living outside is basically trying to stay dry,” Smith said. “Once you get wet, that’s it. You gotta get inside otherwise you get sick and die. You get pneumonia real fast.”

Smith says he’s lost eight friends to pneumonia over the years.

Compared to other Canadian cities, Vancouver’s climate is mild but an annual 160 days of rain coupled with winter temperatures that dip below zero occasionally and life on the street can be rough.

Smith’s most valuable possession is his bright green tarp. He also relies sitting under shop awnings along the South Granville stretch.

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Smith passes the time reading and listening to the radio.

“But I’m never warm,” said Smith.

When the weather gets bad, Smith spends the night next to an indoor bank machine.

“The security guys knows us,” Smith said. “They know we aren’t any trouble and we clean up in the morning.”

He listens to the radio, so he knows when really bad weather is imminent. On those days, he shells out $17.50 to stay in the Jericho hostel.

And there are always couches. Smith has a few friends that let him warm up in their homes. Smith carries a flip phone that he keeps tied around his neck. That’s a security measure he started taking after his phone was stolen one night.

He considers the phone a business expense. For $30 a month, he’s able to stay in touch with customers he works for washing windows.

“I do all kinds of odd jobs,” Smith said. “Painting, I can do mechanical stuff, small engines, woodworking, carpentry. I’m a jack of all trades but a master of none.”

Smith also uses his phone to try to find a home. He reads through the back of the classifieds looking for cheap rooms. No luck so far. Usually by the time he gets through, they’re gone.

Shelter isn’t his only challenge. There’s also food. He can’t eat much. He lost his teeth a while back, so it’s mostly squashed apple slices from McDonald’s and donations from passersby.

“It’s better if you don’t ask” said Smith. “People don’t like feeling pressured and are more likely to give if they think it’s their own idea.”

Reading helps pass the time. Today it’s a coverless copy of Of Bone and Thunder, a book described as Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings. He found it on the street after a bookstore sent a bunch of books to recycling.

One of the book’s heroes, Carny, is a drug-addicted farmboy conscripted to the military. A guy kind of like Smith. A man who battles with addiction, came to the big city — Vancouver — from Burk’s Falls, Ont. a town with a triple-digit population that Smith describes as “cottage country.”

Smith moved here in 1989 in search of warmer weather and better opportunities.

“I never thought I’d be homeless in a city as great and prosperous as Vancouver,” Smith said. “I’m only 50 though, still young. Got half my life ahead of me, maybe more.”