Under the faint glow of a single light bulb, a man lies across the front stoop of the Langley Masonic Hall, facing Fraser Highway.
It is a late Wednesday afternoon, about 5:30, but it might as well be the dead of night.
Stars dot the partly cloudy, but otherwise ink-black sky.
An unrelenting mid-December wind pierces through layers of winter clothing and bites into skin.
A heroin kit lays out in front of him as the man, who appears to be in his early 50s, moves ever so slightly, a grey hood partially covering his beard-stubbled face.
He has parked his mountain bike and a shopping cart in front of him, helping to shield him from motorists who hurry past to their destinations, preoccupied, with Christmas just days away.
He lost someone very close to him a few days earlier — a man who died in his tent, a victim of the hardscrabble life on the streets.
On this night, the man has nowhere to mourn but the concrete terrace he is using as a temporary mattress, and occasionally, he cups his meaty hand over his forehead and breaks down in tears as he speaks.
But the Earth goes for another spin around the sun, and life rolls on.
The man is grudgingly resigned, admitting that at some point, he’s going to end up at the Gateway of Hope shelter to protect himself from the elements.
The temperature has already plunged to minus-eight degrees Celsius and he says his hands feel like they’re on fire from the cold.
“Thank you,” he says politely, as veteran outreach worker Fraser Holland from Starting Point hands him two Styrofoam cups full of hot chocolate.
Holland walks over to what he affectionately refers to as “Zumba the Magic Bus,” a.k.a. a Nissan NV1500 cargo van equipped with new sleeping bags, Nutri-Grain bars, a couple of large thermoses of hot chocolate and, most importantly, naloxone kits, to help protect Langley’s homeless from the fentanyl epidemic that’s not only claiming the lives of hard-core addicts, but casual users from a range of socio-economic backgrounds.
Holland returns with a new sleeping bag. It’s rolled up, making it easier for the man to carry from place to place.
Driving away, Holland talks about the man’s giving spirit. “There’s a lot of hard stuff on the street, but also a lot of generosity. He’d give you his sleeping bag if you asked him.”
It’s the start of what will be a very long night.
Bitterly cold week
With the frigid weather that gripped the south coast in mid-December, Holland was extra motivated to check up on many of the people he has come to know as friends.
It was a particularly brutal week for Langley’s homeless — overnight temperatures dipped to as low as a dangerous minus-10 degrees Celsius, not factoring in the wind chill.
During the uncommonly long cold snap, the Salvation Army Gateway of Hope saw nightly numbers rise to 94 people accessing the emergency shelter mats (the winter relief shelter, with 30 additional mats, is still operating nightly at the Gateway of Hope when the Extreme Weather Advisory is not operating).
Even so, there were some who, for reasons of their own, opted to risk sleeping outside rather than stay at the shelter on the Langley Bypass.
These are the ones Holland is most concerned about.
“There are five to 10 per cent of the population who are homeless right now who are either OK being out (without shelter) or they’re in a state where making a choice about housing… it’s not there, for whatever reason,” Holland said.
“That’s one of the harsher parts of being on the street — there’s not a lot of sugar coating. They don’t have the time or space for those niceties. It is what it is. I think sugar coating is one of those ways you attempt to get hope but out here, if you’ve got hope or false hope, people pick up on that really quickly and don’t want any part of it.”
Conduit to Langley’s homeless
A conduit to Langley’s homeless for more than a decade, Holland is all too familiar with the nooks, the shadowy places, where folks without permanent shelter can be found.
One of those alcoves is an overpass. Holland pulls to the side of the road before grabbing a thermos and some cups. He hops out of the van and steps carefully down a path of frozen snow, which leads to an angular, shadowy figure.
With the soft hum of cars passing along 56th Avenue as white noise, he sits staring toward a narrow section of the Nicomekl River.
The man’s voice rises to a shriek before falling to a whisper, as he rambles about conspiracies, reproduction, Edward Snowden, the CIA, Dubai, the Salvation Army, U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump, and his mother.
Holland nods patiently, waits for him to finish speaking, says goodbye, and walks away.
The next stop is a parking lot in Willoughby.
As he pulls up, Holland describes the exact make and model of the vehicle he’s looking for. A woman has been living in her van for some time.
Holland finds the vehicle and taps on the driver’s side window.
Inside, a woman sits in the driver’s seat of the vehicle, which is stuffed full with her belongings. Her head is slumped over the steering wheel.
After a brief conversation, he returns. She has declined his offer of help.
“I hate waking people up,” Holland mutters.
Holland then makes his way to a dead-end road by the railroad tracks next to Mufford Crescent, where a makeshift tent is assembled with shopping carts and tarps. Holland calls into the shelter, asking if anyone wants hot chocolate.
A woman’s voice, very familiar to Holland, answers, “Yes.”
Then a man emerges. Darcy is well known in the homeless community. He and Holland chat amiably while Darcy stokes a fire pit. Then, Darcy stops speaking abruptly, warily watching two men — one of them pushing a mountain bike — make their way towards the camp.
“I don’t know who they are,” he says.
The two aren’t strangers, it turns out.
One of them sets off to find some more wood for the fire, another visits.
‘This year, I’m afraid’
Of all the time he’s spent on the street, Darcy, his face a hue of orange from the fire’s glow, shares that he has never felt afraid of anybody or anything, he says — until now.
“This year, I’m afraid.
“I’m afraid of all kinds of (things). Seven camps were lit on fire with accelerant. That’s f****d up, man.”
The topic shifts to fentanyl, that has been detected in 374 deaths in B.C. this year.
“I know people that use it,” Darcy said. “I know they forget about their problems when they’re using it and that’s basically it in a nutshell, but when you’ve got people dying like that, do you really want to f***ing kill yourself? Then why didn’t you do it a long f***ing time ago? What do you have to wait around for?
“If you want to kill yourself for whatever reason because s**t went down in your life or whatever, why do you have to make it so public?”
He continues, “How many people have died this year? Because of that s**t? It’s almost like genocide. And these politicians — if it was me and it was my constituency and I had people dying all over the place, I would think it would be partly my responsibility, instead of saying, ‘Oh, they’re just heroin addicts.’ Well they ain’t just heroin addicts anymore, man.
“We’ve got hundreds of them going down, thousands, and they’re not all addicts. It’s a way of wiping people out, really.”
The conversation trails off and Holland returns to his van and makes his way back to his office to refill his thermoses with hot chocolate; the handful he leaves behind are choosing to weather the cruel elements.
“It’s a different world (on Langley’s streets at night) than during the day,” Holland would later say.
Langley outreach worker Fraser Holland carries a thermos of hot chocolate toward an underpass, where a homeless man has taken shelter on a cold December night.