Visitors In the Cold World of Homelessness

cold nght

I live in Canada.

Canada gets cold!

I mean, logically, there are many harsh climates. Even extreme warm temperatures don’t necessarily provide comfort for our most vulnerable populations.

Whether we are talking about rain, sleet, snow, extreme heat, or really any other type of weather, four walls and a roof are not merely essential to shield us from the elements of Mother Nature. A home provides comfort, dignity, privacy and safety.

Although all things considered, when standing outside in -17 degrees Celsius (about zero degrees Fahrenheit) on a cold and blustery night in Brockville, Ontario, Canada, all of a sudden safety and privacy take a very distinct backseat to trying not to freeze to death.

Not long ago I put on my “punk rock councillor” cap. I joined a dedicated group of local activists, and hosted a ‘sleep-out’ demonstration dubbed “One Cold Night.”
The event featured live music (that’s right, my bandmate Darren Martin and I actually performed a Project Mantra acoustic set in that type of temperature), an open mic component, some guest speakers, and plenty of hot coffee. Conceptually, this event is similar to other events in various communities across North America. In fact, there are five or six communities in my own backyard hosting these events annually as a fundraiser for Cornerstone Landing in Lanark County.

Our event encouraged participants to stay as long as they could hold out (in light of the blistering cold temperatures). Meanwhile, advocates raised pledges for local support services. Overall, this event was fun and uplifting, even if we did have to thaw ourselves out afterwards. What I did not count on was just how many participants in my small town would take this opportunity to disclose their various lived experiences of homelessness to me.

Even the most picturesque and beautiful waterfront city like my beloved Brockville has its own underbelly of neglect.

As I set up the information tables and began organizing food donations, I was approached by a handsome gentleman with a kind face. He was tall and slender with dark hair, and dirt under his nails like he had just come from work. Still wearing what appeared to be work clothes, he introduced himself to say thank you and offer his support. I was flattered by his friendly demeanor and encouraged him to stay, but his reluctance told me a different story.

It seemed so clear to me he had heard of this event and read about my experiences in local media. I believed he was seeking the acknowledgment of a kindred spirit. He sheepishly said a polite hello, and began to explain how he had been homeless once, too. As he divulged his challenging backstory of addictions, depression and social disconnection, I realised my own story of momentary displacement actually paled in comparison to his.

I was touched by his kind words of support, but still saddened by his apprehension to stay and participate fully. Maybe he felt he over-disclosed too many personal details. Or, maybe a brief conversation with someone that he felt was like him was all he needed to feel kinship. Maybe he feared being a token character during our demonstration.

He may still be in the midst of coming to terms with his traumas. Maybe his personal evolution is not yet complete. And maybe we as a city still have a distance to travel before it feels like home to him.

As the evening went on, this sheepish stranger would not be the only one to open up to me.

From laughing over a card game as I listened to stories from another activist about their own adolescent couch surfing and poverty, to sitting in a truck (to warm our bones) for a few moments beside a close friend and colleague who told me about his own group home experiences and about how running away as a youth made more sense than living in a toxic environment…there was no shortage of heart-wrenching stories about episodic homelessness, and no shortage of heartwarming anecdotes about those who opened their doors and arms in their hours of need.

A monologue that stuck with me the most was a very detailed story by a charming stranger about her survival. She was a victim of domestic abuse, emotional destruction and manipulation. She fled her home with her children forcing her to commute back and forth to a nearby urban centre where familiar supports were available. Her story is not uncommon. Sadly, in many rural settings, this type of situation is often amplified by a lack of shelter supports, a lack of public transportation options, sparse geography, and a misguided “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude that still pollutes communities near and far.

Her story was even more troubling in that she wasn’t heavily dependent on her spouse for support. However, she wasn’t entirely prepared for the upheaval and financial devastation that would accompany her departure from their cookie cutter family life. In fact, the cost of leaving came at the expense of her professional career, the loss of long-time family friends, emotional futility, and compromising situations where local social service providers made her feel guilty for leaving.

The places she went for help in her time of need were places that judged her and made her feel unwelcome.

How often do others less equipped than she was feel those same pains?

How many who aren’t as prepared to be so fiercely independent end up staying in unhealthy or dangerous situations because the roadblocks in front of them are just too immense?

The entire experience was extremely positive and enlightening. More people showed up to participate than any of us expected. More people stayed through until the end than I could have anticipated considering just how bitter cold it was. We raised money. We delivered a message.

But one story would cap off our evening that really helped send us all home feeling empathetic and grateful.

As the wee hours of the morning dawned upon us, one last visitor would greet and humble us. Layered in expensive parkas and hand warmers, along came a middle-aged gentleman to join us.

He wore rudimentary clothes that did not seem to be enough to keep warm. He told us he had been homeless in Brockville for a couple of years. In fact, it was local law enforcement officers who suggested that he come join us for some company.

You see, Brockville does not have a functioning shelter system. And much like most communities in Ontario, we also have a growing waiting list for housing. While the Brockville Police Service would love to help this friendly and engaging rough sleeper more, their options to do so are limited by budgets, public opinions, and a lack of viable social infrastructure.

He joined us for some engaging conversation. He openly told his story, and thanked us for our efforts to raise awareness of a scenario he never wished for himself. We set him up with food and refreshments, gloves and scarfs. But as we wrapped up and prepared to depart for our warm homes, it occurred to us that although we were sending him on his way with a smile on his face, we were sending him away without a clear destination.

That morning, I arrived home to a cuddly puppy dog and a hot coffee waiting. My bed welcomed me with gentle softness. My family gleefully said hello to me with a warmth I often take for granted.

He continued his cold walk, searching for a place to stay warm and feel safe.

It gets cold in Canada, as I said before. I am lucky to not have to worry about where my next meal will come from or where my head will lay at night. Brockville is a beautiful place full of warm people with warm smiles. But even our little city has its own collection of stories that expose how cold the world can be.

We were demonstrators in a moment of protest, teammates on a goodwill mission. We were a collection of people who shared stories of how we got to this point.

… But we were still visitors in the cold as our homes awaited us.

Sleep Out Housing sign

Photos by Sharla Robertson of Whimsical and Wandering Photography.

Leigh Bursey

Leigh Bursey


Leigh Bursey is a 35 year old resident of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Canada. Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, Leigh spent over twenty years in Ontario, where he was a three term former municipal councillor. Leigh is an International Best-Selling Author, an award-winning singer/songwriter and recording artist, actor, painter, and community organizer/policy advocate. Leigh is the co-founder of the Brockville Streetfriends and current lead for the Mount Pearl Streetfriends outreach networks. He is an International Chartered Housing Professional, a shelter worker, and a former provincial Housing Officer. Leigh is a board member for the Canadian Housing Renewal Association and the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness, and the LivEx Scholars With Lived Experience through Making The Shift. Leigh is a newlywed and a first-time homeowner. Leigh has lived experience with homelessness.

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