So I’ve been sleeping in the back of my truck for about two weeks now…car camping, as some might call it. I’ve always enjoyed sleeping outdoors, but car camping in the urban jungle of Toronto is a journey all its own.

The weather here has been getting colder, and I’ve awoken to a layer of ice on my truck more than once…an invigorating way to start the day after crawling out of my cozy mummy bag. Not to mention brushing my teeth with near-frozen toothpaste.

I was recently offered both a roof and a couch, which I was happy to hear, and I’ll be couch surfing soon enough. But for the time being, I’m inclined to battle the elements, for a couple of reasons.

Gloves, hat and long johns – my nightly bedfellows

On one hand, I’m a country boy who just likes roughin’ it once in awhile. I enjoy a bit of deprivation on occasion (though often in hindsight), and I find that ‘living without’ is also a good reminder of the many blessings I have in life.

But the primary reason I’ve been car camping is that I wanted to experience a small taste of the impermanence that homelessness often entails, not to mention the same general weather conditions. That said, let me be the first to say my sleeping-under-the-camper-shell-of-my-truck conditions are nowhere near those of folks on the street. But Canada in December is nothing to scoff at either.

Despite the leaks, the cold and general discomfort, I’m grateful for the camper shell on my truck.

New Insights

Tucked between tall buildings in a northern corner of downtown Toronto, Sanctuary is composed of a community that runs the gamut of socioeconomic levels. During a typical Sunday night service, congregation members may be affluent business people who return to their condos at the end of the evening, or they may be homeless folks who return to the streets in search of a quiet corner to catch some fitful sleep.

During the week, however, the programs and activities offered by Sanctuary are frequented most by the “friends from the streets” (as Sanctuary prefers to call them). These folks make up the heart of the community, and they embody the very intentional mission of the church.

When it’s rainy, I have to grab a stack of newspapers to line my bed and soak up the pooling water.

So my car-camping excursion is the closest thing I could manage (thus far) to parallel the nomadic, transitory lifestyle that comes with homelessness, and it’s been giving me a couple of insights into the issues that plague those friends on the street.

The Old Normal

In ‘normal’ life, I don’t often need to take the basic necessities of life into account. I don’t need to strategize my bathroom visits (or showers for that matter), feeling obligated to purchase some random food item at some nameless fast-food joint just to use their facilities. And I don’t need to map out the free places around town to do the same, whether it’s the library, mall or city park.

I don’t need to think about the weather’s very direct effect on my daily and nightly routines. I don’t need to worry whether my coat will repel the falling rain for hours on end, or if my shoes will do the same. I don’t need to worry about grabbing a stack of free newspapers to put in my truck before I go to bed, since they work best to soak up the water that pools in the back when rain falls.

I don’t need to wrack my brain for pursuits to fill my time. When all else fails, the TV remote is always an arm’s reach away.

For the past few weeks, however, I have not enjoyed the normal luxuries of life. And truth be told, it’s become burdensome.

Day or night, parking enforcement is on the lookout.

The New Normal

While the activities of Sanctuary are many on a weekly basis, I often find that I have hours to kill during the in-between times. Without a place to call my home, with no ‘home base’ to return to,  I sometimes find myself wandering the streets feeling like an aimless drifter, with no one to see, nowhere to be and nothing to do (yes, I do have articles to write, but it can’t be nonstop). I have no location where I can walk through the front door, put my feet up and take a deep sigh of rest and relaxation. There’s a persistent, underlying feeling of restlessness.

And each night, the quest for my own quiet corner begins anew. Yet even then, when I’m bundled up in my sleeping bag in the back of my truck, ready for another night’s sleep, there’s an ever-present sense of guardedness. I must be vigilant. I must be on the lookout for police, shady characters or any number of other possible scenarios. Situational awareness is a constant, and it’s taxing.

My primary mode of transportation throughout the day, and night.

The result is an inherent lethargy much of the time. My mind grows tired from the perpetual vigilance, my steps are often drained of purpose and my stomach is groaning to get filled. I feel weary – mind, body and spirit.

And at night, when the freezing rain is falling and I’m dodging the drips that are dropping and the puddles that are pooling in my leaky truck bed, well, it’s all become quite exasperating.

And then I’m reminded why I’m doing this. And I’m reminded how blessed I am that I’m warm, that I’ve had food that day, that my body is able to carry me around this city, that I have a vehicle to go to and most of all, that this is not home. This experience is temporary, but for so many, it’s a daily existence. Then those days turn into weeks, and the weeks into months and the months into years.

How blessed I truly am!

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Next Steps
    • If you think the homeless are lazy, think again. Every day is a hustle for survival. They’re battling the weather. They’re fending off hunger pangs. They’re struggling against the lethargy that accompanies street life. They’re often enduring discrimination from police and civilians alike. They rarely receive the dignity we all deserve. Ponder the plight of these “friends on the street.”
    • Next time you encounter street folks, don’t walk by them in a hurry. Stop. Look them in the eye. Say hello. Converse. And provide dignity.
    • I really encourage you to buy some seasonal items (socks, gloves, etc.) and go to the downtown location nearest you. Walk the streets. You’ll inevitably find some “friends from the streets.” Use the items to initiate conversation. Make this a routine and build relationships with these folks.
    • Pray for continued wisdom, discernment, patience and safety for those at Sanctuary. Pray for those who are enduring yet another season on the streets.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!

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Comments

  1. Chuck Easton said... 

    Reply

    December 23rd, 2011 at 8:28 am  

    Thanks for reminding me that our folks who walk the streets are not invisible, and deserve my smile and hello.

  2. Jim.M said... 

    Reply

    December 27th, 2011 at 11:30 am  

    “mind grows tired from the perpetual vigilance, my steps are often drained of purpose and my stomach is groaning to get filled. I feel weary – mind, body and spirit”.

    Great job capturing the inevitable bone deep fatigue that sets in in a short time existing on the street. Imagine weeks, months even years in that space minus the truck.

    Look forward to catching up with you if you decide to return.

    Peace.

  3. Steve-O said... 

    Reply

    December 28th, 2011 at 9:43 am  

    Despite my long history of camping outdoors, I really did underestimate the fatiguing effect that extended car camping would have. It’s really a taxing endeavor.
    I can hardly imagine a life on the streets for years on end.

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