Skip to content

Out cold: B.C. journalist spends coldest night of the year with the homeless

Life from dusk to dawn in the Comox Valley with a windchill of -18C

On the night of Jan.11, the temperature in the Comox Valley plummeted with windchill reaching up to -18 C. The Vancouver Island region has a severe shortage of shelter options, leaving well above 150 unhoused individuals without a place to stay indoors overnight. Black Press Media reporter Olivier Laurin spent the night outside in an attempt to portray their reality.


8:33 p.m. - Environment Canada issued a severe weather warning.

The notice read: “An arctic front will bring cold air to the region. The combination of cold arctic air and northerly winds of 20 km/h will generate wind chill values near -20 C. Frostbite and hypothermia can occur within minutes. Anyone who is not dressed warmly is at risk.”

Black Press Media arrived at Courtenay’s Connect Warming Centre shortly after 9 p.m. Taija McLuckie, a peer advisor and local advocate for the unhoused, was visibly distraught as she spoke with friends, trying to keep herself warm.

“We heard that someone was overdosing, so we ran over with naloxone… to see if we could assist. When we arrived, he was dead, with no pulse, totally blue, and not breathing,” said McLuckie. “The (EMTs) ended up giving him four shots of Narcan. It took about five minutes to get some gurgling from him. We walked him back (to the Connect Centre) and asked him to stay. We gave him some water and within 20 minutes he was gone.”

Unaware of the young man’s whereabouts, McLuckie dreaded the worst.

“I don’t know if he’ll make it through the night. If he’s alone and if he has the same batch (of dirty) dope with him and he’s alone, he won’t live. It’s f**king sh***y because he is a nice kid. He’s in his mid-20s, maybe early 30s, but I know he’s pretty young.”

9:03 p.m. - Inside the Connect Warming Centre

Entering the Connect Centre, one is welcomed by a humid haze dominated by a mixed scent: urine, grime and unwashed clothes.

Teeming with life, the place was overcrowded. Sitting in a small lounge chair, a tenant explained that the facility, typically accommodating just over 30 people, was now stretched to double its capacity due to the extreme weather.

Despite these conditions, most tenants simply considered themselves fortunate to be indoors.

In this organized chaos, the overall morale remained high. Some were eating plates full of rice and veggies, while others sought warmth by clasping disposable cups filled with steaming hot coffee.

Through all this, staff and volunteering tenants managed to clean the floors and bring out mattresses, transforming the place into a dormitory.

As others readied themselves for bedtime, Jack lingered in the Connect Centre, absorbing every bit of warmth before venturing out into the night.

9:07 p.m. - Jack enjoys a warm cup of coffee at the Connect Centre before venturing outside for the night due to limited shelter space. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

“There are only so many rooms in here so there’s gonna be a lot of people out there. (It’s so cold that even) the blankets are freezing,” he said.

According to the man, this sheltering crisis could be easily remediated.

“There are solutions to these problems and easy ones. The bylaw officers come in and (we need to tear down our camp) at 8 a.m.,” Jack added. “Every week, there have been meetings at the library for over a year. It’s all talk, talk, talk but there’s no solution. I’ve talked to cops, I’ve talked to bylaw officers, I’ve talked to a priest, I’ve talked to nurses, I’ve talked to doctors, and nobody is hearing. No one is actually (willing to) hear and see what’s going on. It’s a form of abuse.

“(Those in power) are putting more problems on top of problems rather than solving them. People’s lives are being jeopardized.”

As Jack left the room, a large beige dog entered, sniffing everything in its path with a cautious curiosity.

“Her name is Harley,” said Joanne, as she knelt behind the dog. “I don’t own a dog myself, but I take care of (my friend’s) dog. It’s too cold for them to be out. There are some other dogs out there living in these conditions, and it’s tough to watch.”

9:11 p.m. - Johanne takes care of her friend’s dog, Harley, inside the Connect Centre minutes before heading out in the cold. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

Despite the harsh reality, Joanne expressed gratitude for the Connect Centre providing shelter for her and Harley.

After spending the past year in the street, the woman explained her journey has been marked by challenges. Despite successfully overcoming her heroin addiction six years ago, the ongoing battle with substance use lingers on.

“Before I had a house and I had everything really. There are many reasons why I’m here right now. One of them is relapsing and I was also in denial for a while, blaming everybody for what happened. I lost my kid two years ago and things went downhill from there, but s**t happens. I need to take responsibility for that, pick myself up, and start again.”

Standing beside her, Jessica also expressed gratitude for the chance to spend the night indoors with her partner Bob.

“My experience at (Connect) is that the staff here is good. Like tonight, they’ll let so many people come in because they actually care so much to help us. This isn’t just a job for them. I feel like they want to be here and help us.”

9:56 p.m. - Jessica poses with her partner, Bob, just moments before they settle into their bunk bed at the Connect Centre. She considers herself fortunate to be sleeping indoors tonight, having lost two friends to hypothermia in the past. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

Yet, Jessica couldn’t shake the looming concern for those enduring a night like this outside. According to her, this lack of sheltering options, causing many to stay outdoors, is a “death sentence.” The issue is all too real for her, having lost two close friends to the cold in recent years.

10:21 p.m. - Heading out

As Jody and Sheldon are heading out to the emergency warming centre located at Courtenay’s Native Sons Hall, they bring along with them garbage bags filled with blankets for those spending the night outside.

On their way, the couple weaved through the alleys of Courtenay’s downtown area, to ensure that those who remained out there could make it through the night.

10:21 a.m. - Sheldon (middle) and Jody, are heading out into the cold to deliver two garbage bags full of clean blankets to the temporary warming centre located at Courtenay’s Native Sons Hall. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

As they slowly walk with the bag of blankets slung over their shoulders, the two share thoughts about the current situation.

“A couple of weeks ago, it was pissing rain (and a couple of us) were trying to stay warm and dry. We had propane and (tarps set up) for everybody coming by because if you can’t make it (inside Connect), there is nowhere to go,” said Sheldon.

“The next morning, the bylaw came by (and threw) all our stuff away, which I didn’t get because (Connect) provides us with tents and then all of a sudden they’re (thrown) in the landfill and then we’re being given more tents. It’s just a stupid cycle.”

“(The bylaw officers) just threw everything out. We had our clothes in there and everything. They just don’t give a ***k,” added Jody.

Sheldon criticized this logic adopted by local authorities, to justify such enforcement.

“Do these guys really think that we want to be addicted to these substances? I don’t want to be an alcoholic. One bylaw officer told me to get a job, but you can’t get a job without a place and you can’t get a place without having a job. We’re just treading water.”

A little before 11 p.m., the duo made their way to the warming centre and delivered their much-awaited goods.

Welcomed by outreach workers, the two sat down at a table and enjoyed a cup of coffee, a hot dog and sweets, offered by the house. Staff at the warming centre refused to let Black Press Media document the situation inside the facility.

3:32 a.m. - John’s singing

Transformed from a bustling hub several hours ago, the downtown area now seems devoid of signs of life.

Yet, through the howling wind, one could hear a faint humming sound, reminiscent of an old Western movie.

At the intersection of 4th Street and Cliffe Avenue, a man wrapped in two blankets was leaning over a garbage bin. Standing alone, with a curbed metal cane resting on his crossed arms, John was singing his favourite Boz Scaggs song: What Can I Say.

“He’s just a regular guy with a sports coat and he was really good-looking. He had the world by the tail and he sang about life and love. That’s what I like about him,” said John when asked about his choice of song.

3:32 a.m. - John leans over a garbage bin at the intersection of 4th Street and Cliffe Avenue. A curved metal cane rests on his crossed arms, serving him both as a walking support and a self-defence tool. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

At 72 years old, John, who has had three open-heart surgeries, crowned himself the oldest unhoused man in the Valley. An entertainer by trade, showcasing unwavering optimism, he explained that life in the streets is not a piece of cake.

“Because of my heart condition and my health, I can’t walk properly. I’m also on heavy-duty meds which are hard to manage. I need to keep the water off my heart because so I have to go to the washroom every 10 minutes,” said John. “I slept out in the cold the night before and it was terrible. We are getting moved everywhere and there’s no place to go. You can’t even settle in a tent or a sleeping bag, so I just put on layers and layers.”

Despite that, John has a nuanced understanding of the ongoing homeless crisis and recognizes that local law enforcement officers are dealing with a thorny situation.

“They don’t know what to do. They really don’t. No one’s moving above them. I am not a genius but I think that to soothe the public, (the authorities) just want to bring the homeless almost to the edge but not go through with it,” said John. “But we’re in desperate need to stop people from dying. I’ve seen so many people die right in front of me.”

3:43 a.m. - Mike’s story

Mike was riding his bicycle down Cliffe Avenue street when he met with Black Press Media. Following a short conversation, the man invited the reporter to the place where he nearly died on Dec. 29, 2020.

Located on the bicycle path behind Courtenay City Hall, Mike stood where things could have ended.

“It snowed all day and we had a fire going to keep us warm. I was dope sick and it was weird because I remember looking at my hand change from white to purple. I got my friend to help me down the stairs because I wanted to go pee,” said Mike. “I fell on my back in the snow. I was so cold that I went in and out of consciousness. I was ready to let go. I felt really good. I was ready to die.

“The last memory I have is someone jumping over me with a knife, cutting off my clothes, and wrapping me up. The next thing I can remember is waking up at the hospital, naked, and covered in a warming blanket. When I looked at my hands, they were all messed up. I started bawling. To this day, I still don’t know who saved me.”

3:43 a.m. - As the Valley experiences one of its coldest Jan. 11 in recorded history, Mike Willington, who has been homeless for the past few years, stands at the very place where, on Dec. 29, 2020, he nearly lost his life to hypothermia. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

Struggling with bipolar disorder and battling with persistent substance use issues, the emaciated man said that these factors significantly complicate the transition from the streets to a more conventional life.

“If I had a room and a locked door so I could sleep in peace, my life would be much better. I don’t even need a bed, just a place to stay. I’m on disability and I would literally give a half of my check away to rent a room.”

A few minutes after sharing his story, Mike headed back to the Tim Horton’s on Cliffe. He wanted to help his friend move his belongings back to the city centre, allowing them both to enjoy a bit of warmth before the warming centre closed its doors at 7 a.m.

6:26 a.m. - Mark’s night out

Nestled beside a garbage bin behind the Tim Horton’s, Mark was breaking down his camp. Among what many would consider a mess were all of his life’s possessions: a guitar, a cheap tent, a propane tank, a burner, a cart filled with stuff, a seatless bicycle to drag everything.

Burdened by all his gear, Mark spent the night outside because he couldn’t make it to the Connect Centre in time. Fearing leaving his belongings at the mercy of thieves and vandals, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon everything.

“My night was long and chilly,” he said. “It was a little bit stressful too because I don’t know where is my girlfriend now. Maybe she’s at the shelter or maybe she stayed outside. The last time I saw her we were by the 7-Eleven.”

Warming up inside the Tim Horton’s, with a coffee in hand offered by a bystander, Mark described the many challenges he faces on the street daily. From quarreling with bylaw officers to constantly moving around, the man shared the same sentiment as many others.

“Housing is the big thing. I can’t establish anything. I’ve been wearing the same clothes now for over a week and everything is wet from the weather. All my stuff started to mould. I’m losing my clothes all the time,” said Mark. “I have nothing else than what I have. Being kicked out by bylaws does not give you time for your clothes to dry. I don’t follow politics, but if they can make a difference, I’d say we need more low-income housing.”

6:41 a.m. - As Mark is heading downtown, he abandons his cart behind him to lighten the load and get to the warming center more rapidly. The only things that the man carries with him are his seatless bicycle and beloved guitar. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record)

7:06 - Closure of the warming centre

Overnight, the warming centre consistently hosted anywhere from 15 to 30 people. By 7 a.m., all tenants were locked out of the facility, facing the coldest temperature of the night to date.

Among the few sticking around is Alan, a tall man in flannel joggers, wrapped in a large blanket.

“I managed to get a few hours of sleep. The place was safe, comfortable, and welcoming. We had food and pyjama bottoms.”

Forced out in the street again, describing the situation as “cruel,” Alan gathered his thoughts as he prepared for the day.

“Now my plan is to get my stuff off the property so we can come here again tonight.”