Ernest McPherson rarely sleeps on a cold winter night.
Instead, the 54-year-old homeless man wanders the streets of Meadow Lake, Sask., 186 miles northwest of Saskatoon, to save himself and others from freezing to death.
During his nightly patrols, McPherson checks on about two dozen people huddled in various locations, such as alleys, derelict buildings, or vehicles.
“I walk around, make sure they stay awake and they stay alive,” McPherson said.
Like many small towns, Meadow Lake, with a population of 5,300, has no homeless shelter or place for vulnerable people to warm up after 4 p.m. or on weekends.
Saskatchewan’s harsh winter has only just begun, but the coroner’s office is already investigating the deaths of two frozen men – one in Saskatoon and another in Prince Albert.
‘There is nowhere in the world for them’
On a recent patrol, McPherson bought soup from 7-Eleven for a young woman who was shivering without a coat.
Then in an alley he collided with an old car that was half covered in snow.
“Anybody here?” he screamed. In the end, no one was inside, but there was leftover food, sheets, and a black garbage bag full of clothes.
“It’s like there’s nowhere in the world for them and nobody wants them,” McPherson said. “They are very happy to see me come by, and I am very happy to find them [alive]because it doesn’t take long to freeze here.”
However, there’s only so much McPherson can do to help. Often he wakes someone up, moves him, gives him warm clothes or takes him to 7-Eleven or an ATM for a short respite from the cold.
He feels compelled to watch over others as a ‘guardian angel’ watched over him last winter. He almost froze to death in a -38 C blizzard.
“I lost direction and time…so I sat down and thought I’d rest for a while. I fell asleep,” McPherson said. “I had a guardian angel that night. She came and kicked my foot.”
Seeking refuge in hotel rooms, police cells
Last week, Saskatchewan announced up to $1.7 million in additional funding to increase emergency shelters in larger cities.
“In communities without shelters, or if an emergency shelter is full or does not meet an individual’s needs, residents will be connected to a hotel or other shelter that will provide the support they need,” the government press release said.
At the Door of Hope soup kitchen in Meadow Lake, Natanis Bundschuh doesn’t see hotel room tokens as a real solution.
Bundschuh is the executive director of a nonprofit Christian organization called Meadow Lake Outreach Ministries. It serves about 100 hot lunches a day, distributes free clothing and has a food bank, but its doors are only open Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm.
Bundschuh said she escorted homeless people to the social services office only to refuse them a hotel room — either because hotels were full or because the person had an undefined limit on tokens “maximum.”
“I’ve often had to say to people, ‘Call the RCMP and they’ll put you in a safe, warm place [in the cells]. They feed you, they keep you from being too cold.’ But most people don’t like that because they feel trapped, they feel trapped. For some it is traumatic. Maybe they’ve been in jail.”
Bundschuh said a woman told her McPherson got her out of the cold one night and thawed out.
“She said, ‘I’d be dead if it wasn’t for Ernie,'” Bundschuh said. “She cried.”
Volunteers who have worked with vulnerable clients at Door of Hope for decades say homelessness is on the rise in the northern community for many reasons, including addiction, mental illness, changing social security policies and the rising cost of living.
The situation is so alarming to some that a group of businessmen, church leaders and concerned residents have formed Home Plate, a Meadow Lake homeless coalition to lobby for funding for a shelter. But so far it has run into roadblocks.
“People are dying. And it’s up to us. It has to be addressed,” said Bob Steeg, chairman of Home Plate. He said he is frustrated with all the bureaucracy involved, from building codes and zoning to insurance and financing criteria.
“I highly doubt we’ll see a shelter in six months. We’re struggling to just have a warm-up spot,” Steeg said. “Someone has to say, ‘We’re just going to do it.’ And get it done. And let people survive.”
“In my mind, turn on the heat, throw them a sleeping bag.”
The coalition is convinced that someone will die this winter if it cannot find safe shelter in Meadow Lake for about two dozen chronically homeless people.
Living in ‘an ice chest’
In the short term, the coalition is seeking emergency funding to expand the Door of Hope walk-in hours from eight hours a day, five days a week, to 24/7. That would not create shelter beds, but it would provide people with warmth, supervision and safety 24 hours a day.
In addition, the coalition wants to acquire some of the vacant social rental housing and ultimately secure funding for a building and staff for a homeless shelter.
Ernest McPherson said the only reason no one died last winter is because a group of homeless people, including himself, illegally occupied an empty downtown hotel.
The Métis man, who dives dumpsters to make money recycling, recently scraped together $300 from friends to buy a truck camper even though he doesn’t own a truck.
“There’s a cooler in there now,” he said, standing in the doorway of the RV, which sits on a stand.
While the RV provides a roof over his head, McPherson still has to find money to fuel a propane stove.
He said he will continue to take sneaky naps at the soup kitchen and on a friend’s couch. However, he will not stop wandering the streets at night.
“Until there’s a shelter, I’ll be here and patrol every night.”