A night in a cold tent is not homelessness

Jonathan Riley, Digby Courier jriley@digbycourier.ca
Published on January 30, 2015

DIGBY – As part of a TC Media series on homelessness, I agreed to sleep outside on a winter’s night in downtown Digby to get some insight into the life of people without warm shelter.

It was 8 p.m. and dark when I left the centrally heated offices with a tent and a ground sheet, a foam pad and a winter sleeping bag.

It was -5 ºC and the forecast was calling for -9 but I was more than adequately dressed with wool long johns and a wool sweater and a big fleece hat.

Admittedly my set up was better than most people who find themselves sleeping outside due to lack of housing.

[Where would they go? Stories from Digby's unofficial homeless shelter]

And because I hadn’t been walking around in the weather all day, my clothes were dry which is key to staying warm.

In fact camping in the cold is nothing new to me: I have camped alone in the cold in the most remote corners of Nova Scotia.

None of it: the cold, the solitude, the lack of solid roof, none of it bothers me.

And yet I felt very strange and anxious crawling into my tent in downtown Digby.

The weird part for me was to be outside at night in an urban setting.

What would people say if they saw someone sleeping in a tent? Would the neighbours call the police? Would drunk people or just plain mean people bother me?

Would I be safe?

I heard all the same town noises I have always heard from my apartment: people walking by, dogs barking, people cursing and yelling and yet, because I didn’t belong here, it all seemed louder and closer and more dangerous.

About 1 a.m. I started to notice the cold creeping into my sleeping bag. Only five more hours I told myself.

Just knowing it would end, made it easier for me.

At 1:30 someone was yelling in the street and then a car door slammed and tires spun.

At 4 a.m. when I finally gave in and crawled out to answer nature’s call, I stumbled in the dark and filled my boots with snow.

They never warmed up.

I say never, but I was only out there another two hours.

That it seems to me must be the hardest part of homelessness – not knowing when it will be over. Not knowing when you’ll be safe or when you’ll be asked to move along.


8 p.m. – I carry a pack and a blue tote into alley space behind the Courier offices.

Lay ground sheet on snow, set up tent, insulated floor with foam pad and crawl in with a sleeping bag. -5 ºC with light winds ruffling the tent

8:15 p.m. – All snuggled in and feeling warm (in wool long johns, wool sweater and fleece hat) but weird to be camping in town.

9:45 p.m.  – Voices of people passing near tent but they don’t stop.

10:05 p.m. – Hear a noise I can’t identify like something dragging across snow.

10:30 p.m. – Town is a little quieter, a relief until I realize there are less people around to help me if something happens.

10:34 p.m. – It’s -6 ºC.

10:44 p.m. – On the verge of shivering. That wasn’t the plan. I pull my hat down over my ears and close the sleeping bag right over my head.

11 p.m. – Voices cursing loudly in street nearby..

Midnight – Wind has died out and traffic on street almost nil. Town is too quiet.

12:30 a.m. – Trying to sleep. -6 and no wind but cold is creeping under my skin.

1:15 a.m. – Notice I have reached half way point. Sleep fitfully to 3:30 a.m.

4 a.m. – First diesel engine on fishing boat in harbour revs up. Fully awake and can’t hold it any longer: have to leave tent to urinate. In the dark, accidentally fill boots with snow. My feet will not warm up for rest of the night and I won’t get back to sleep.

4:23 a.m. – First back up alarm on snow clearing equipment makes one short blare.

5:15 a.m. – Feet are like blocks of ice. Counting the minutes until 6 a.m. when the assignment is over and I can leave tent. Shivering.


I tweeted live from the tent and had an interesting conversation with others in Digby and around the province about rural homelessness.

A complete record of my night and the conversation is available on our website.



• Homeless in Sydney - Cape Breton Post

• Guardian reporter seeks shelter - The Guardian

• No home, not sure where to go - The News

• Warm reception on a cold night - Truro Daily News

• Home free - Journal Pioneer

• Homelessness is a lonely street - The Western Star

• Lessons in generosity - The Telegram

• You can't fake homelessness - The Telegram