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Winter in the Downtown East Side

A young woman stood under the awning of a darkened store, holding a needle close to her wrist. Her red jacket hung open and she staggered a little in the grey slush pooling at her feet. Meters away, two men scattered yellowish salt on the sidewalk in front of the tall gate marking the entrance to a Chinese temple on Hastings Street.

The snow had been falling in Vancouver and the stretch of Hastings that intersects with Main seemed quieter than usual. The crowds ebbed and flowed. People gathered in front of Carnegie Community Centre, chatting and stamping their feet, and then dispersed.

Across the road, a man stood outside the Empress Hotel's street-level bar, taking short drags on a cigarette. His silvery hair was gathered in a pony tail, covered by a touque.

"How's everyone doing in the neighbourhood?" I asked.  He smiled, his thin, freckled skin stretching across his face. "Good, we're good."

"There are lots of drop-in places open during the day and shelters at night," he said. "Everybody knows something and we all tell each other where to go. As long as you're a good person, then people will treat you well."

Our breath rose in clouds along with the cigarette smoke. We stepped aside periodically as people passed in and out of the doors of the bar.

I walked towards Main and turned right, past the central police station, past a tiny grocery store with baskets of brightly coloured carrots, squash and eggplants.

A woman sat on the ground beside a building, shielding herself with a black umbrella covered in melting, white snowflakes.

Outside St. Paul's Parish, people bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and hats lined up along the sidewalk.  They stood quietly in the still, sharp air, waiting for the kitchen to open. Two men - immigrants from Central and Southern America - spoke to one another in Spanish. They paused as I asked if there were enough shelters, enough places to go to get out of the cold.

Luis and Edgar, both of whom said they had housing, were in agreement that there were enough services for people in the neighbourhood. Their only complaint was how early some of the shelters were asking people to leave in the morning. "Six in the morning is too early. It's cold and dark," Luis said.

"But, you know, I would almost say that we are spoiled down here," he added.

The line moved and Luis and Edgar went along with it, very close now to a hot meal. They waved goodbye, smiling and laughing. "At least it's not raining," an older man said, good-naturedly. The man standing next to him, snowflakes caught in his long, silky brown hair, grinned silently.

As I neared the entrance of the building I turned to leave and a woman called out to me. I stopped and walked over. I'm a reporter, I explained. What did she think about the housing situation?

There needs to be more housing for people with mental and physical disabilities, she said. "Many a time, I've seen people shaking because they are so cold."

Her boyfriend returned from the kitchen holding soup and a sandwich for her. She balanced her food in one hand and held onto the railing for support, as she walked down the stairs to leave.

I left too, but in the opposite direction, toward Oppenheimer Park where a thin layer of snow covered the grass. Footprints marked the journeys of the few who had ventured onto the field. A flock of pigeons milled about, seemingly undeterred by the icy ground cover.

It wasn't until I was on my own, away from conversation, that I realized how cold I was. I went in search of coffee and warmth.

As I sat by the window in a cafe, looking out on the grey and wintery streets, a man entered, holding an upturned baseball cap in his hand.

"Get out. You're not supposed to be in here." The voice jolted me out of a reverie.

The man said nothing, but turned and headed back to the street.

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