March 31st, 2014

Features | February 29th, 2012
Homeless on purpose
How a U1 philosophy student braves the elements, sleeps outside, and keeps an eye on his GPA
Written by Kate McGillivray

Inside one of Shane Dussault’s backpacks is a laptop, a small bag of tools, a bag of electronics, and an ultra-absorbent compressed towel the size of a washcloth. In the other is a kettle, food supplies such as olive oil, fruit, cheese and bread, and a bag of toiletries. His other three possessions are a down mat, a sleeping bag, and a “bivy bag,” which is a large Gore-Tex sack.

Shane is a U1 Philosophy student at McGill, and has been homeless since July. He lives on campus, using its facilities like most of us use different rooms in a house. He eats his meals in student lounges and does push-ups in the library. He showers at the gym and stashes extra socks in convenient hiding spots. He won’t say where – he guards his possessions closely.

He also sleeps outside year round, on campus in the winter and on the mountain in the summer. Again, for his own safety and privacy, he doesn’t disclose where. Every morning, he packs up his gear and begins another typical student day – he walks to class, takes notes on his mini Acer laptop in lecture, and logs long hours in the library to stay on top of his courses. (You can usually find him in Blackader Lauterman, the Art History library in Redpath). At the end of the day, he returns to his spot and sets up again, completing what must be the shortest commute in McGill history. On the weekends, when he visits friends or goes to parties, he’s careful not to drink too much – alcohol slows the blood’s circulation, something Shane can’t risk while sleeping outside in February. And the strangest part? He does it all by choice.

***

When I first heard about Shane, my mind scrolled through the possibilities: this was a political statement, an experiment in asceticism, a pitch for a book deal. Whatever he was doing, I was fairly confident I would react with either irritation or pity. I was shocked, then, to meet Shane in the flesh. He’s tall and bony. He has long, frizzy, brown hair, which he sometimes wears up in a turban made from a silk scarf. His sole outfit consists of a pair of baggy black pants and a black sweater – he looks a bit like a Vietcong guerrilla. Inside, he is often barefoot. He’s also unfailingly friendly, speaking in a soft, slightly Quebec-accented voice. He smiles a lot, an encouraging, wide-eyed, intelligent smile, the kind a teacher might give a pupil working their way through a problem on the board. You probably think he’d have to be a bit daft to sleep outside in the Montreal winter, but, then again, you haven’t heard him explain why he does it.

As it turns out, he has chosen to live outside as a creative solution to a difficult financial problem. Shane receives no financial help from his parents or relatives, with whom he has little contact. Thanks to Quebec’s system of loans and bursaries, his tuition is covered, with a little money left over for books and expenses. The Programme de prêts et bourses, however, does not provide him with enough money to pay for housing. For most people, this is a problem with only one solution – get a job, and use that money to pay for a place to live. Shane, to use the old saw, is not most people.

In the absence of anyone paying his rent for him, Shane would rather live rent free than get a job to pay for an apartment. He briefly considered couch-surfing full-time or purchasing a bus to live in – an idea which was benched because he doesn’t have a drivers’ license – before hitting the streets this past July. And compared to many students, he’s in amazing financial shape. “Depending on how I do the math,” he says, “I could end up with zero debt at the end of university.”

“Housing,” he’s decided, “is more of a luxury good rather than a basic good. As an independent individual without children, at least, you can live very well sleeping outside, even somewhere cold like Montreal.”

***

To make it all work, Shane has put himself through what essentially amounts to a crash course in all-weather camping, accumulating gear and know-how usually reserved for the more dedicated members of the McGill Outdoors Club. Initially, Shane slept in a light, durable weatherproof hammock strung between trees, first in Mont Royal Park, and then on the grounds of a nearby mental hospital. “I am bonded to that hammock,” he says, laughing. But when schoolwork picked up and the temperature began to dip, he moved to campus for convenience and found himself in need of a new system.

Now, he prepares his “nest,” as he calls it, by laying down a waterproof mat stuffed with down, originally built to be used on arctic expeditions. He then climbs into a down sleeping bag, which is tucked inside a bivy bag. Neither wanting to suffocate nor get soaked, Shane has to manage the delicate balance between breathability and impermeability. The combination of sleeping bag and bivy bag is meant to reconcile the two, but Shane admits he hasn’t yet perfected his system. “Past minus 20, I’ve got enough insulation, but at that point sweat kind of freezes up, even inside the bivy bag. There was a weekend when it was minus 25, and that was a bit uncomfortable, just because I didn’t have the right stuff.” He says he could use a balaclava and a more effective bivy bag, but otherwise he’s happy sleeping outside. “Just this morning, I woke up, and I’m in a cocoon. I’m very comfortable.”

Part of what makes Shane’s life possible is that, as of yet, he has experienced almost no trouble with campus security guards. Though he has the right to remain on campus 24 hours a day (all students do), it wouldn’t be particularly hard for them to make his life difficult, rooting out his belongings or waking him in the night. In reality, they are almost invariably kind to him. Before he moved to campus, Shane had only been asked to pack up and leave a sleep spot once, while sleeping on the grounds of a private mental hospital not far from McGill. The encounter ended in a friendly discussion of survivalist camping methods with a curious guard.

Since moving to his spot on campus, no one has bothered him – although he has been caught several times committing the cardinal library sin – sneaking in a snack. “There are probably not many students who speak to the security guards as much as I do,” he says. One security guard, after inadvertently stumbling upon one of his caches of school supplies, went as far as to compliment his hiding spot. Janitors have also proven to be allies. “One janitor gave me some tips on how to better hide my stuff. And he gave me a tip, though I don’t need it, about some heating vents up the hill, so if I wasn’t well prepared for the winter, it would be a good space to go [sleep].”

Students have been surprisingly kind to him, too. “There’s a large proportion of people who don’t fit the McGill stereotype,” he says. “Even people who do fit the McGill stereotype – people from Outremont or Westmount – are very nice. I don’t tend to see the world in terms of hard divisions. I think most people are tolerant and good-natured.”

Sometimes students will inquire after his safety and offer him places to stay. Shane recently returned to his sleeping spot to find a gift certificate to a grocery store, along with a small bundle of food.

As a Montreal native, he also has a group of friends looking out for him, many of whom leave their doors unlocked with an open invitation to drop in whenever he wants. “In one sense I have many homes,” he says. “Someone who just arrived in Montreal, who doesn’t have a network of people, it would be hard to manage that. I have very good friends.”

There are more challenging parts to living homeless on campus. In order to be functional, Shane must live with an almost militaristic efficiency, carefully planning out his day to make sure he has everything he needs with him. He can’t wander over to the fridge when his stomach grumbles – he needs to visit his hidden bag of food when hunger hits, and often it’s a few buildings away.

Since July, he’s refined his system substantially, paring down his possessions to the absolute bare minimum. Now, he lives more or less out of a two backpacks. He wears the same shirt every day, a warm black wool sweater, which he washes in bathroom sinks. “I would do my washing more often,” he explains, “but the security guards don’t like it when I dry my clothes in the library.” He later messages me: “As a kid, I remember being worried about what ppl would think if I wore the same clothes two days in a row. I now see it as fur rather than clothes.”

He is also well aware that he is almost never alone, whether in McGill buildings or at the homes of friends. He doesn’t let it bother him too much, though, instead preferring to go about his business as if he had the privacy he lacks. “I don’t mind standing out a little,” he says, “and that’s one of the things you need to do to feel at home when you’re not at home. I sing in the hallways.”

One of the hardest things to grasp when describing Shane’s homelessness for the first time is that he’s doing just fine. He’s not a victim, or freezing to death, or in danger at every moment. In fact, he’s only felt unsafe a couple of times since July, after hearing strange sounds while sleeping in his hammock on the mountain. To ensure his own safety, he’s done his research and assessed risks as best as he can, refining his systems as he goes. His rosy worldview seems to insulate him from the things that go bump in the night, and he sleeps peacefully. He jokes about the threats he faced when he lived on the mountain: “Maybe a highly motivated serial killer… I mean, it wouldn’t be the psychotic type. Perhaps the mission-oriented type.”

***

Everyone needs four walls and a roof to live a comfortable and dignified life – this is taken for granted by most people in the developed world. Shane isn’t one of them. “Once you strip down the home,” he says, “it’s not a source of warmth, because you can be warm sleeping in a sleeping bag. It’s not a source of food, because you can eat food elsewhere. Strip it down, and what’s left is a place where you can put everything together, and you can shift from thing to thing with ease.” Though he may miss the simplicity of combining activities – of, say, hopping in the shower while a kettle boils, or grabbing a catnap between chapters of a book – Shane thinks he has everything he needs.

But he has no illusions about the challenges faced by many others who find themselves without a home. For those struggling with addiction or mental health issues, young people who have been kicked out or are fleeing an abusive home life, or children and the elderly, doing what Shane does is neither desired nor possible. It is for these people, those who want desperately to come in from the cold, that our government has an infrastructure of shelters, subsidized housing, foster care, and job training programs.

Still, not everyone falls into this category. “There’s a lot of homeless people who don’t want housing and all that it implicates – which means working to pay your rent,” Shane tells me. “The government should make it easier to be homeless. Montreal has a lot of space. You could have homeless people sleeping in the warm if there was just a bit of basic infrastructure and guides teaching them how to do it.”

Shane may be just the man for the job. Right now he’s planning to write an all-season guide for sleeping outside, and publish it on his personal website, www.policycraft.com.

Shane doesn’t plan on staying homeless forever. A minibus, then eventually a house or an apartment – he wants to settle down one day and raise a family. He also hopes to work in philosophy, writing and teaching.

But for now, he’s happy where he is. He recalls a morning this past October, while he was sleeping on the grounds of the mental hospital – one of the many moments that have convinced him he’s on the right track. “I could see the skyscrapers… It was a really beautiful spot – you see the pink come up in the morning. In a hammock you get to wake up with the sun.”

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