This holiday season, I’ve found myself overwhelmed – far more than at any time in my life I can recall – with gratitude for the life I have and the people in it. I have a wonderful, healthy family, a warm home, an interesting and stable job and few worries in these crazy economic times aside from the rising price of food, paying the bills on time and how to ride my bike in the snow. I am incredibly fortunate.

Vancouver is in the midst of a long and harsh cold snap, made worse by the dampness of the coastal air and stiff winds – both of which I hesitate to comment on knowing most Canadians will label me a wimpy West Coaster, but as a transplanted Albertan, I can tell you it feels like minus 25 in Lethbridge around here.

Vancouver has a huge homeless population, formal counts put the number at around 3500, but anecdotal estimates from people who work with the homeless and know the people out there say it could be as high as 5000. I have not been able to stop thinking of our homeless brothers and sisters this past frigid week, wondering how they’re doing, whether they are taking advantage of more shelter beds open due to the emergency measures that kick in when the mercury drops, braving the bedbugs and lack of privacy and rules to keep from freezing to death.

I am struck, once again, by the question of what I can do for them. What do they need that a single person or family could provide aside from a room and three square meals? My home is tiny, we are comfortable, but packed pretty tightly with no space left, literally not even for a sleeping bag on the floor. And I ask myself: really, would I open my home to a homeless stranger, someone with any possible combination of a mental health diagnosis, drug or alcohol addiction, criminal record? Am I a complete hypocrite? A fair weather aider of men, only moved to assist under the right conditions for someone I deem safe or worthy?

I decided to give away a warm down vest I had, a couple of years old but in excellent condition and sure to offer an extra layer of insulation to someone, even if they slept indoors at night, who might be forced to be outside all day long in this sub-zero weather. For fours days, I drove around the parts of my neighborhood I knew I would normally find the regulars, those I see on my daily trips to the grocery store, the bank, the coffee shop.

Initially, I thought I would find someone familiar to me and give it to them, my mind’s eye envisioned a man and I rationalized that giving something with high street value might put a woman at greater risk for theft or worse. This caused me deeper exploration and I felt sick that even a gift could unleash the forces of misogyny. The more I thought about who to give my vest to, the more disgusted at my unconscious mental list of qualifications I became.

I stopped trolling the Main Street area and headed to the Downtown Eastside, the area of greatest need and target of the greatest judgment. I searched the low track prostitute strolls in the early morning, knowing these women were freezing – but I found none. Adjusting my goal, I began to look for anyone who seemed needy, but I saw no one on the streets, though it was now past nine. I began to feel foolish, my little vest so pathetic, my so-called gift so insignificant and useless to deal with this far-reaching problem of poverty in our city.

I wish I had a poignant ending to share, but I don’t. Tonight, it’s going down to -12, with a wind chill of -19. and I will find some shivering soul to make use of my vest before nightfall, because they can’t all be in shelters, they’re out there, freezing. And I’ll make a plan to do more.

Note: two hours after I posted this, I heard that a homeless woman had died early this morning on the streets of Vancouver, her small makeshift shelter set alight in her attempts to maintain a small campfire to stay warm.