Remember the Homeless this Christmas

December 6th, 2011

Groups make a real and lasting difference to homeless people

By Peter Simpson

Vancouver Sun

December 3, 2011

Brrrr, we’re officially 20 days from winter, God’s cruel joke on Canada. With the temperature steadily dropping, my lovely wife’s frugal and conservationist nature is becoming more apparent.

Painfully predictable is her response to my endless grumbling about the house being too darned chilly and her steadfast reluctance to crank up the thermostat: “Put on a sweater if you’re cold.”

I despise cold weather. One reason I moved from Toronto to Lotus-Land by-the-Sea 18 years ago was to escape trudging through deep snow, scraping thick ice off windshields and wearing goofy toques.

When I examine the three paragraphs I just wrote, I realize how trivial my concerns are compared to the challenges of homeless men and women who don’t have the luxury of adjusting a thermostat.

It breaks my heart when I read a Vancouver Sun story on the plight of cold, wet and hungry people who are turned away from extreme weather shelters because there are no beds. BC Housing and community organizations are doing admirable jobs addressing this issue.

When my thoughts drift to the issue of homelessness, two images are vivid.

One, my kid brother lived by his wits on the streets of Toronto for 30 years, on and off. Mark died two years ago, a predictable victim of the destructive demons that possessed him – from alcoholism to substance abuse and from conning anyone within earshot to stealing anything within arm’s reach.

Although he marched to the heavy beat of his own drummer, he was a gentle man. I miss him.

Two, a few years ago, during nasty weather conditions, I drove past a well-known mattress store where the interior was lit up like a Christmas tree. Outside, under the covered doorway, were two people, asleep in fetal positions. I didn’t need a camera to capture the image. The stark contrast between comfy pillow-top mattresses and the rigours of homelessness is forever embedded in my mind.

The Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, of which I am a founding board member, recently announced the recipients of its 2011 annual grants. Nearly $200,000 was awarded to nine Surrey-based agencies to support individual projects that will provide solutions to homelessness.

The annual grants are provided from a fund established by Surrey in 2007. Surrey was the first municipality in B.C. to establish a fund dedicated to homelessness and housing. Nearly $1.65 million of the $10 million fund has been granted during the past four years.

There is no shortage of media reports on what needs to be done to address homelessness, yet there seems to be little interest in the success stories. Not one media organization attended the Surrey presentation. Too bad, because they missed an opportunity to speak with a young woman and young man who both conquered their demons and now live clean, healthy and productive lives.

Shelley, 37, grew up in foster homes. She was popular, pretty, skilled in sports and a good student. She was out of foster care at 16, then began her slide. She waitressed and danced on the side for easy money. Anything to earn a living, and feed her habit. She liked the lifestyle, until it started to take her down. Shelley lived on the streets of Surrey and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for 17 years.

Thanks to South Fraser Community Services, Shelley now has a safe home of her own. Although it is a small place, it is a big deal to her. The following are Shelley’s own enthusiastically expressed words, unedited so you can experience the passion she feels for this significant milestone.

“This first place I got, it was my own. I got my furniture together, I got my pots and pans, I did the shopping. It was weird, you know, having the key in my wallet, like, that’s huge. That’s my first key to my own house, with my own stuff. My bathroom toiletries, my clothing, everything. My pictures. I have my family wall up there, and I have some artwork that people gave me. I have my TV, and my own food, my own cooking ware, my own little clock, you know, it’s huge, right. I never had this before. I always lived in a hole in the wall where I did my dope and stuff, but today it’s where I go to bed, and where I wake up, and I don’t have to worry any more, right. I don’t have to worry.”

Shelley is now enrolled in school, is free from addictions and is hopeful for a bright future.

Lindsy, in his mid-30s, has spent nearly half his life on the streets, although he said he would sometimes manage to keep a roof over his head. Lindsy voluntarily placed himself in a recovery facility.

He is now employed, maintains his own apartment and is proud to say he is clean and sober.

Shelley and Lindsy believe that sharing their experiences will help others deal with their challenges.

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts stresses the solution to homelessness is longterm, supportive and sustainable housing.

“Since 2009, together with our community partners, we have taken more than 350 people off the street and into housing with the supports they need. Together, we are helping people build healthy, financially independent lives,” she said.

For example, a $30,000 grant was awarded to Sources Community Resources Society’s Surrey Rent Bank, a program that prevents and reduces homelessness for low-income individuals and families by providing loans for rent, security deposits and utilities arrears, and financial literacy workshops.

Other grant recipients included the Elizabeth Fry Society of Greater Vancouver, Launching Pad Addiction Rehabilitation Society, Surrey Urban Mission, Lu’ma Native Housing Society, Options Community Services Society, and the Peace Arch Free Dental Clinic.

Please consider contributing to organizations that help to make a positive impact on the lives of men, women and children throughout the year. Many of those folks work tirelessly with limited resources.

Peter Simpson is the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association. Email peter@gvhba.org

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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Where to help the homeless: http://surreyhomelessnessandhousing.org/donate/