It is often unimaginable hardships that have landed the homeless on the streets. Human beings in need, all of whom have a story to tell and it often involves tragic circumstances.
LIVING ON THE STREETS IS TOUGH AND SOME PEOPLE DO NOT SURVIVE, YET IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT MANY PEOPLE ARE ONLY TWO OR THREE PAYCHECKS AWAY FROM BECOMING HOMELESS.
In many cases, this is exactly what has happened…a rent increase, the loss of a job, mental illness or substance misuse are just some of the factors that result in homelessness.
One of the biggest factors the homeless face is the severity of the challenges they experience. Many are seemingly simple things, but when you’re living on the streets, everyday issues can seem insurmountable. That is especially true when winter arrives and the temperatures drop below freezing. While there are some wonderful organizations and individuals in the Okanagan working hard to help make the lives of the homeless less difficult, there are still many people who do not have a place to go during the cold winter nights.
Deanna Cowens has lived on the streets of Kelowna for the past two years, with her now, ex-husband. After two recent hip surgeries, she feels severe pain when the cold weather settles in. Deanna is also known as Mom on the streets, and her ex-husband is Dad.
“We couldn’t find any affordable housing here,” she says. “I slept outside with my husband because the shelters wouldn’t let us sleep together.”
While she has previously worked as a bartender, waitress and in a large store, she says her hip pain is too strong to do that now. Crystal meth and heroin are Deanna’s drugs of choice. She says, “The heroin helps with the pain”.
As with many people on the streets, she comes from a very poor and troubled background, which snowballed into who and where she is today, living often in a tent in the downtown core. “I am afraid of fentanyl,” she admits. “I became an addict when I became homeless and lost jobs. You face death when you hit the streets. Mental illness is a big problem and there isn’t enough help for any of us.”
“The stigma surrounding homelessness and drug use is highly visible”, says Deanna, “but look beyond the surface and you’ll find an abundance of the very same human characteristics we all have.
Loyalty, camaraderie and love are a big part of our small community”, adding “we get the odd bad guy, but mostly people deal with their lives with a good sense of humor. If you don’t keep a sense of humor, there’s nothing left.”
Deanna estimates that almost 100 people live outside in her downtown community and as ‘Mom’ of her fellow street dwellers, she keeps pretty close tabs on them. “I’ve buried around 25 people in the last two years,” said Deanna, adding that ninety-nine percent of the people she meets on the streets look out for each other and some, she says, actually ‘make it out of here.’
“We need covered places where we can go,” says Deanna. “If people are donating clothing, we need socks and underwear, gloves and foot warmers. And we always need personal grooming stuff.”
Basic needs such as food and shelter are, for the most part, being partially
met by a group of dedicated organizations and volunteers.
Depending where a person is, though, finding a bathroom or shower area they can use is tough. Many carry their belongings in buggies, which will be stolen if left alone.
At Kelowna Gospel Mission, they have a storage area for the belongings of the homeless, but more space is sorely needed.
Other basics, such as electrical outlets, are nowhere to be found.
Kelowna Gospel Mission is amongst the most well-known shelter for the homeless, with 90 beds including 14 for women. Sonja Menyes, who looks after volunteers, information tours and training, says “some people end up staying at the Gospel Mission for eight months or more because there’s nowhere else to go.”
“We have lots of services people may not know about. We have a dental clinic, thrift store, 24 storage sheds, a barber shop, foot care, flu shots, a courtyard for people to gather, toilets and showers,” she says. “A large group of volunteers also help serve three meals a day to anyone who is hungry. That often reaches five or six hundred meals a day.”
Kelowna Gospel Mission is a dry facility. Many of the people who cannot secure a bed there are left on the streets, dealing with drug misuse and mental health issues during cold winter nights.
Sonja says, “We are always in need of clothing like sleepwear, mittens, blankets, coats, toiletries and long johns.”
“Housing is the key for all of these people,” says Sonja. “People don’t want the homeless as their neighbours. But if they can find a home and you get to know these people outside of their addiction, many are very special people.”
Another group of women who are making a hugedifference on the streets of Kelowna and Vernon work with the H.O.P.E Outreach program.
Seven nights a week, these trained volunteer women reach out to assist women living on the streets.
They also ensure that women have clean needles and access to Naloxone kits.
Executive Director Kathleen MacKinnon says,"Women who live on the streets suffer the most violence and the most challenges. The safety issues are huge. We know these women individually and are in regular contact with them. That's how we keep track of people if they go missing. In order to create a safe space, we must listen to people. Chocolate is a great conversation opener...we carry it and give it out regularly!"
“I just got eight boxes of blankets, toques and gloves
today from a friend in Texas,” Pam says.
“You just have to ask, and many people respond.”
Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) is a network of Canadian families whose loved ones died from drug related harms or who have struggled with substance use. MSTH members, Helen Jennens and Pam Turgeon, are helping head the group in collecting blankets and clothing again this year.
Helen appeals to the community, “While solutions for homelessness are complex and long term, a small dose of compassion from the more fortunate members of the community goes a long way. There are many organizations throughout the Okanagan who would love your help making this winter a little warmer, more comfortable and humane.”
Arlene Howe from MSTH and her colleagues assist in securing items that women need most during the cold winter months on the streets.
Arlene adds “Regardless of the reason people live on the streets, whether through trauma, mental health issues, bad luck or addiction…it doesn’t matter. It isn’t our job to judge. We do not know these women’s personal stories and we do co-exist in the community.
All people deserve kindness, empathy, compassion and care…