August 22, 2016 - 9:00 PM
VERNON - Ryan opens his backpack and, excited to show his girlfriend Chantelle the surprise, reveals a plastic bag laden with ripe Okanagan plums.
A co-worker at his new job picked them that morning, and Ryan Dubois was among the first to accept the ‘take as many as you want’ offer. The plums will supplement what he and Chantelle get from the food bank, and besides, "you can’t say no to fresh fruit” as Ryan says.
The 24-year-old bites into a plum and puts the rest down on a coffee table outside the tent where he and Chantelle Warner, 25, are currently living. Faced just a month ago with life on the streets, they are grateful for both the food and the shelter — especially with a baby on the way.
The tent is not set up at a campground, but rather on a social worker’s lawn on the outskirts of Vernon. It’s a big tent that could probably fit a dozen campers in it, but here it’s just Ryan and Chantelle, their full-sized bed, and numerous boxes of donated baby supplies.
Ryan, originally from Prince George, and Chantelle, from Alberta, met about eight months ago in Vernon. Ryan has been homeless before, couch surfing for the most part, but was house-sitting for a friend in Vernon when he met Chantelle.
Ryan doesn’t go into much detail, but says around the middle of July, there was an altercation at the apartment, and he and Chantelle ended up leaving. The problem was they had nowhere else to go, no jobs, and no money. Plus, there was the baby to think about.
“There was no way I was going to a homeless shelter,” Ryan says. “I know how it works in shelters, one is men’s and one is women’s. I didn’t want to be separated from Chantelle and she didn’t want to be separated from me.”
They looked at a few rental listings but there was no way they could afford any of them. Desperate, Ryan approached the First Nations Friendship Centre in Vernon. Youth manager Barry McDougall helped them out with money for a campsite for a week, and then he introduced them to a local social worker named Midge Smith. She invited them to camp in her yard, for free, while they got back on their feet.
“Chantelle thought it was wild and crazy, what the hell are we doing, but we knew Barry wouldn’t take us to some place that wasn’t safe. We’ve been here ever since,” Ryan says.
It’s not the first time Midge has offered up her lawn to people with nowhere else to go.
“Both Barry and I are extremely aware of the housing situation in Vernon and the crisis for youth. We’ve had conversations about affordable housing and coming up with creative ways to alleviate that,” she says.
She estimates that every month, she sees at least one individual in a housing crisis. Barry McDougall, at the friendship centre, says he’s forced to turn away roughly two young people every week from the subsidized Kekuli Apartments because the demand is so high.
Outreach workers in Vernon continue to speak out about the dire need for affordable housing and the crisis it’s putting people in. Rental reports suggest apartments are becoming more expensive, and harder to find. A recent homeless census found more people are living outside compared to recent years. Turning people away due to a shortage of affordable housing is a sad reality for outreach workers in the city, but people like Midge are doing what they can when there are no formal options left.
“It’s what I believe we need to do to give back,” Midge says. “Being in social work, I see a lot of individuals that really do just need a little bit of support to get back on the right track, so it makes sense to follow through on that as best we can.”
A TINY CONCEPT WITH A BIG IMPACT
To help reduce the growing problem of youth homelessness in the city, the friendship centre has launched something called the Tiny Home Project. Led by McDougall, the project involves building a number of tiny homes to get young people off the street. Right now, volunteers are working on the first 280-square-foot home, which will be raffled off this fall to raise awareness and generate funds to start building more houses.
People like Ryan and Chantelle are exactly the type of people the project is aiming to help.
In between working and getting ready for the baby, Ryan has even been volunteering at the Tiny Home Project.
“Our long term plan is to have our own tiny home,” Ryan says. “Then I want to get out there and help build tiny homes for other people in our situation.”
He and Chantelle want nothing more than their tiny home and a bit of property to grow their own food and fruit trees and raise some livestock. Ryan hopes to use his experience in construction to make a career out of building tiny homes, and Chantelle wants to go back to school to become a care aide. But without a roof over their head — even if it’s just made of canvas — they couldn’t even begin to dream of their future.
“If we hadn’t have met Midge I don’t even know what kind of situation we’d be in. We’d probably be on the street,” Ryan says.
With a safe place to get back on their feet, Ryan was able to make up some resumes and get a job. He rides his bike to and from work every day, never asking for a ride. As Midge says, the arrangement is a hand up, not a hand out.
With their savings growing, Ryan and Chantelle have applied to B.C. Housing for an affordable rental unit — even though Ryan works more than 60 hours a week, his wage ($12 an hour) alone is not enough to cover the average monthly rent in Vernon, plus food and everything they need for the baby.
Chantelle says she wouldn’t have minded the surprise, but Ryan wanted to know if they were having a boy or a girl. They already have a photo album started with ultrasound images of their Celeste-Marie. One day, they’ll tell her about Midge and how they lived in a tent while Chantelle was pregnant.
“She’s probably going to think we were crazy to do what we had to do to survive,” Ryan says.
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