June 06, 2014 - 4:30 PM
VERNON - This past winter, Chuck Harper drove past a pair of homeless men he knew well from his work at the local shelter. He was aware of their addictions and health troubles. Having panhandled on the streets of Vernon when he was 16, he didn’t judge or look down on them— he called them friends.
He looked over at his wife and wondered aloud: “Which one of those guys will be the next to die?”
The following week, he learned one fell down a flight of stairs at Gateway shelter and died, bringing the number of Vernon street deaths in the last year to 14. The causes included overdoses, health problems, suicides and murder.
“I knew all these individuals. The last guy, it wrecked me,” Harper, a chaplain and residential worker at the John Howard Society says. “I’ve seen far too many people die.”
He calls the circumstance a “God moment.” He knew he needed to do something to represent the homeless in his city, show respect for the fallen, raise awareness and help prevent the next death. The dream became a homeless memorial in Polson Park, where two homeless men died last year.
“We proposed Polson Park because one, it’s public access and this is where a lot of our homeless and disenfranchised people hang out. It’s a public place to remember friends or family that have been lost. And two, it promotes awareness and education. It will be a place for discussions.”
Harper, along with representatives from the Upper Room Mission, Salvation Army, Social Planning Council and First Nations Friendship Centre, is bringing the idea to Vernon city councillors Monday. The project would require no financial contribution from the city, only its permission to install the monument in the gardens at the park.
If council supports the concept, Harper hopes to have the monument installed by October, in time for Homeless Awareness Week. The memorial would feature a plaque mounted on a boulder near the gazebo in Polson Park.
“Unfortunately, we’ll lose more people this year, that’s just the way it works. To have an annual memorial where all the stakeholders can gather together, remember the lives that have been lost, and really advocate on their behalf for the things we need—affordable housing, health care, so we can get our people off the streets. Homelessness is preventable,” he says.
He says 14 homeless deaths in the past year is higher than normal. The John Howard Society called it a “difficult, tragic year” and brought local agencies together in a community meeting to learn from what happened.
Harper dreads the next friend he will lose. He’s spent a 30-year career saying goodbye to people. But there have been success stories too. He was one of them.
“I’m very thankful I found the peace that got me off the road I was traveling,” he says. “But as long as people are dealing with addiction, mental illness and compromised health, and not being taken care of, we’re going to lose more people.”
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2014