VERNON - “You’re looking fabulous in the sparkly one,” Jacquie Gebhardt says, smiling at the woman trying on the scarf. “But the cowl will keep you warm.”
Gebhardt’s friendly, girlish demeanour makes us feel like we’re in a women’s department store, not on a Vernon sidewalk. Dressed in a bubble gum pink hoodie displaying the words ‘HOPE Outreach’ Gebhardt pushes a shopping cart filled with bags of gloves, scarves, toothpaste and condoms. It’s a Friday evening, and along with HOPE Outreach coordinator Caitlyn Parkinson, she’s visiting the ladies who will be sleeping outside tonight.
The woman trying on the scarves digs through the bags looking for things that will keep her warm, and also have a bit of style — girls will be girls, after all.
We’re at the Linear Park homeless camp, where people are starting to hunker down for the night. By 6:30 p.m., many are already tucked into their tents. Hearing that HOPE Outreach is here, several women start trickling over to see if there’s anything they could use.
One woman remarks that she’s “running on nothing” and asks if the volunteers have any food.
“We have chocolate,” Parkinson says as the woman’s eyes light up.
Of all the items on supply — from harm reduction kits to tampons — chocolate is the most popular. Wet-Naps are in demand as well — running water isn’t always readily available — but there’s just something about chocolate.
HOPE Outreach started out years ago in Kelowna to support women on the street and this year it expanded to Vernon. Beginning earlier this month, volunteers started making their rounds in the downtown area every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. They’ve been well received. The women they visit are appreciative of the free clothing and other supplies, and seem to genuinely enjoy the interaction as well. Jokes and girl-talk are shared as the bags of donated clothes grow smaller.
As talk often does, the conversation shifts to the weather and how cold it is already.
“I can’t feel my fingers right now,” one woman says.
A few ask if there are any hand warmers — the kind you put in your pockets for a little extra heat. The volunteers don’t have any today, but they’ll try to get some for next time.
Moving on from Linear Park, we walk through the downtown, stopping to drop off supplies along the way. We come to one woman sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, sorting through a pile of belongings spread out on the concrete around her.
“Do you need anything?” Gebhardt asks. “Toothpaste, tampons, harm reduction?”
The woman asks what harm reduction is and when Gebhardt explains that it’s a kit with safe needles she shakes her head and says she doesn’t need anything like that. She does, however, accept some tampons and chocolate — apologizing and saying she’s ashamed while the items are placed in her hands.
With time and regular visits, Parkinson hopes they’ll be able to build trust and relationships with the women. They hope to gather information about “bad dates” to share with women in the sex trade, and provide whatever other support they can — even if it’s just a friendly face.
“We want you to know we’re here for you guys, and here to protect you,” Parkinson tells a woman sitting on a street corner.
Those words go a long way. The actions of women like Parkinson and Gebhardt go even further.
To donate or get involved with HOPE Outreach, click here.
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