HOMELESS: 13 DEATHS LAST YEAR AND A NEAR DEATH LAST WEEK PROMPTS ACTION
VERNON - The story of a man found freezing to death late at night in a Vernon park has served as a wake-up call to the stigmas of homelessness and the lack of supported housing in the city.
Last Friday around 11:20 p.m., police stumbled upon a 35-year-old man sitting in Polson Park without shelter or proper winter clothing. He was heavily intoxicated and slipping from consciousness. Police rushed him to hospital where he was treated for frostbite and hypothermia. Medical staff said he wouldn’t have lived through the night.
The question now is why the man didn’t go to a shelter. The city has two: Gateway on 33 Street across from the Wholesale Club and Howard House on 43 Street. Due to the higher demand for shelter in cold winter months, Gateway offers overflow bedding from November 1 to the end of March for up to ten people.
Kelly Fehr, a shelter manager, says the overflow is well used this season as temperatures dipped well below zero. But even at maximum capacity, Fehr says they’d never turn someone away. While individuals must be clean and sober to stay at Howard House, anyone can stay at Gateway provided no drug or alcohol use occurs on the premises.
But it’s not a simple case of build it and they will come. There can be many factors at play when a person is living on the street. Mental health issues, brain injuries, and emotional trauma can swirl together with addiction, Fehr says.
“The combination of those things can prevent you from making a decision like coming into a shelter or accessing a treatment program,” Fehr says.
Addicts sometimes use whatever they get their hands on—mouthwash, cough syrup, rubbing alcohol.
“When you do that kind of thing for long periods of time it impairs cognitive ability. It can compromise your sense of temperature as well as all sorts of things. Over time it gets worse and worse,” Fehr says.
While the stigma of homelessness and addiction is slowly changing, Fehr says some people are still afraid to seek help.
NO EASY SOLUTIONS
“That may be fear of people knowing they’re homeless. Maybe fear of being judged if they admit to having an addiction,” Fehr says.
Often, individuals are caught in a cycle of homelessness, repeatedly returning to the shelter. There have to be long-term solutions, Fehr says.
“What I find frustrating is in the Okanagan we’re lacking supported housing for people with concurrent disorders. We have people at the shelter over and over again, we see them cycle through. We can set them up with housing for a month then they’ll be back because they don’t have the right skills to maintain that type of housing. The very simple solution is to provide a housing complex with onsite staff to work on life skills and to support these people,” Fehr says. "Until we have that, we're constantly going to be seeing people cycling out of the psych ward, out of jail, out of the shelter, back to jail and so forth."
In 2013, approximately 13 current or former John Howard Society clients died due to overdose, natural causes or homicide, Fehr says. It's a concerning number, one that prompted an inter-agency meeting last month. Shelter workers are relieved the man in Polson Park was found before it was too late.
Gateway case worker Alison Houweling says some people won't come to the shelter if they're not ready to call it a night. If they want to keep drinking or using late into the night, they’ll find somewhere they can do so, such as a park. Gateway accepts people who are intoxicated, but once they’re in, it’s lights out. It’s all about the safety of others in the shelter, and ensuring they get a good night’s rest.
Despite a fluid clientele, Houweling says the shelter workers know the clients and their situations pretty well.
“We’re kind of aware of everybody. They usually show up and when they don’t we get concerned. We can phone the hospital or phone the police. If we know what resources they have—some people have friends they can stay with. For others you can tell something’s up so we’ll phone around to see,” she says.
"I'M SO INCREDIBLY GRATEFUL"
It’s a full house right now at the Gateway shelter. Upstairs in the women’s dorm, clients have painted pictures and decorated the walls. It’s cramped, but it’s cozy. It’s a safe place one woman is eternally grateful for. Lisa Van Bostelen, an occupational therapist, recently found herself in need of a place to sleep, some health care, and a little understanding. With nowhere else to go and all other options exhausted, Van Bostelen made the difficult decision to knock on Gateway’s door.
“What’s unfortunate is this place has a reputation... so anybody wanting to escape and go to a shelter, they’re not going to come because of the judgement of what’s going on here. I was afraid to come,” Van Bostelen says.
But she did, and now she wants to pay the generosity forward. She’s not sure how, but she’s determined to help others, those without a friend or a place to sleep.
“I’m so incredibly grateful. Everybody should have a place to go, even if they’re... drunk or stoned. Nobody should have to be out there to die and be tossed to the side. It's a horrible feeling to be judged.”
“I think there’s something really wrong. People are suffering and it shouldn’t be this way.”
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.
— CORRECTION: This story was edited at 5:34 p.m. February 5 to correct that overflow beds are provided at the Gateway shelter, not Howard House.