Just one story from the Cariboo streets
Reprinted from "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), pp. 16-17
My day usually starts with bringing coffee to the people who gather behind Lake City Ford, a common meeting area with benches that overlooks the stampede grounds. The number of people varies from day to day, ranging from three to eight people. Most are of First Nation ancestry from surrounding communities.
If people are there, it usually means that they’ve slept outside under bleachers at the baseball fields or under the overpass on Highway 97. Most of the them are older and have homes in the surrounding communities, but they come here to socialize, as not many people visit them when they’re at home.
A few of them are truly homeless. They come to have coffee with the others, and to get in touch with me, because they know I’ll be there. And I’d say that 75% of my clients are First Nation.
Some of the homeless people have been outside for more than three months. They were living in camps under the juniper bushes that used to dot the stampede grounds—until someone decided they shouldn’t be there and complained to the city council. The City then had workers cut down some of the trees and take the people’s belongings to the dump. This happened just before I got my position as the outreach worker.
Cowboy Dave—a few new starts
The first person that I helped was one of the people who had a camp under a juniper and had returned to find the tree cut down and all his belongings gone. I found him a place to live and by the afternoon he had keys to his new home. Then I got him into the social assistance office.
Life slowly started to change for Cowboy Dave (a nickname that I started to call him). After being in his new place for a couple of weeks he approached me to ask for help to get into detox. It took seven days to get him a place in Kamloops. The bad news is, when he returned from Kamloops his friends had a party to celebrate—and got him evicted. This is a fairly common thing that happens when people come back from detox, and sometimes even when they return from treatment centres.
So we started over. This time Cowboy Dave found a place on his own, and I helped him move his belongings to his new residence. Once settled, he started talking to me about going back to work on one of the local ranches. He got a job and for a few weeks I didn’t see him—until he came back to town with a broken wrist. He broke it when he got bucked off his horse. Just plain bad luck. Not being able to work, he started to slowly drift back to the streets and same old habits.
Cowboy Dave then decided to move back to his reserve, which is about a 40-minute drive from town. He decided that was the easiest way to stay off the streets and stay away from his friends.
It’s been six months now since Dave went back to his reserve. I still see him every now and then, when he comes in and does his shopping. He always has a smile on his face, and we sometimes go for coffee.
He still goes on a binge every now and then, but nothing like it was before, when it was an everyday thing. He now has a girlfriend in town and sometimes stays with her, but is sober when I see him. He also quite often checks on some of the Elders that he used to hang around with, to make sure they’re okay, which I think is pretty cool.
I believe Cowboy Dave just got sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Finding housing takes a lot of luck
Things are not easy on our streets Not that they’re easier anywhere else, but our winters are pretty cold. The Cariboo Friendship Society shelter has been running at full capacity (35) for the past year and there is nowhere else to go.
Williams Lake has a zero vacancy and most landlords are now running ads that say they prefer working people. The average rent has increased by $250 in the two years since August 2006. A three-bedroom house that would have rented for $850 then, now, in September 2008, rents for up to $1,500. Single people on income assistance cannot afford to live in our city.
The homeless count in our city is in the seventies when you count the number of people who are couch surfing from place to place, or the number of families that live together because they can’t afford to live on their own. We also have one landlord who owns 75% of the apartments in our city, so that when he evicts someone, it makes it very hard for them to find somewhere else to live.
I feel helpless when I have no solutions for many of my clients. But I still get lucky and find places for some of them. When that happens it makes it all worthwhile.
About the author
Wayne works as the Homeless Outreach Advocate for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Williams Lake. Before joining CMHA, Wayne worked as a life skills coach for the Cariboo Chilcotin Métis Association, where he also ran a daily lunch program for street people