Advocates line Alder Street in front of city hall Thursday afternoon

‘Tent-in’ held at city hall

Mayor says the city is happy to be part of a homelessness solution but province needs to ‘step up’

A group of homeless people and those who advocate for them camped out on city hall lawns Thursday.

They want the mayor and city council to find a permanent solution to homelessness in the community.

Krissandra Rufus, founder of Grassroots Kind Hearts (GKH) – which has been feeding anyone who needs it every week night for just about a year now – says the peaceful protest and “tent-in” is to show solidarity and determination. They want to show the city the problem isn’t going anywhere particularly because the emergency shelter downtown is closed for the season. It was funded through the end of March but was extended to April 4.

“They need to do something about this,” Rufus says, clearly frustrated. “Someone needs to step up, so Grassroots is stepping up and pushing back. They need to know that we’re serious, and we’re not going away, and we’ll keep pushing until things start actually happening. (Mayor) Andy (Adams) says there’s land, and they’ll do the plumbing and stuff, so it needs to get done.

“They’re making it harder than it needs to be. I told (the mayor) that if you don’t want them out there and in the public, then give them a place that they can go 24/7.”

Adams, meanwhile, says council is committed to working with groups who are doing their part to help with the homelessness problem in our city. He also says the city is doing its part, as well, and will continue to lobby provincial and federal governments to do theirs, too.

And he has heard – and shares – their concerns and understands their frustration.

“I think everyone’s frustrated,” Adams says. “Does it need to take as long as it’s taking? No.”

But the delay is certainly not due to a lack of effort by the city, he says.

“Everybody is trying to address the issue,” Adams says, “and as they say, many hands make light work, but the bottom line is while this is a community issue, it’s a provincial responsibility. What the city has done, and will continue to do, is provide land,” he says, as they have done with other projects – Rose Harbour, Habitat for Humanity builds, the new facility for the Campbell River Hospice Society – “we can waive development permit fees, we can do the utility hook-ups – and we’ll eat the cost of that – but the actual building and operating expense? That’s where we need the province to step up.”

An additional wrench in the cogs of getting a permanent facility, Adams says, occurred recently when the province put forth their latest budget, which contained funding for new affordable housing initiatives, “and they were just about to decide where that money was going to go, and the federal government says, ‘we’re going to put a whole bunch of money into it, too,’ so now the province has gone, ‘well, time out. We’re going to see how this fits in with that, and we’ll let you know.’”

Which means the project is in limbo, so to speak. Despite his frustration, however, Adams says he does sympathize somewhat with the predicament other levels of government are in.

Campbell River is only one of many communities across the province – and country – struggling with this issue, Adams says, “and you’ve got the provincial government and the federal government looking at how many villages, towns, cities, bands, are coming to them with their hands out, saying this is what we need,” and there just isn’t the money available to deal with it.

But those currently camped out on the lawns of city hall say they are there because something needs to be done – sooner rather than later. Just because the weather has gotten nicer, doesn’t mean people are okay being on the streets, according to GKH and those supporting them, and it doesn’t mean having members of society without shelter or food suddenly becomes okay.

And so Rufus and company say they will continue to do their part feeding the homeless. They have enough volunteers and resources now to continue, wherever they have to do it. Right now it’s happening on the lawns of city hall, but the John Howard Society has also said they will be letting them use part of their facility on 10th Avenue – beside the Discovery Community Church (formerly Galaxy Theatre) – to work out of from Monday to Thursday, should they need another location, according to GKH spokesperson Dianne Palmer. But that’s only available until the end of April.

“We need some consistency,” Palmer says. “Not all of these people are on the Internet, or on Facebook, obviously, to follow along and know where things are going to be on a given night.”

Nor should they have to, protesters say. The whole point of feeding the homeless is that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, or how much money you have – everyone should get to eat.

“Us younger people can go to the library and use the Internet or whatever,” says 23-year-old Sabrina Dignard, “but the elders aren’t going to be doing that, that’s for sure.”

Dignard has been on the streets of Campbell River, “for about a year and a half now,” she says, and she, too, is looking for some kind of stability – some kind of structure to be put in place so she knows when and where she can turn for help – just as GKH and other groups are.

“Not only do they feed us, but they give us good energy in other ways, too,” Dignard says. “They’re always smiling and making us feel good about ourselves. They don’t judge. They accept everyone and everybody and they show their love and affection and respect. Some places you go to get a meal and you feel embarrassed going in, but that’s not the case with these guys. They care and want to help you do better for yourself, and you can really feel that from them.”

And if those on the streets don’t know where to access these types of services at any given time, “that’s when we have to panhandle for money for food or we don’t eat that day.”

Adams says that’s not a situation anyone wants, and council will continue do its part, “to partner and advocate for potential solutions,” adding that council, “is prepared to contribute when opportunities arise.”

Council is also looking forward to hearing the details expected soon from the provincial and federal governments, about how they will be investing in social housing and “lasting improvements for vulnerable people in our community,” Adams says. “We will continue to advocate for funding support from the province, and we urge residents, groups and businesses to do their part to help as well.”