Event to engage community on homelessness

'We need more solutions, and we need more creative solutions'

In 2009, homeless people were dying in Campbell River.

“That was the red line,” according to Paul Geoghegan, Chair of the Campbell River Homelessness Coalition (CRHC), as well as outreach coordinator at the Campbell River Advocacy Services Centre. “People finally said, ‘It’s not acceptable having people die on the streets in our town.’”

The recommendations that came out of that task force was that a coalition should be formed to add to the homelessness services in town, and when the Vancouver Island Health Authority (now Island Health) put $300,000 into the pot for various communities to use in addressing the issue, the Housing Resource Centre at Campbell River Family Services was formed to add another dimension in the attempts to address the issue.

But the problem persists, because of the stigma surrounding it.

“Homelessness is still one of the most stigmatized areas of our society,” Geoghegan said. There’s a common perception, Geoghegan said, that homeless people choose to be on the street, that they’re out there because they partied too much and went broke or that they just don’t want to work and are living the easy, lazy way. That they’ve done it to themselves.

“That doesn’t represent them,” he said. “Definitely there’s a lot of addiction issues, but there’s a tremendous amount of mental health problems, and there’s a tremendous amount of working poor.”

“Stigmatizing is about making people ‘other,’” Geoghegan said. “If I can put a label on you, then I can ignore you. That has really slowed the progress in addressing this issue.”

Geoghegan said the people he works with as a homelessness outreach coordinator have raised families, some have university degrees and have run businesses and had careers. “Through grief of losing a loved one or a child, through divorce, through physical injury that’s made them unable to work, that’s where they’ve led them to the street.”

It’s not a choice they’ve made. And it’s expensive to ignore them because we think it is.

“It’s $800 to $1,000 per visit to an emergency room, and you have clients that may have been to the emergency room 200 times in a year.”

Unfortunately, Geoghegan said, “With the situation in this town right now, I feel very ineffective sometimes. We have such a housing crunch in this town right now. Back in the day, landlords with a high vacancy rate would entertain giving apartments to folk like some of these homeless people. I understand that they’re running a business and want the best possible tenants,” he said, but that reality is creating a situation where there’s just nowhere for these people to live.

“We have people on the street that, at this point, have absolutely zero hope of getting any kind of market housing,” he said, “so we simply need a solution other than market housing.”

He used the example of recently getting one of his clients into a 13-foot camper. “On some level I feel like, ‘Is a 13-foot camper a home? Do I really want to be involved in housing people that way?’ but at this point, it’s the best available solution for this guy. He’s been circling from the shelter to the street and back, so getting him into a camper is at least a step forward.

“We need more solutions, and we need more creative solutions. Instead of looking at what we can’t do, we need to start thinking about what we can.”

The start of that thinking, Geoghegan hopes, will be the upcoming event being held at the Thunderbird Hall on Saturday in recognition of Homelessness Awareness Week, which Campbell River City Council recently proclaimed to be this week (Oct. 12 to 18).

Ken Cooper, band manager of the Campbell River Indian Band, has been involved in the planning of the event.

“The idea was to have an event that wasn’t a fundraiser, but instead an opportunity for the movers and shakers in Campbell River, the people who know how to access resources and how to utilize them, and get them thinking about it,” he said. “When we’re dealing with the question of homelessness, we really need to start by thinking, ‘What is a home?’”

The event on Oct. 18 at Thunderbird Hall, according to Cooper, invites people to become engaged in that discussion.

“It’s certainly not to lecture or preach at anyone. It’s certainly not to pull on heart strings. It’s to get ideas flowing. It’s an initiating vehicle.”

To add your voice to the homelessness discussion, contact Geoghegan at paul.advocacyservices@shaw.ca