Grassroots ‘done waiting’ for housing solutions after death

Vigil planned for Dec. 21 ‘to honour those who are gone’

The volunteers of Grassroots Kind Hearts, a volunteer-based initiative to feed dinner to the homeless of Campbell River, say they are “done waiting” for a plan from government to address the problem after the death of one of their friends.

Colin Drake, 24, died after choosing to stay with his partner in the cold rather than being separated to get space in the cold weather shelter downtown, according to Krissandra Rufus, who began the Grassroots Kind Hearts initiative.

Drake was her cousin, and he’s the fourth relative she’s lost in recent years, including her brother.

Yes, he struggled with addictions issues, but by many accounts, “he was very nice,” Rufus says, solemnly, remembering her cousin. “Very respectful.”

“People don’t see behind the scenes until something like this happens,” says Kathy Lance, who has taken on the role of collecting community donations for the group. “They walk around with their blinders on.”

The blinders came off for many, however, when it was reported that a Gibsons man died Nov. 14 while the shelter in his community was closed. He was 56-year-old Harry Paul, and he was found on a park bench while the shelter in Sechelt was closed because it was only receiving funding to be open during “extreme weather.”

After Paul’s death and the public outcry that resulted, Housing Minister Rich Coleman released a statement saying the shelter would be receiving an additional $40,000 to be open every night – regardless of weather conditions – until the end of March.

Even that might not be a solution for Campbell River, however.

The shelter was open and only five of the 16 beds in the shelter were taken the night Drake died on the street.

“They won’t allow couples to stay together when they go to the shelter,” Rufus says. “And that is a big thing, because if they have someone they love that they’re with, they’re going to feel more safe…I know a lot of them stay out there (in the cold) because they can’t be with who they want to be with when they go to the shelter. There needs to be something for couples.”

Paul Mason, program manager for Campbell River Housing Resource Services – a program of Campbell River Family Services Society, who operate the shelter – agrees that the “no couples” issue is a barrier, but that it’s a standard stipulation that is in place at every shelter.

Rufus says some of the people on the street have also been incarcerated in the past or have emotional scars from past-life issues that make them feel unsafe when they’re alone.

“To them, those (shelter spaces) feel like jail cells.”

But the group isn’t pointing fingers or assigning fault. What they are doing is trying to find another solution for those who won’t or can’t make use of the available shelter space.

And they’re in a hurry. The cold is here, and it’s only going to get colder.

“We’ve been looking around at places, and it’s not easy,” Rufus says.

“There’s so much red tape along the way,” Lance says, “and while that’s being dealt with, people are dying.”

Their idea is to secure a house of some kind and call it “Grassroots Kind Hearts Comfy Beginnings,” says Rufus. If the homeless had an address they could call home, the group says, they’d be able to receive the “rental portion” of their assistance – people with no fixed address can’t get support money for rent – which would pay for the ownership and operation of the home.

It won’t be a permanent solution for the individuals who live there, but a “stepping stone,” kind of situation, much like the “halfway house model” used for released inmates who are transitioning back into society.

“We would also like to put in place ways to show them how to live inside, teach them the ropes and how to manage their money,” says Rufus, as well as connecting them to other services within the community – such as mental health services or addictions counselling – to help them get back on track.

Until they can secure a location, however, the group says they will just keep doing what they can to make their friends on the street more comfortable, which means continuing to gather donations of warm clothes and blankets and making sure people are fed, thanks to the generosity of the community.

Mason says he is continuing to work with Grassroots Kind Hearts and anyone else who is concerned about this issue, but it’s a complex problem that won’t be solved overnight.

“We need to keep making positive steps,” Mason says. “It was a tragedy that we lost that young man, and no one’s turning a blind eye to that.

“We need to work towards solutions and work with all levels of government to make sure we’re all working towards the same goal, which I think we are.”

There is a candlelight vigil planned for Monday, Dec. 21 – winter solstice, the longest night of the year – at Spirit Square starting at 6:30 p.m. to recognize and remember those lost from the streets of our communities, and Rufus says anyone and everyone is invited to attend and pay their respects, “to honour those who are gone.”

Anyone interested in helping with acheiving the organizations’ goals can search for “Grassroots Kind Hearts” on Facebook.