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Shining a light on the homeless …

Teresa Mallam photo

During my career as a newspaper reporter I have written realms of stories about the homeless in our city, and other parts of BC — home to the richest in the world.

Not much has improved over the years, except that sometimes we can just put blindfolds on this old flogged horse and pretend it isn’t there. 

Or we can raid makeshift shelters and demand that they live among us in more civilized style. Why can’t they just join the rest of us, working our lives away, until we drop, feeding our fat mortgages, or paying exorbitantly high priced rent which makes others richer and us poorer?

Why should they not want to be just like us?  Fighting inflation, dreading the onslaught of winter heating bills (and carbon tax), and choking on food costs in grocery stores?

One evening in October, 2006, I had bundled up in layers and joined then city councillors Murry Krause, Deborah Munoz and other well meaning local luminaries, in downtown Prince George to see what being homeless was all about.

After getting survival tips from our guide, an “authentic” street person, we were all released into the dark unknown, instructed to find sturdy cardboard (appliance boxes are best) for an overnight shelter, and look for a place to pee (more problematic for women).

Our guide advised us that early morning, around 5 a.m. was the worst. He was right. By then I was cold, cranky, and miserable, and I had run out of jokes and pleasantries for my fellow do-gooders.

All I wanted, all night, was my nice, warm bed, my cuddly cat, and my mug of hot coffee. Finally, at 8 a.m. at the end of my ordeal, I drove to the Free Press office (no more aimless walking, just to keep warm.)
There I was welcomed by my editor and work mates, pats on the back for a job well done.
One night on the street and I knew it all.

Wrote my first person account of how it felt to have no home, with nothing to do except try to keep warm. And this was October, not January, when temperatures really plummet.

So my stories and photos all filed, ‘put to bed’ as we say in the biz, I went home, sipped my coffee, relaxed on the sofa of my cozy apartment …and the next day, went on to other stories.

Months later, I won the prestigious 2006 Black Press’ Jerry Mac (Donald) award for “making a difference” in my community reporting. Thank you, but I do wonder how many “survival” awards are given out to homeless people?

So now, here we are, years later, on the cusp of 2023. The PG Free Press is history, I am retired, and despite ‘shining a light on it,’ not that much has changed with homelessness.

A few weeks ago, I was standing in the cold, having done my Christmas shopping at Pine Centre Mall. I was waiting for a Victoria Street bus, near a shelter with no glass panels thanks to vandals.

A young man beside me, maybe late 20s, said ‘hello’ and commented on the weather. He was dressed like a college student and smiled when I asked about bus times. I was new to taking public transit and it showed.

“Should be one in about 15 minutes,” he told me. Just then, another man came over and offered him a juice box. The young man took it and politely thanked him.

As he sipped his juice, we got talking about our shopping and he said he was pleased to find an LED light he got for only two dollars. He pulled a package from his backpack and unwrapped it to show me.

“That’s really awesome,” I told him. I meant it, because as a child, I read by flashlight under the covers, long past my bedtime, so I could have used this nifty little gadget which even comes with a clip.

I got the full demo when the young man plugged it into his new cell phone and it immediately shone very brightly.

“Wow. That’s actually a lot brighter than I thought it would be. That’s so good.”

After he’d put away his treasures, I asked what he had planned for the Christmas holidays, just making conversation. He shocked me with his reply.

“Well, right now I’m on overflow at the shelter where I’m staying.”

Noting my lack of “street jargon,” he added, “So that means that I’m in there with a whole bunch of people, in one big room, until there are more beds. That’s what this light is for… they told me at the shelter I should get one so I don’t disturb other people at night.”
That must be hard, I said.

“Well, I’m hoping to get into the regular part of the shelter soon, then I can move into a room with fewer people.Then I want to get into rehab. I’m on a waiting list.”

“Then you can get a room to yourself?” I asked.

“Yes,” he nodded. “Hopefully. And after my treatment program is over, I can start a new life … and then things will be a whole lot better for me.”

When he said that, all of a sudden my annoyance at having to wait for a bus seemed so trivial.
This young man, with addictions he was apparently trying to overcome, living in a temporary shelter, and ‘down and out’ on  luck, had a clear plan for his future.

In another setting, his words might have been construed as talk meant to impress a social worker, or curry favour with a shelter worker. But it was just me, a stranger at a bus stop, an older woman of another generation who had empathy, but no answers

When the bus came, we both got on, and he sat near the back. I got off the bus first, so I have no idea what shelter he was staying in. But here’s hoping Christmas brings him and others in his situation, some joy and much hope for the future.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays to all of you. 

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