The struggle to survive
“Rope? We’ve got 50 feet, 75 feet, 100 feet.”
“Ah … 100.”
Melody and Michelle are sitting at a table in an open room where they work. People who live on the street or in the bush come in one or two at a time, sit down and Melody and Michelle go through the list of supplies with them.
The recently opened supply program administered by CMHA Mid-Island called the OutShop offers tents, sleeping bags, personal hygiene products, flashlights, snacks, tampons and more.
With funding provided through United Way British Columbia – working with communities in BC’s Interior, Lower Mainland and Central & Northern Vancouver Island, and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, Melody and Michelle outfit Nanaimo citizens to survive without a home.
And they know just how much these supplies are needed, because they’ve been homeless before.
“I’ve slept just about everywhere, from a garbage can to a barn, to the side of the street, in a tent, by the ocean. You name it,” says Melody.
Asked what it was like to live in a tent, she says, “Well I was cold most of the time, and a lot of moisture would build up on the tent, so of course that was even worse. Animals coming to my tent – that was one thing I had to deal with … if it was a bear, I didn’t go out. You can hear them, but it doesn’t mean they are going to necessarily harm you.”
“It can be very scary,” says Melody. “Being by myself, and a girl at that age, it was like, holy mackerel. You have to put on a brave front even though you weren’t brave, feeling really scared inside.”
“There was a couple of times I managed to get to be a farm hand, to work for a week or something and earn my keep for a meal, but there was no pay, and that’s kind of how I did things, too. I was grateful for that, but I still needed something to call my own.”
“And I mean, I felt lost. I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to get in a home or not. It was not the best of circumstances, at all.”
But Melody’s circumstances have changed.
“It’s great now, because I have my own apartment and I’m working, and I love it.”
Michelle is still looking for her own place but is living above a shelter now and paying rent.
“Almost every [decade] I’ve spent some time on the street,” she says. “I guess I got used to people on the street because my mom was a heroin addict, so her friends, that’s where I’d meet my mom was downtown, right.”
“I slept in places without a tent and it’s really scary, and even being in my car was scary. I’d always lock all my doors, and I didn’t like it when people came up and knocked on the window to talk to me and stuff. I was terrified to open it, and so I would hardly sleep at all, and then I started using drugs again because I wanted to stay awake.
“And that is just so ridiculous. But it was because I was that scared that I was going to get robbed or … because you hear that all the time … It’s hard to feel secure.”
Michelle was also afraid that, if she went from living in her car to staying at a shelter, she might not be able to find work as a community support worker, which she has a diploma for. Thankfully, that turned out to not be true.
Now, she is looking for her own place. Despite having an income, the search is difficult she says.
Knowing what it’s like to be homeless, Melody and Michelle understand what their clients are going through, what they need, and what their challenges are.
They know that anyone can become homeless. They know that stereotypes applied to homeless people – that they must be on drugs or are alcoholics, or that they steal – are very often not true. They know many of the people who are in this situation – they know smart, kind people who are homeless.
And they know that their clients need these items to survive.
“It’s original and it’s needed,” says Michelle of the OutShop, noting that she’s never heard of a service like it before. “One guy, he cried, he was so grateful. He kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
But Michelle and Melody also know that giving these items out doesn’t mean their clients will have them for long.
I ask how long it takes for a tent to wear out when you’re living in it, and they say it usually doesn’t have an opportunity to wear it out before it’s taken.
Either your gear gets stolen, or bylaw gets rid of it because you’re not allowed to exist where you’ve been existing, or for as long as you’ve existed there that day.
“You are in a tent, and you want to leave to go somewhere, you come back, and somebody stole everything you own,” says Michelle.
Carrying everything you own around with you is not always feasible and requiring people to pack up and leave every morning and set up again every night can be a heavy burden.
“It’s survival every day to get what you need, and then once you have it all together, it’s like, ‘OK, great, I can start over,’” says Melody. The OutShop gives people that opportunity. “And the next thing you know it’s gone again.”
Melody and Michelle understand how devastating this can be, and that it’s only one of many hardships that our homeless neighbours endure.
“A lot of them need to vent,” says Melody. “I will stand there for up to an hour to let them vent, just to get it off their chest, right? I don’t mind doing that because I understand.”
Michelle says one service that’s desperately needed by Nanaimo’s homeless residents is safe storage of personal property. This could mean that their clients wouldn’t need to carry all of their possessions around with them everywhere they go or leave them somewhere and hope that they aren’t stolen or thrown out.
“In the shelter … you are allowed two bins of stuff. That’s it,” says Michelle. “Anything else you have when you get there, they will temporarily put it in a shed outside, but that shed is always full and you are told to get rid of it.
“For me – I almost cry when I think about it – my belongings meant everything to me. And I didn’t have much, but what I did have, I wanted to keep and take care of. I lost so many things that meant so much to me.”
The OutShop is doing its best to give people the things they need to survive. Despite the circumstances, Melody and Michelle say it’s a desperately needed service.