Rafael Zambrana still remembers a conversation he had with a friend, who like him, was born in Mexico.
“And I heard him talking about homeless people as drug addicts, you know, unwanted people and I said, ‘look, I’m living in my car. You are talking about me. I’m homeless.”
Zambrana, approaching 70, tells this story as he sits at a table in Saanich’s St. Aidan’s United Church, where has to come speak about homelesspartners.com, a virtual platform that connects the larger public with local homeless.
The site recruits volunteers, who interview people who are staying at homeless shelters. These stories then appear on the platform, where people can browse them and pledge gifts to the people behind them.
He wears a flat cap and speaks in a measured yet forthcoming way that points to his past life of business trips to Asia and stays in the United States, Mexico and Europe.
Zambrana once had a store on Johnson Road, where he sold jewelry. “I even had a property in Langford, which had I kept it, I would be a millionaire,” he said.
But then things went off the rails. “I had accumulated some wealth and then made some bad moves and ended up with no money at all. So basically, what I have is a car, that I am driving.”
After a serious accident in the summer of 2014 forced him to spend time in the United States, Zambrana eventually found his back to Vancouver, where he lived for three months out of his car.
“I actually stayed in the parking lot of a mall and they [mall staff] knew I was sleeping in my car,” he said.
Still in touch with friends, he eventually made his way to Victoria, where he spent another four months living out of his car. After a few cold nights, he decided that it was time to start looking for other places.
After spending one week at the Rock Bay Landing Shelter run by the Cool-Aid Society of Greater Victoria, he found a spot at its Next Steps shelter, a transitional shelter that provides an opportunity for 15 emergency shelter clients to access the resources and services they need to get their lives back on track, according to the society’s website.
Such services include housing, employment, financial, life skills and mentorship, as well as physical and mental health services.
“So Next Steps is a very good system to give us the time to settle down and think clearly and be able to get out of it,” said Zambrana,
More than a year has passed since Zambrana moved into Next Steps and he sounded genuinely surprised when he realized that he would be spending his second Christmas at Next Steps.
And yet, he could not be more grateful for the assistance that he has received, because it does not take much to lose everything that had taken so long to build up.
“There are lots of people where I live who had a very good living, actually made a lot of money and had a big house. And for whatever reason, now they don’t.”