Homelessness still big issue in Valley

Robert Barron's column

It’s hard for most people to put themselves in the shoes of some of the most vulnerable among us.

I’m specifically referring to those in the Cowichan Valley, and across Canada for that matter, who are facing homelessness and all the horrible social issues that are related to it.

After growing up in a middle class family and having my basic needs looked after quite well for most of my life, I used to have little patience for those who were down and out and requiring help.

I saw it as a personal weakness and felt that these people brought their problems on themselves.

Like many of the letter writers to this paper, the only help I wanted to give them was advice to pull up their boot straps, get their lives back on track and stop bothering the rest of us with their self-inflicted problems.

But I discovered recently that not everything is black and white, and that I really should be more sympathetic towards many of these unfortunate people who live on society’s fringes.

The change in my attitude began last winter, which was one of the coldest ones we’ve experienced in the Valley for some time, when I met a young couple who were living in a tent on the property of the Duncan United Church on Jubilee Street.

At the time, the couple had been living on the streets of Duncan for months.

On one particularly cold morning in January, the couple came into the Citizen office to tell their story and see if there was any way we could help them.

I was surprised when they told me that they actually had up to $1,200 a month to pay for accommodations, but were still unable find a place to live as the vacancy rate in the Valley of just about one per cent left them with few options.

Fortunately, someone stepped up to the plate and offered the couple a place to stay soon after their story appeared in the paper.

But it was the first time the actual reality of what many unfortunate people are facing in our society, through hardly any fault of their own, hit me square in the face.

The issue arose again with the tent city for the homeless that sprang up in Duncan’s Charles Hoey Park in April.

I chatted with its leader, Crissy Brett, when she first set up her tent on the corner of the Trans Canada Highway and Beverly Street in Duncan, and she made it clear that her purpose was to draw attention to the many issues regarding homelessness in the Valley before the provincial election in May.

She made a lot of sense and I felt she had a worthwhile cause that many would rally around.

But the issue became muddied after Brett decided to set up the tent city in the heart of Duncan in one of the city’s most frequented parks.

Her point of drawing attention to homelessness was lost as the public grew increasingly frustrated with the tents and their occupants, many of whom were leaving discarded syringes on the park’s grounds and using the nearby bushes and trees as washrooms.

The police raided the tent city after the Supreme Court of B.C. ordered that it be dismantled, and Brett was taken temporarily into custody.

The citizens of Duncan got their park back (after city workers tore up all the sod where the tents were and replaced it with new grass) and life in the city’s core has returned to normal.

But the homeless issue remains in the Valley; it’s just that we’ve, once again, managed to keep it out of sight as much as possible.

The problem won’t go away, no matter what people think of Brett and her tactics, until we, as a society, are willing to face it head on.

Robert.Barron @cowichanvalleycitizen.com

Cowichan Valley Citizen