Homelessness can seem like an abstract issue, but there’s a story behind each person on the street. Sam Franey is one of them.
He had spent some time in the Comox Valley a few years ago, before returning here last fall. On the verge of the first winter blast of 2020, he was staying in a tent at the home of a Comox family.
Already, he has made connections in the community. A chance meeting with Russ Arnott, Comox’s mayor, led to an invite for Christmas dinner.
Arnott was leaving his daughter’s place Christmas Eve and saw Franey in front of a local business. He asked Franey if he was OK. After Arnott bought him some groceries, the two talked, and Arnott thought about an invite.
“You know it was that whole Christmas spirit, and he seemed like a decent young guy,” he said.
Arnott checked with his family and gave Franey his card, though he didn’t expect to hear back come Christmas Day.
“I honestly didn’t think he’d take me up on the offer,” Arnott said.
Franey did though and came over for Christmas dinner, staying to visit for a couple of hours.
Arnott said Franey strikes him as someone who can turn things around if the community handles things the right way, and that the young man could act as a bridge between those on the street and the community at large.
“He just had something about him that I just didn’t want to allow to be brushed aside,” Arnott said.
Arnott told Franey about some of the community groups working to help homeless people, and Franey has been meeting with local organizations to provide his insight.
For Franey, it’s all about connections; he has more than a few frayed ones, related to mental health and addictions. He hasn’t had a drink in a few years, but he had spent years fighting substance abuse, especially alcohol, after starting down the road to problems at an early age.
“I was 13 when I started drinking,” he said. “March would be four years without a sip of alcohol.”
As for other substances, he’s given these up more recently, saying, “I don’t even know when I stopped. I just kinda stopped.”
His travels have taken him to England and back. Facing health issues such as potential kidney and liver failure, he was down to 100 pounds. At one point in early 2019, he was living in a space he’d built into the side of a hill in West Kelowna, which went up in flames, with him inside.
“I woke up and my sleeping bag was on fire. My bandana around my neck was on fire,” he said. “I had to force my way out through one of the walls.”
Franey turned 36 in December, which was no small feat. He doesn’t talk about rock bottom as a single event. He has tried or thought about suicide on more than one occasion. One time six police stopped him from going through with it. Another time the noose broke.
“I hid my whole life from everyone,” he said. “My family, my friends, I didn’t want anyone to know anything about me.”
A few years ago, he was sitting out in front of a coffee shop and seriously considering ending things, when “this seven-year-old kid with disabilities” walked up to give him a dollar and started a conversation with him about what he was drawing. In that brief interaction, Franey changed his mind.
The boy’s mother gathered up her son but walked back to chat with Franey.
“She came back and she was in tears, and she was saying, like, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for my kid. It’s always been me and him, and he’s always tried to be the man of the house, but everyone’s always talked down to him, but you talked to him like a human being. And I could see immediately the effects that had on him,’ and I was like, ‘You have no idea what your kid just did to me.’ That two-minute interaction with a seven-year-old kid was enough to pull me right back.”
Often, the simplest way to help someone who is homeless, Franey said, is to talk to them, even just say hello. It costs nothing, but it can make that person feel some kind of connection with other human beings, as if someone in the world has noticed them.
“Spend two minutes to find out their name,” he said.
Life is still far from easy for Franey, but he wants to integrate himself to life in the Comox Valley. He has been connecting with groups like Dawn to Dawn Homeless Society and the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness to see how he can help.
Arnott is not the only person who has reached out to him. Franey credits, in particular, another member of council, Stephanie McGowan, and her family, along with artist Nick Hutton-Jay and his family, for helping him since he arrived. Hutton-Jay actually grew up on the same Ontario street in the 1990s as Franey.
Franey is versed in concepts such as Housing First, which aims to get homeless people into a safe place first before tackling their other obstacles. He can give perspective on matters that people who don’t live on the street might not understand, such as how homeless people often do not go to shelters because they fear losing the few worldly goods they can carry with him.
“I’ve never been in a shelter,” he said, adding he’s claustrophobic and does not like crowds.
He has bigger plans. He calls it Unhoused, and he’d like to work with community groups on a project to create a place for homeless people where they can feel safe and have support to help them recover and become part of the wider community. His vision is for a group of tiny homes with basic amenities, but also where the people take part in the design and construction of their own homes.
“I want everyone on board,” he said. “There’s a lot of help out there, but it sometimes isn’t as effective as it could be because they don’t understand the hurdles that homeless people face on a daily basis.”
If people want to get in touch with Franey about his plans, he asks people to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.