Dave Butler was in his wheelchair, sifting through his pile of belongings on the pavement under the hot sun – carefully selecting the few he was allowed to bring in to the Vancouver shelter.
He had been transferred over from Burnaby Hospital to the shelter in Vancouver as it was the closest one – there is no overnight shelter in Burnaby – and had space. He was suffering with a leg injury, he had no time left to stay at the hospital, and he had nowhere else to go.
“This isn’t right,” he told the Burnaby NOWin August, over the phone. “This should not be happening.”
Butler’s story is only an example of how homelessness has many faces – an impoverished man in a wheelchair, a senior citizen whose stagnant income doesn’t rise with inflation, a family down on their luck, a young couple passing through the city with their dogs, someone struggling with a mental health disorder that keeps them from obtaining work.
Homelessness is an issue all municipalities are dealing with, which is why from Oct. 13 to 19 Metro Vancouver instituted Homelessness Action Week.
One local volunteer, who helps the homeless every week, said it’s important to bring Burnaby’s homelessness issue to the forefront as the problem is very real.
“I used to see folks that were out panhandling, people for so long you just walk by and then you realize, they’re part of the community. Burnaby is an inclusive community in that everyone should feel welcome,” said Jim McQueen, a volunteer with the Burnaby Task Force on Homelessness since 2006.
McQueen volunteers every Thursday for the Outreach Resource Centre run by the Progressive Housing Society at Southside Community Church.
“We have a cross-section of different people coming, different ethnic groups, age groups, young families coming with young children, and senior citizens,” he said. “I’m a senior citizen myself, and I’m starting to see a number of older folks coming and having to rely on our services. I find that a little (concerning).”
The centre is open from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and provides food, clothing, and medical care, among other services.
“I would say that they are all part of my family, I know them and I’m really close to a lot of them,” he added.
When they open first thing in the morning, McQueen said a lot of people had already spent the night outside waiting for the doors to open.
“My main job there is I work in the kitchen, getting the coffee going in the morning and the juice,” he said. “So many of them have needs. For a lot of them, it’s a social time, too. A lot of them connect with us.”
McQueen said the number of people coming to use the service every Thursday has risen over the years and last week had 140 people show up.
“They’re looking for different services,” he said. “Whether it’s a nurse practitioner, they’re looking for a meal … and just to see a friendly face that can just be supportive and help with whatever is going on throughout that day.”
In 2005, the city tore down several condemned buildings that people were illegally squatting in, in the Edmonds area.
“My neighbourhood got quickly inundated with some pretty rough looking street people in my backyard, in my parking lot,” said Wanda Mulholland, who formed the task force in 2005. “So one day, I was furious. And I called the RCMP and asked to speak to the person in charge.”
Mulholland got a hold of Staff Sgt. John Buis, who at the time was the commander of the South East community in Burnaby.
“And his response was very wise,” she said. “First, he said, that homelessness is not a crime, and asked me if I knew any resources in Burnaby for people because he did not.”
After that phone call, Mulholland started to do some research and discovered that no one was doing anything about the homeless in the city. Her next step was getting the appropriate agencies together with the RCMP, and the task force was born.
“Then I’m not angry anymore, I’m concerned,” she said. “As soon as I got to meet some of the people who were homeless and extremely poor, there was no fear any longer because they’re just people. It can be any of us. I think that the change needed to start with me.”
Now with a group of 45 people and many success stories of getting people off the street, Mulholland said the task force is still heavily involved with reaching out to people who have nowhere to go and giving them a place to stay.
The Burnaby NOW has not heard from Butler since the summer.
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