Cheryl Manseau and Joel Brennen
Cheryl Manseau, 25, sits in a doorway draped in a tattered green sleeping bag. Next to her sits her boyfriend Joel Brennen, 21. It’s a cloudy and chilly Sunday morning on a leaf-strewn Leon Avenue.
The young woman admits right off the bat she is a crackhead but claims she is currently detoxing and apologizes for her mumbling.
“Being homeless in Kelowna sucks. You have the Gospel Mission and the Drop-in Centre. They treat you with respect, but other than that it sucks – but you never go hungry,” she explains, admitting she is her own worst enemy when it comes to getting aid. “Low-income housing is the issue but I think my addiction problem puts a damper on that though. Welfare has me on an employment plan and I haven’t done it yet.”
As it gets darker earlier and the rest of the world is preparing for winter, Manseau is worried about the temperature dropping.
Luckily though, there are a couple places she can stay should her situation become desperate–Inn From the Cold and the women’s shelter.
Her companion, Brennen, has been out on the street since he was 14 years old, beginning in Prince George before he made his way to Kelowna over a year ago.
“I had to get away from the crack cocaine problems there,” he says, while sharing a bar of chocolate with Manseau. “I was arrested for it there and have been keeping clean from it for over two years.
“I do sell pot now but I don’t care what the cops think because I don’t see it as a problem. My step-dad smokes it for his Hep C so I have been around it 24/7,” Brennen explains. “I have been smoking it since I was seven years old, and it calms me. It doesn’t hurt anyone, (it’s) that the other stuff (crack and meth) which really effects society. They (the police) should stop harrassing me and they’re very, rude and violent and not doing their jobs properly–they need to go after the crack and meth dealers.”
Manseau says she’s run into trouble with local RCMP for working as a prostitute.
” I am a working girl and I have been smoking crack for three years now and have worked in the industry for four. Cops definitely have a problem with it,” she says. “For me I am a very good person and I have a great heart, even though I do drugs and work the streets and I care about people in general but drugs have been a barrier for me.”
Brennen admits the streets are rough here but they treat him better than those in Prince George. He stays at the Gospel Mission most nights but rests his head where he can elsewhere.
“I want to get a place soon, get off the street soon now that it’s getting colder,” he says. “I have to smarten up a bit and put some money away.”
Manseau reflects on her hopes for the future too.
“I am 25 and I had a kid last year which I gave up for adoption, and I don’t want to be working the streets and smoking crack when I am 45,” she says. “I want to have a family, a job, a house with a white picket fence.”
Jacqueline Larson ran away from home six years ago and has been on the streets in Vancouver, Penticton and Kelowna ever since.
“I got kicked out when my parents found out I was pregnant when I was 14,” she recalls. “I became a drug addict after I was kicked out.”
Larson says living on Kelowna’s streets “really sucks” due to bylaw fines for sleeping in public places, like parks.
“Basically you get fines for being homeless.”
“People here, when they don’t know you are homeless, aren’t that bad,” Larson reports. “But when they know you are homeless and panhandle you get a very negative stigma.”
While she’s thankful for the help of Kelowna’s Gospel Mission and the women’s shelter, she says there’s a lot left to be desired.
“There’s probably still 200 people on the street, even when there are shelters. We need a lot more done. I was on the streets of Vancouver and… I never spent a night outside, never. I have been here three years and I have been sleeping on the street the whole time.”
Despite getting clean six months ago, the stigma of being homeless continues to follow Larson.
“People know you as one way and they don’t want to rent a place to you because they don’t realize people can change,” she notes.
Larson doesn’t have much advice for people headed for the streets.
“There’s not much you can really say because everybody deals with it in their own way,” she says. “I have come to the conclusion that I will never be on the street again but there are some people that get themselves stuck in that situation and don’t think they can find a place to live so they stop trying. It took me six years but I have a home for the first time.”
Larson believes there will be people out in the cold this year.
“There is one low-income housing project here. Sure there are the hotels that do off-season rentals but it’s still not enough to house everyone. There are a lot of people with so low incomes that you can’t find a place for what you get on your welfare cheque. You can’t afford to live anywhere for under $500-$600.
“Something needs to be done within the city about the homeless bylaws because half of us can’t help the fact we are homeless.”
Larson is now taking a social worker course and just found a new place to live with her boyfriend.
Daryl MacKinnon has a place to live now, but still comes downtown to visit most of the people he calls his family. His weathered
face shows the strain of countless years on the street. Five of those years were spent pounding the pavement in this downtown core.
“There is a big shortage of affordable housing here in Kelowna. I’m pretty sure if they built more housing we wouldn’t have this homeless problem. I know that for a fact,” MacKinnon says.
Come winter MacKinnon has a solution: “Find more blankets! The Gospel Mission in the wintertime is full all the time, there’s no room, so you have to find a place to get out of the cold. A lot of people sleep in the dumpsters and the cardboard recycling bins since it’s a good insulator, just wrap yourself up with that a keep warm.”
MacKinnons he also suggests more shelters be established in the city.
“There are a lot of empty buildings around here that they (city) can use. Down at the end of town there are empty warehouses,” he advises. “Calgary did it, they also have a drop in center that can hold up to 500 people at a time, They had 30.000 homeless there.”
MacKinnon, who is from Squamish, moved to Kelowna in 2000 and headed straight for the Gospel Mission. He believes he became homeless because he didn’t care about himself.
“No one else cared so why should I? I had mental problems, I had post-traumatic stress disorder after serving 12 years with the Canadian Forces and I didn’t get any help so I disassociated myself with people,” he remembers. “I couldn’t stand people but I did learn that there is more than just being a human being, you have to care not only for yourself but for others and how others feel.”
MacKinnon eventually got tired of his lifestyle, and with a little help from his brother, broke the chains of homelessness – ” I never looked back.”
He also knows firsthand the burdens associated with homelessness.
“You’re out here on the street, they have nobody, they feel down upon themselves, they lose their self-esteem, they think they’re useless when they are not, they are good people. All they need is a chance.”Some of Kelowna's homeless share their stories