On the street he is known as “Weiner.” He made his way from Victoria last May and has been homeless in Kelowna ever since.
“I came here to pick fruit but I am going back to Victoria. There’s not enough work or places to live here. They haven’t given us affordable housing like they promised,” he says.
Outside the Gospel Mission a group of mostly middle aged men congregate around the entrance and talk among themselves. One of them is Rob, he is from North Saskatchewan
“I am living here now (Gospel Mission) but I have lived in cardboard boxes trying to make ends meet, out pounding the pavement trying to find work,” he said
He hitchhiked during the day and then slept in a two man tent with no blankets. Things are looking up since he just found a full-time job.
“I think you just have to dress right for the weather, it’s a bad time of year leading up to Christmas but I think you just have to do what you have to do,” he said.
There is a calm before a storm at Kelowna’s Gospel Mission on a Friday afternoon. Outside the temperature dips to freezing but it’s warm inside and a few bodies pepper its interior. The walls hold the countless stories of over 30 years of desperation and homelessness, but also hope and change.
Off to one side, a young man plays a guitar through a miniature amp. Two middle-aged men dressed in winter jackets sit at a one of the many empty collapsible tables that feed the throngs of hungry.
Patrick Sinotte is young and unshaven and his enthusiasm for his work is addictive. He is an evening co-ordinator at the Gospel Mission but not once does he preach in our short exchange about weather and the homeless.
“Basically, we have an extreme weather protocol developed last year in association with the RCMP and essentially what happens is: every night the shelters in town, Richter Street Youth Centre, Alexander Gardner house and Inn From The Cold call us and tell us how many empty beds they have available. And when the RCMP have someone that requires shelter at night, they’ll call us and see who has beds available then we direct them to the appropriate shelter for that person,” Sinotte tells Kelowna.com
“Each of the shelters have curfews and the people in town, our clients, are pretty responsible in securing shelter for themselves for the night,” he adds. “When someone makes the decision to spend the night outside they usually plan ahead, they have a camp to go to or some blankets to settle down with.”
A controversial new Assistance to Shelter Act, which is initiated under extreme weather conditions, gives police power to take the homeless to shelters against their will.
“Personally, as I understand it, it allows the RCMP to bring a person to the shelter. We are not a jail, we can’t keep people here against their will so I don’t know if it would really affect things very much anyways. If someone wants to leave they’ll just turn around and leave anyway,” Sinotte says.
The numbers to-date, of those seeking shelter surprises Sinotte.
“As I recall last year we had more people staying here but when Inn From The Cold opened on Nov. 1 they took about 15 to 20 people a night,” he says. “Generally I’d say numbers are somewhat down but that may be my personal perception. Also, we haven’t got snow yet, so when that happens people get wet and they feel the cold a little bit more.”
Sinotte expects more shelter visits when the snow flies.
“I know of people who stayed out last year but came in as soon as it started snowing,”
“There are people living in camps, that they have established in the bush, some guys have been living like that for three or four years. There’s is no danger in their minds in surviving the way they have always survived. It’s a personal choice, really,”
The Gospel Mission is open for coffee and doughnuts everyday at 10 a.m. in the morning and lunch every day which is soup and sandwiches. Dinner is at 4:30 p.m. which is generally a full hot meal. The homeless are always invited to go in and have a shower and get toiletries, warm blankets and clothing, haircuts and dental is also free. They can serve up to 300 meals a day but they always are looking for help from the public. They survive off public donations.
And for an organization that is driven by donations, it’s done a great job, according to Rob.
“The staff here are great, it’s warm and you have a roof over your head for the night, and they give you food and the energy to survive another day,” he says.
“There will always be space for people, we will make it, we will make sure they are warm and make sure they’re fed and clothed, it’s just what we do,” says Ami Catriora, marketing and communications officer at the Gospel Mission.