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THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: People, places and issues of the Parksville Qualicum Beach

Co-founders of the Manna Homeless Society Robin Campbell, right, and Steve Karras stand in front of the Manna Ministry Van in its usual location in front of the Legion in downtown Parksville on Saturday mornings. A number of people lined up to get food and cold-weather gear provided by donations from residents. - LISSA ALEXANDER PHOTO
Co-founders of the Manna Homeless Society Robin Campbell, right, and Steve Karras stand in front of the Manna Ministry Van in its usual location in front of the Legion in downtown Parksville on Saturday mornings. A number of people lined up to get food and cold-weather gear provided by donations from residents.
— image credit: LISSA ALEXANDER PHOTO

father and his young daughter, an elderly woman with a cane, and a teenage student; those were among a lineup of people outside the Manna Homeless Society's van on Saturday morning, waiting for food, clothing, blankets and other survival equipment.

"There is a kid, he is homeless, and he's going to school, go figure," said Robin Campbell, co-founder of the society. "And there's a man and woman with their child and they're living in the back of a van."

Although not all of the people who come to the van are homeless, they are not making ends meet, Campbell said, including one elderly woman who lost her husband and seems to have a home but no money for food. And a young mom with a baby who said her heat had been cut off and her baby was so cold his lips were blue.

Campbell and Steve Karras have been stocking the van with food, blankets and other equipment for the homeless and those in need for the last four years, parking on the streets of Parksville Saturday mornings with a sign reading "Free Food."

Everything they give out is donated and they are often short on the necessities, which right now includes tents, sleeping bags and other cold weather gear.

Campbell said although there is an extreme weather shelter in Parksville it is only open when it's minus 2 degrees, or a combination of other factors, and it means the homeless have to leave their set-ups and belongings behind.

The homeless in Parksville Qualicum Beach mostly live in rural areas, Campbell said, and sleep in the bush. They come to town for services like the Manna Van, the Salvation Army soup kitchen — which provides lunch three times a week —  and the food bank, where people can get food once a month.

What the community needs is an all-weather shelter, Campbell said, where people can get assistance along with shelter. It works well in Port Hardy, he said, where people come out of the bush and into the warmth.

"They wash your clothes, they feed you, they look after you and your pets, and then you have to leave for a short time which is fine even if it's cold," he said.

The city of Parksville formed the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness in 2010, which has representatives from Qualicum Beach and the Regional District of Nanaimo.

The task force is co-chaired by Renate Sutherland, executive director with the Society of Organized Services and Malcolm Cox, a retired Vancouver Police officer.

A homeless census was conducted by the group in May 2011 and found 38 adults and five children to be "absolute homeless" and another 25 considered at risk of homelessness.

Another count was done in May of this year and found very similar numbers, said Sarah Poole, homelessness coordinator with the task force.

The census report wont be released until the new year, but Poole confirmed that 67 people were identified as homeless this year. Eighty five per cent of those were under 55 years of age and 67 per cent of those between the ages of 20 and 34 were employed.

Parksville's task force was approved for a grant that will keep Poole working with the group until March. So far, she has identified that affordable housing is a big problem in this community and she has statistics to back that up.

When she started in August she checked the numbers released by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and found that Parksville had the lowest vacancy rate in the province, at less than 2 per cent.

Campbell said the actual number of homeless in the area is about 200 in his estimation. Once he learned of people sleeping out in the freezing cold he went about finding them and helping them, including one man he calls a success story.

"In the winter I heard someone was sleeping in nothing and the night I found him it was nine below and he was sleeping in this thing that was tarped and open, and I yelled, it's Robin is anyone there? and I got an answer."

Four years later the man lives in a seven foot by seven foot trailer in Errington. The place has no bathroom or kitchen, but he has space heaters and keeps dry, Campbell said. It still costs the man, who didn't want to give his name, $425 a month.

Sutherland, agreed that the lack of affordable housing in the area is a huge factor in the burgeoning number of homeless.

"I think there are more people homeless or on the verge of homelessness than many of us realize because we don't have overt homeless," she said. "But we still have people living in what you and I wouldn't dream of living in or what you and I wouldn't put in our animals in," she said.

For change to happen the community needs to come together and acknowledge the problem, Sutherland said, and work together to make change.

"It's the will of the people that makes these things happen," she said.

Campbell said the community needs mental health care workers on the street, available 24 hours, and a facility to help house and treat the homeless.

"The city's got to step up," he said, "just give us a building."

Parksville city councillor Sue Powell is on the Oceanside Taskforce on Homelessness. She said the city has spoken with Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing in B.C., at least three times about Parksville's situation. Coleman said Parksville needs to come up with some land or something to put in the pot, but the city isn't a position to do that at this time, Powell said.

"I wish I could say we've got this great piece of property but we don't," she said.

Work is being done currently by the task force and Poole, Coleman said, to identify if there are gaps in services provided to the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, but it's a slow process, she said.

Ultimately Powell would like to see something like the Warmland House in Duncan, run by the Canadian Mental Health Association, which has transitional housing, emergency shelter beds, washer and dryers, lockers, a kitchen and a garden.

"That would be the Rolls Royce," she said.

Campbell is also on the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness and said the group is key to making a difference in the community. He said residents need to get involved by offering assistance in whatever ways they can. Right now the Manna van is in need of supplies and nutritious food. People can drop clothing, blankets, camping gear and cash donations to any local churches, the North Island Recovery Centre in Errington or at the Manna van, parked on Hirst Street in Parksville in front of the Rod and Gun from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday. Those needing equipment and food can call Campbell on his cell phone at any time and he will come in the van and deliver what he can. He can be reached at 250-248-0845.

To get a small taste of what the homeless go through every night, just step outside tonight, Campbell said.

"Go out at night and think about the people sleeping out there. And then go back into your warm house."

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