By AUREN RUVINSKY
“Women face a much different experience on the street,” says Doreen “Coco” Littlejohn, a Parksville Qualicum Beach nurse with two degrees and more than 30 years experience working on the front lines of homelessness, including more than 15 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
She said that while every story is unique and there’s no way to guess what led to any individual ending up on the street, “a lot of it involves severe mental health and/or drug addiction issues.”
And there are commonalities like young homeless people often being deep under mental health and/or addiction issues, while the growing number of homeless seniors often have complex physical health issues.
And once homeless, life becomes extra complicated, especially for women. Littlejohn said women are “often dealing with violence, having to move camping spots (sometimes daily), and spending their days finding their next meal and place to sleep.”
While she recognizes people’s decisions can play into where they end up, she doesn’t dwell on that. To her it’s about empathy and addressing the issue going forward – “there’s no use in going back and finding blame on how people got where they are, the point is they’re there – now what?”
Littlejohn said Vancouver in the 1990s was great time and place to be a nurse.
“We were all working together, we built clinics with services built in,” she said, marveling at the thought of “everything I was able to do there.”
“This pandemic feels a bit like that – we all have a common focus,” she said of a possible small silver lining in the COVID pandemic.
“The bittersweet part of Oceanside today is that we have such incredible resources, so much potential in the community, retired experts with experience from everywhere. This is a really educated community,” she said, “but I’m not seeing it come together.”
“We don’t have to figure out how to tackle this,” she said, not hiding frustration with the handwringing, “we know how, others are doing it well,” she said adding that the key is using a ‘systems approach,’ developing more capacity among the local expertise, along with addressing things on a community level, or higher.
She points to existing strengths in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area like HOST (the Homeless Outreach Support Team) and the landlords that work with HOST, Orca Place supportive housing, the winter shelter when there is one and OHEARTS.
OHEARTS (Oceanside Homelessness Ecumenical Advocacy Response Team Society) ran the emergency shelter last winter and currently runs a special COVID shelter for specific clients at pandemic risk. Littlejohn finds it disturbing that around half of the people in that shelter are over 60.
“Many of the people in distress locally have been here a long time, including some born and raised here and now in their ‘golden years’,” she said of locals being priced out of their homes.
To critics Littlejohn said, “in any community there is a population of vulnerable people so the community has to be part of the solution.”
She points to the lack of rehabilitation facilities in the area and that the difficulty people have accessing medical services here is extra hard for homeless people who may not have a phone, transportation, identification or even an alarm clock.
Despite the complications, Littlejohn is optimistic, having seen firsthand that “people’s lives can, and do change,” with the right support.
But Littlejohn’s outreach work is often a slow process.
“I just sit and chat and build trust – help connect them with something,” she said of working on a timeline of months or even years.
As an example she told a story of taking seven years of regular contact to gain the trust of one young lady in Vancouver who’d been “pimped out by her mother since she was eight.”
“I’ve seen that change, it will not happen overnight, but if the community gets involved, it will change.”
This longterm approach is key and makes the current system of makeshift temporary solutions ineffective, she said, highlighting the local scramble to establish an emergency shelter every winter.
“We need stable ongoing funding and projects,” she said pointing again to the success of Orca Place. And while she’s a fan of Orca, she adds that small independent subsidies are just as good – “we don’t need more new big BC Housing buildings – more community integrated models are an efficient use of funding.”
Littlejohn is a believer in the ‘housing first’ approach favoured by experts – get people inside, to a warm dry bed and shower, then work on related issues. People can’t properly address mental health or addiction issues alone, living under a bush.
“It’s hard to make good choices when you’re stuck down in that position,” she said. “There are many models that work – we just can’t duck our heads – we have an obligation as a society – we have to do something.
“Instead of ‘not in my backyard’ – it is already in our community, let’s address it. This is our community – how do we come together? What if this was your brother, mother, aunt, child in distress?”
Auren Ruvinsky is co-ordinator of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, a collaborative effort between local services addressing homelessness