COLUMN: Walking the streets of Parksville — ‘What I’ve seen really disturbs me’

RCMP escorted illegal campers out of Marks Park after a fire on Nov. 26 was put out. Cpl. Jesse Foreman said police accompanied bylaw officers as a precaution because of illegal campers refusing to comply in the past. // PHOTO BY KEVIN FORSYTH
By Mark Russell

After having suffered the recent loss of my wife, I find myself with a lot of time on my hands. So, rather than sit at home staring at the walls and wallowing in my own misery I decided to go for a walkabout and I started meeting and talking to people — seeing and learning things about my community that I didn’t know before. In my 25 years here I hadn’t been to Top Bridge, wow, what a beautiful place. 

One night about 3 weeks ago I was out for a stroll I was walking up to the Chevron in Parksville to buy a hot chocolate and I passed by a young man sitting on the loading dock of the local Salvation Army thrift store. It was about 8:30 in the evening and the first cold night that we experienced this autumn. I approached him and asked him if there was an indoor shelter that he could get into, maybe I could take him. He said no, Parksville doesn’t have a cold weather shelter.

I was a little shocked to hear that, I thought cold weather shelters were a given, a right even. Every city has one, right ? Not here in Parksville apparently.

So I made my way over to the Chevron, got a small hot chocolate for myself and a large hot chocolate and a sandwich for the young man. I made my way home along the same route and found him still sitting there, still wrapped in a blanket and not much of a blanket at that. I gave him the hot chocolate and the sandwich and I wished him well and then I went home. I went inside and closed the door and my home was warm.

I was at the door of Canadian Tire when they opened the next morning, asking for a discount on the purchase of 10 or more emergency blankets and a couple of camping air mattresses. 

“Yes,” said the nice lady when I explained myself. I drove around town, looking for people to give the blankets to and not a hour later I had run out.

A problem arises when you set out to help those who are worse off than you. It’s very difficult to stop once you’ve started because the need for your help doesn’t go away. The need is there always.

I’ve discovered that homelessness is not the preferred way of existing here in our little corner of paradise. It’s usually forced on us by circumstances beyond our control.

Mark Russell

So I continue to walk our streets daily and nightly and have done so for the last three weeks or so, and I can tell you with authority, what I’ve seen really disturbs me. There are people without a roof, a shower, a bathroom, clean socks, people with no place to put their tooth brush. They are forced to pack up every personal item they own on their backs every day and keep moving around all day until nightfall, when they have permission to build their homes once again and sleep in the cold.

I’ve talked to many people both homed and homeless. I’ve heard many stories from both. Stories about fear, anger, compassion, loneliness, aloneness, mental health problems, addiction, TLC, honour and dishonour, horror stories from the authorities, horror stories about the authorities. I’ve spoken to neighbours walking through Mark’s Park and have changed some of their opinions about the folks in the park. Some neighbours still have a fear of the park residents. I’ve also seen with my own eyes some terrible atrocities perpetrated onto those that are without homes.

Those sleeping in Mark’s Nature Park are ordered by bylaw officers to collapse their tent (home) into the wet, muddy ground every morning due to the unsightly appearance that homed people are forced to look at. Imagine someone complaining about your home’s appearance and being ordered to destroy it and rebuild it everyday.

One interesting thing I found out, according to health officials — it’s not illegal to defecate in our local parks (I guess if dogs can do it ….) The city has not supplied a porta-potty to those who were told it was OK to camp in the park.

NIMBY, NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard!

Well folks it is in our neighbourhoods, it’s here now. So …. what to do? How about we talk…. to each other. Homed people talk to homeless people and vice versa. People with homes, please listen and heed this, the people surviving in the outdoors DO NOT want to be there, no matter how many times you’re told otherwise.

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Photo submitted by Mark Russell

The main problem is drug addiction and mental health issues. These issues cannot be worked on successfully without a common sense approach and the approach I’m seeing is sorely lacking in common sense.

I’ve seen people without homes accosted and abused by ordinary people, by city officials, by law enforcement officials. There’s a lot of hate out there, a lot of anger by residents robbed of their possessions, vehicles broken into, the sanctity of their homes violated.The anger is understandable, the hatred is not. The reason for the thievery is the overwhelming need (craving) for the drug.

If there is no dose then there is excruciating misery because of the agonizing withdrawal symptoms. Add to that, no regular meals, poor physical health and of course the deliberate deterioration of the mental health system. 

I’ve discovered that homelessness is not the preferred way of existing here in our little corner of paradise. It’s usually forced on us by circumstances beyond our control.

Portugal fixed their drug problem in 2018 by altering the Controlled Substance Act to allow those with addictions to possess up to 10 days supply of the drug of choice. The government supplies the drugs through the health system. One result of this policy was the elimination of the drug pusher. People with addictions can now get medical treatment instead of handcuffs. The police are now free to deal with crime caused by greed and avarice instead of addiction and survival.

I’ll close by saying that the subject isn’t closed. I’ll be out walking again and getting a cup of hot chocolate for someone in need of a cup of warmth. I’ll cook and bring soup and relieve a little bit of hunger. One less thing to stress about when you’re counting the hours until morning. It might even mean the difference of living through the night and not. 

These people are your neighbours and they have loved ones, these people are human as are we, Let’s show our humanity, let’s wear it on our sleeves. Say hello to your neighbour.

Oceanside News Parksville Qualicum Beach

Mark Russell

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