Morning Star Staff
He was articulate and well-spoken. He was great at self-reflection. He liked watching the Vancouver Canucks. And more often than not, he lived at the Howard House Men’s Shelter.
“He had been coming to our shelter on and off for a few years, and we hit it off right away,” Steve Soglo, manager of shelter services at the John Howard Society, told the crowd gathered in Polson Park Thursday afternoon to honour people whose deaths were linked to homelessness in 2017.
Thursday’s service remembered 15 men and women.
“In a different time and place, we could have been friends— this (was a) guy, who was my age who struggled in life,” he added.
After not seeing him for nearly a year, Soglo said he began to wonder what happened to his would-be friend—if he had achieved his goals, or if life had gotten better for him. Then one day Soglo’s coworker showed him the man’s name in the obituaries.
“This guy in his 40s, who I had hoped so much for, was gone. And then you wonder how it happened.”
Chuck Harper, a chaplain at First Baptist Church, and the organizer of the annual service, says people like himself and Soglo rarely, if ever, find the answer.
“There are usually rumours, but because of privacy issues, no one but the person’s family is given any information,” he explained before sharing a similar story of his own.
“My friend died behind a gas station— his body was found behind a dumpster, and I don’t know why or how. And even worse, there was no obituary, no memorial that I’m aware of—nothing. Nothing was said. There was more in the news about a car accident that had happened that day than about him. That really affected me.”
Harper said he has experienced too many of these “under-reported” deaths over the course of his nearly 30 years working with some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens as a pastor and frontline worker.
“One of our guys had fallen down the stairs at Gateway (Shelter) and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I needed to do something,” he said, referring to the moment he decided to spearhead the memorial in 2014.
“There were 15 deaths that year—I had all I could stands and I couldn’t stands no more.”
Popeye reference aside, Harper said the number concerns him, but the causes are even more alarming and speak emphatically to the harsh realities of poverty and the dangers of living on the street.
In his research, Harper said he learned that the No. 1 cause of death among the homeless population is compromised health, which includes death related to overdose, exposure and malnutrition. The second leading cause of death is cancer.
“There are as many reasons for being homeless as there are homeless,” Vernon City Coun. Juliette Cunningham said during her turn at the podium Thursday afternoon. “It’s (homelessness) a very divisive issue and it’s becoming a partisan issue. But it doesn’t matter which political party you support, we need to look at this from a human perspective.”
“It’s not about camps or people in camps. It’s not about bums. It’s about men and women who are dying and we need to do more to stop it,” Harper added.
Having panhandled on the streets of Vernon when he was 16 after being kicked out of the house for his destructive behaviour, Harper said he knows first-hand what kind of complications some of his “guys and gals” on the streets are facing.
“I was an alcoholic by the time I was 22. I was drunk and blacking out, and I realized I needed to make a change. I’m married with five kids and nine grandchildren now, but if it wasn’t for people reaching out to me and helping me and my brokenness and holding me accountable, I would have been dead or in jail many years ago,” he noted.
“Not everyone is so lucky, and I do my best to reach out and help these people, like people helped me so that they don’t end up dead behind a dumpster like my friend. People get angry about the camps and some of the things that go on at the camps and I understand that, but it’s important to remember these are not nameless, faceless, bad people— that they’re all individuals. They all have a story.”