They’re often sitting on a park bench or hanging around a corner as we walk by. We avoid eye contact so we don’t have to acknowledge their presence.
That scenario isn’t uncommon as Vernonites come in contact with the community’s homeless. But a new memorial in Polson Park is challenging stereotypes and encouraging residents to look out for their neighbour.
“We need to raise our voices and use our lives to make a difference,” said Chuck Harper, community chaplain with First Baptist Church, who led the campaign for the homeless memorial which was officially unveiled in Polson Park, next to Highway 97, Friday.
“We need to look to the future with a sense of hope and purpose.”
The memorial pays tribute to those who have died from homelessness-related issues, such as substance abuse and mental illness. There were 14 in Vernon last year.
“That’s unacceptable, that’s wrong,” said Harper, who was poised to act after a friend died.
“Ron was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When Ron passed, I needed to do something.”
Taking the lead from other communities across North America, Harper decided that a permanent memorial was needed for those living on the street.
“They need a place to remember their friends and family,” he said.
“This provides a place of dignity and respect.”
But beyond serving as a link to those who have died, Harper wants the memorial to act as a catalyst to challenge the status quo in society.
“We’re not alone in the issues of homelessness, addiction and mental illness and the complications that impact our loved ones,” he said.
Annette Sharkey, with the Social Planning Council, wants to see the stigma around homelessness broken.
“We’ve lost precious lives and people important to our community,” she said, adding that there needs to be a strategy at all levels of government and in communities to ensure affordable housing is available, as are health care services and access to counselling.
“We need people to come forward, to be innovative and to take a chance to solve the issue.”
In recent years, a number of agencies have co-operated with the City of Vernon to tackle homelessness.
“We need to remember the people we lost and why we are working towards a solution,” said Coun. Mary-Jo O’Keefe, representing the city.
“There is always work to do and there will always be someone who is in need of a hand up.”