It was a somber afternoon in Vernon’s Polson Park as close to 100 people gathered for the ninth annual Homeless Memorial Thursday, Oct. 13.
The event is in line with Homelessness Action Week and comes one day after a preliminary report was released showing that 247 British Columbians experiencing homelessness died in 2021 — a 75 per cent increase compared to 2020.
Even though a pall was cast over the memorial by the deaths of some of the community’s most vulnerable over the past year, many of the speakers offered words of hope.
“The loss has been great this year. It’s been too much. We all know of multiple people that have passed away this year,” said Jacco de Vin, general manager of the Upper Room Mission.
“Besides the people we have lost, there are now more people homeless sleeping in our parks and trying to survive compared to last year, and in 2022, with the prosperity we have in this city, this is really unacceptable.”
De Vin recalled a friend asking him a question that stuck with him: “Is the Upper Room Mission mission impossible?”
He said the Mission is successful when it can provide a meal to someone who is hungry, or a warm shower to someone cold and dirty, or dry clothes to someone who is wet and had their belongings stolen.
“Success for us, for our staff at the mission, is a smile, a hug, an opportunity to talk and encourage, to pray, to love somebody,” de Vin said. “Our mission is not impossible.”
People with lived experience of homelessness and substance abuse were among the event speakers.
Alvino Banman said he started using drugs at a young age to escape from a traumatic and abusive childhood.
“As I continued to use through my life I slowly lost everything, all my possessions, my home, my relationship with my family and my daughter, and I ended up homeless here in Vernon,” Banman said.
“I felt hopeless and worthless. But in the last nine months I’ve gotten to know God, my family is proud of me now, I’m proud of myself, and I’ve got the strongest bond with my daughter that I’ve ever had.”
Less than 24 hours before the memorial, North Okanagan Community Chaplain and event organizer Chuck Harper received some disheartening news.
“Last night I got a text asking me once again whether I had heard if so and so had passed away,” he said. “This morning I was able to confirm that this man had passed away. I don’t know all the details, I do know that his partner was with him and he died in her arms and I’m assuming it’s an overdose.
“It’s so overwhelming, the deaths and the despair and the depression.”
Harper shared the story of a fallen friend named Merle. The two didn’t get along in the beginning but overcame their differences to become good friends.
“Just earlier this year I found out that he had passed away behind a dumpster behind the bowling alley,” Harper said.
“I felt like I’d been curb-stomped. It sucked the air out of my lungs.”
At the end of the memorial, members of the audience were invited to place flowers at the Greater Vernon homeless memorial rock. The crowd formed a long line to adorn the rock while a musician played music on the guitar.