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Won’t you be my neighbour?

Perhaps you’ve heard a friend or a family member say, “Some people can never be housed. Some just choose to stay on the streets.” Many people struggle with how to be a neighbour to the homeless among us, believing we cannot make a difference.

“Homeless Joe” was a familiar fellow who had been pushing his shopping cart of belongings around Abbotsford, B.C., for 17 years. His face was recognized by many, but he was not known by anyone. Homeless Joe regularly consumed alcohol and exhibited mental health issues. Joe never drew much attention or created any fuss. He would park himself and all his earthly possessions in front of one establishment after another until he was asked (sometimes politely, sometimes not so kindly) to move on. One recent winter was particularly brutal on Joe. Being exposed to the elements resulted in the very real threat of having several toes and fingers removed due to frostbite. Even then, Joe vehemently declined various emergency care, shelter and housing options. All of us “experts” had identified Homeless Joe as someone likely to remain chronically homeless, despite our efforts to help him.

Then, in the Fall of 2012, along came Gwen.*

Gwen would occasionally give Joe a cup of coffee or a five dollar bill when she would see him around her neighbourhood. After a while she decided that wasn’t enough. She began to talk to Joe. Then she brought along her three young daughters with her to do the same. Through these interactions, Gwen soon learned that Joe really liked clean clothes! So when she would meet him she would take his clothes home, wash them and bring them back clean. The friendship grew.

A man named Walter
In January 2013, Gwen was able to convince Joe to hop into her car and go to Abbotsford Community Services to receive further help. During the first visit Joe stayed inside Gwen’s vehicle and talked with Christina, Director of Seniors’ Services, while she stood just on the other side of the car door, speaking through the window. This was a first step to building trust. With Gwen’s encouragement, Joe was willing to visit again. This time he ventured into the building. And then the next time, into Christina’s office to talk about applying for tax refunds and pension. Joe was quiet but he made eye contact. Then, something remarkable happened:  “Homeless Joe” remembered his full name and birth date.

His name is Walter.*

Knowing his name opened many doors for Walter. After finding his Social Insurance Number, Christina helped Walter to apply for CPP and Old Age Security. On the next visit Walter signed the completed forms. He was becoming a little more interactive. ACS volunteers worked together with Walter to complete 10 years of his income tax returns. Walter received 11 months of retroactive OAS and CPP, and 10 months of retroactive tax refunds and GST.

This sum of money allowed Gwen to help Walter move into shelter housing for two months, then into room and board for 10 months. In February 2014 Walter transitioned into his own one-bedroom apartment. Walter successfully continues to live independently. His friend Gwen monitors and supports Walter to continue to improve his quality of life.

Finding family and community
On most Saturdays Gwen picks Walter up from his home and takes him to her place where he hangs out with her and her husband and kids for the day. Walter is usually invited for breakfast and lunch, and inevitably stays long enough to share supper with the family before being driven home. Gwen’s family has essentially become Walter’s family.

The value of this new “family” is heightened because of the news that came to light through this relationship – Walter had tragically lost his wife before he became homeless. This traumatic event triggered a mental illness. Alcohol was introduced to suppress the pain. The combination of loss, mental illness and drinking eventually resulted in his succumbing to homelessness. That was his lonely reality for many years, but now Walter has a new family. In spite of this, he still hears voices and alcohol still helps to drown out those voices. He is still on his journey to recovery.

In the fall of 2016 Walter agreed to an assessment by a Mental Health practitioner. He received a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Currently, Walter is not interested in taking medication for his illness. Healing comes in baby steps. Healing comes in the form of Gwen’s ongoing support.

If not for Gwen, it’s very likely that Walter would still be living on the streets. He may not have remembered his own own name. He might have even died on the streets. Gwen is not a trained mental health clinician or homelessness outreach worker. She is a concerned citizen and a local mom who decided that “Homeless Joe” was a neighbour worth getting to know. And as she and her family took the steps to get to know Joe, a man named Walter was able to emerge from underneath the trauma and the ravages of the streets. Walter has been able to begin taking the steps towards a healthier life within the safety of belonging and community. As for Gwen and her family, they have experienced the joy of having Walter in their lives and of having expanded their family circle.

Go and do likewise
“‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Lk. 10:36-37).

Walter fell into the hands of several robbers: loss and trauma; schizophrenia; alcoholism. Gwen had mercy on him. Jesus’ command to us is to  go and do likewise. Will you be a Gwen? Will you be a neighbour to a Walter who needs you?   

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

  • Rod Santiago has worked in the field of community essential services – locally and internationally – for the past three decades, specializing in the fields of international community development, immigrants and refugees and street entrenched youth. Rod has a BA in Religious Studies and an Executive MBA and lives in Abbotsford, B.C. where he currently works as the Executive Director for Abbotsford Community Services. He is married to Karyn, his accomplished and beautiful wife since 1989. They have two amazing daughters, a terrific son-in-law and one granddaughter.

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