Finding a way off the streets

It was not very likely that Charlie Bazso, whose parents raised thoroughbred horses on the Langley farm where he spent his childhood, would find himself living on the streets in his 30s.

  • Jan. 28, 2011 5:00 p.m.

John Howard Society executive director Shelley Cook thanks Charlie Bazso for the encouraging words he gave the non-profit’s REnEW graduates this week. The program trains people on the fringes of employment to do energy retrofits in residential and commercial construction.

It was not very likely that Charlie Bazso, whose parents raised thoroughbred horses on the Langley farm where he spent his childhood, would find himself living on the streets in his 30s.

Given the variables in his adult life—drinking, heavy drug use, and eventually a long history of homelessness—it was even less likely he would wind up gainfully employed at the end of it all with hopes of returning to college.

Yet if you watch the spark in the 41-year-old’s clear blue eyes, it’s pretty clear, even through his short, simple answers, various addictions and personality quirks, Bazso is a guy firing on all cylinders.

“Working with the homeless and being homeless, I understand how people react,” he said in an interview conducted on a break from his position as maintenance manager for the John Howard Society.

“There’s a lot of frustration and anger and, you know, basically anything to do with authority, rules, guidelines, they have a hard time following…”

The reasons for this aversion to authority vary, he explains, saying it’s largely to do with the person’s past, whatever got them to the streets in the first place.

Bazso relocated to the Okanagan six or seven years ago where the California north climate beckoned.

“It’s warmer than Calgary,” he said simply. He had some friends here initially who encouraged him to move, although he’s since lost touch with them.

Before his arrival, Bazso lived on the streets in Alberta, entirely exposed to the elements and at the mercy of his own pent-up frustrations. He had gotten into drugs at a young age, then met a girlfriend with whom he shared a life in that province’s boomtown. She largely kept his demons at bay and by the end of their six-year relationship, they were engaged.

He admits there was some drinking during that period, but it wasn’t until the relationship ended that his life really went haywire.

A construction worker who had worked with horses in Golden, B.C. for a spat, it didn’t take long for him to slide from alcohol to drugs and wind up addicted to crack cocaine.

His explanation of how he became one of the first residents of Cardington Apartments, the once highly controversial supportive housing complex on St. Paul Street in Kelowna that had the entire city in an uproar over the term “wet facility,” is a lot more complicated.

For those who don’t remember what wet facility meant, the quick version is that the residents are permitted to use substances on-site as they work toward a clean and sober life.

The proviso is meant to ensure the formerly homeless residents get a real chance at beating their addiction rather than being turfed out of their new home for a simple slip up, like a fluke night of binge drinking after a trying day at work.

As Bazso attests, it takes time to learn the skills—like patience—and coping mechanisms needed to ensure the bottle, needle, pipe what have you isn’t the only route when life gets difficult, as it often does.

Even today, working in a management position with the John Howard Society at Cardington, and consulting on their next supportive housing building in Rutland, those slips do occur for him.

The difference is one minor setback doesn’t spiral out of control anymore, he said.

It’s just another experience he can learn from, figure out what triggered the problem and how to avoid the issue in the future.

All of that said, Bazso is quite plain about the difficulties moving into such a facility presented on first blush.

Today, residents can move in, learn the ropes, and then slowly progress toward sobriety without much fuss.

Some will choose to stay out when they’re using, out of respect for fellow residents, and the others will be weeded out as they demonstrate they are not a good fit for the housing.

Life at Cardington was not like this when Bazso walked through the doors.

“Everybody would be in everybody’s rooms partying,” he said.

Bazso was one of the first residents, meaning many people were just starting the transition from the homeless to the housed.

“When they started trying to cut out the harm reduction, eventually that started to weed them out,” he said.

Today, he feels the criteria is more strict to get in—spots only come open once in a while—and there’s more balance between residents just beginning their journey and those who have made major strides.

Bazso came into Cardington sober. He first connected with the John Howard Society through the Gospel Mission and had been trying to turn his fortunes around for some time.

He had enrolled in a private college to earn counselling certifications—he wanted to work with the homeless—and spent a year living in the Gospel Mission’s Men of Destiny group home learning life skills to keep him off the street.

He was working for the Men of Destiny program by the time he moved into Cardington, spending evenings away from home at his job as house manager.

He then worked for Inn from the Cold, a church-based shelter program for the homeless which serves the wintertime needs of those on the street. His apartment at Cardington was affordable and he paid his rent to the John Howard Society.

But it wasn’t until he started what’s called the REnEW program that he really started to earn the skills that will allow him to make major gains.

REnEW is entirely unique in North America. It’s meant to address the new government commitments to reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) which are raising serious challenges for communities.

The GHG emission reduction targets have created a new need for energy retrofits, and a new need for people specifically trained to do energy upgrades to houses and commercial buildings.

REnEW is designed to bridge this gap by taking individuals who might otherwise slip through the cracks in the employment cycle and putting them through a five-week course to provide everything from first aid to fall protection to WHMIS training. Bazso was among the first group of graduates and this week he delivered a speech on the tools the program has provided him to the incoming group.

As each graduate collected his certificate—there were only men in this round of participants, though the previous group included women—they were given a special recognition: Best attendance, hardest worker, most motivated and so forth.

All three energy providers (BC Hydro, Terasen Gas, and FortisBC) contribute to the program and a local contractor, U.K. Trades, has signed on to do a good deal of the hands-on job site mentoring.

It’s worked out so well that this week’s grad class had a member hired directly out of the program and U.K. Trades owner, Ron Brewer, said he fully intends to try and make their participation a permanent partnership, though there are challenges.

“With the economy the way it is, it’s not going to be easy,” said Brewer, who joked during the graduation ceremony that he was shocked the John Howard Society “let a bunch of guys like (his team) loose on the students.”

There are fewer new housing starts and renovations at the moment, and consequently the retrofit projects are down. So the program graduates have to be a little creative as to what they do with their new skills.

Bazso is a prime example of this creative twist. He earned a permanent job out of his certifications, but it’s in janitorial work.

With the knowledge and proper tools—participants are given a tool belt and a solid tool set so they’re ready to walk onto the job site—the John Howard Society was able to put him to work immediately.

He has been able to use his energy knowledge in the work doing some consulting on the non-profit’s new building.

“I just try and go one day at a time, one step at a time,” he said.

Bazso now sees a future in working with the homeless.

He still lives in the Cardington Apartments, said he’s become far more aware of how we waste energy, and tries to help the other residents reduce their energy consumption.

As the building was built with LEED certification in mind (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system), his eye for waste contributes to an overall goal of reducing energy consumption in the building.

He is hoping to return to college for more training in janitorial work and says he can one day see working in a counselling-type role.

Bazso said he still struggles from time-to-time with addiction and with learning the patience necessary to keep up his work.

He’s known for being tidy and ensuring everyone else in the building is too.

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