On the front page of a Capital News edition from nearly 20 years ago, a 15-year-old version of Rhea Montpetit posed for a picture with change forming the word “love,” at her feet.
“It was a big deal to me at the time so I made sure I kept one,” Montpetit said, from her home in Vancouver.
“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever and I enjoyed what (the reporter wrote) about us. It was the only time I’ve been in the paper so I made sure I kept it.”
As a teenager Monpetit travelled with friend Brianna Ferrie to Kelowna from Victoria in the summer in order to find work in the orchards, but that didn’t end up happening.
She was featured on the cover of the Aug. 29, 1999 edition of the newspaper, as she and her friend Ferrie begged for change.
Montpetit left her home in Victoria for a variety of reasons; a dysfunctional family life, a mother who struggled with mental illness, and she wasn’t attending public school, she said.
She then got into partying, drinking, and drugs.
“I just didn’t want to go home, I was kind of in a tough situation with my mother… it just wasn’t a supportive place to be, I felt like I was better off on my own.”
Montpetit was homeless for about three years, travelling between Victoria and Kelowna where she spent a few summers.
“Because of the climate, it was a smaller city so I felt that it was less dangerous than Victoria or Vancouver even, where there’s just so many people. It’s less safe, especially if you’re a woman,” she said.
In Kelowna, she connected with other summertime transients, and they looked out for each other.
“Everyone would hang out (in City Park) so there was kind of a sense of community… I felt like it was safe there for me as a younger person.
Montpetit primarily stayed in the downtown centre, finding meals at the Gospel Mission, but remembers walking across the Bennett Bridge with Ferrie in tow. They found shelter underneath houseboats that had been docked on land.
“The one thing I did have going for me then, I was young and I thought nothing could touch (me),” she said. “You do get a lot of guys coming up to you offering money or a place to stay and it’s obvious what they wanted is some sort of sexual favour. Even with my friend, I would still have men approach me and ask for that kind of stuff.”
She got a dog to protect herself once she parted ways with Ferrie.
“If someone was coming, (the dog) would start growling and that was a trigger with me,” she said. “You do kind of have to watch your back all the time.”
Montpetit also wore baggy men’s clothing in order to hide herself.
“You don’t want to look attractive,” she said. “I tried to blend as much as you could. Those as just kind of coping skills as a woman you develop.”
Eventually, she tired of the way she was living.
“It’s just a daily grind of being wet, being cold, being tired, being hungry and fortunately I qualified for independent living… and fortunately, I lived in a time where I could still get an apartment for $300, because nowadays what people get for welfare, you can’t rent an apartment on that. But back then you could, and I was able to get a place, and from there I went to an alternative school, which was for at-risk youth, and I started getting through high school again,” she said.
Montpetit stayed away from the partying and slowly built herself back up, attending online classes while she worked in the service industry in her 20s.
She now works as a paralegal in Vancouver.
“Which is hilarious, because 15-year-old me would have never thought that would happen; working in the law,” she said.
Montpetit agrees with a housing first initiative, saying she was able to get on her feet after she found housing.
“Nowadays it just doesn’t exist. For people who are critically homeless… to be able to find a place is a huge barrier, and if you’re housed in a place surrounded by others with drug addictions, it’s not a place where you can get better,” she said.
“You have to provide people with a nice clean place, with other people who are also trying to change their lives and provides a service to them and not make them seek it for themselves because even if you can get a place to live, you still have to go, for instance in Vancouver, to the Downtown Eastside to access your services so you’re always in the mix, you don’t have a chance to extricate yourself from the situation so I think having housing that actually is affordable and a nice place to live also builds people’s self esteem.”
In June, a housing strategy was presented to council recommended by the Journey Home Task Force which proposes a $46.7 million effort over five years, with $18 million providing 300 units of long-term housing in buildings with supports on-site for people with complex needs such as addiction, mental health and medical needs.
Another $26 million would be earmarked for 500 new program spaces supporting people in rental housing across the city, including assertive community treatment, intensive care management, rapid rehousing and prevention. The support would be based on the Housing First model, which advocates getting people into housing before providing supportive programs.
B.C. Housing has committed to the development of two buildings in Kelowna this year with a total of 88 units, and is in discussion with the city about 100 additional units in future buildings throughout the city.
One of the complexes, called Hearthstone, has already opened on Commerce Avenue.
Another complex, located across Highway 97 in the former North Pointe Inn motel, will open later this month.
Gospel Mission executive director, Randy Benson said it’s not as common to see seasonal travellers from the coast visit the Gospel Mission.
While he said it’s too soon to see how effective the opening of the two new housing units on Commonage Road, he’s supportive of the housing first intuitive.
“The journey home plan is just getting started and we’re seeing this new housing so obviously, that’s going to be a great help for people housed there,” he said.
He called it a good overall model that serves a segmented part of the population.