Standing outside of the Gospel Mission last week I was speaking with a couple of homeless men trying to better understand their situation, the job the Gospel Mission does and the people it serves.
With camera in hand I snapped a few pictures of the outside of the non-descript building on Leon Avenue that every night is home to up to 80 homeless men and a handful of women, and inside includes things like a dental clinic and a kitchen that last year served over 150,000 meals.
Many of our city’s homeless—the majority suffering from drug addiction, mental health issues or both—were returning to the mission mid-morning, entering to grab a coffee or a warm drink and rest in what is, likely, the only home they have.
One man clad in a leather jacket veered away from the door and approached me directly.
“Did you get me in one of those pictures,” he said matter-of-factly. “You better delete it.”
I’m an outsider here. The only other time I see these people is to drive past them. I decline when asked for money. I look the other way figuring I have my own problems.
Like a lot of the working public, I have no idea what the homeless go through on a daily basis, why they are in this situation, who is helping them or how they can possibly turn it around.
I’ve ignored them, shook my head, shrugged my shoulders.
“I probably had a similar attitude about the homeless when I came into this job and that was probably based on ignorance,” said Randy Benson, executive director of the Gospel Mission, of his start on the job some 14 years ago. “I didn’t understand. We are all one or two pay-cheques away from this.”
Back outside and returning to my conversation with a middle-aged homeless man who introduced himself as Benjamin, he points towards the door to the mission.
“That’s the problem in there,” he says. “They have the wolves in with the sheep. You have people trying to get off drugs but then you have the criminal element coming in and selling drugs.”
Wolves among sheep. A cycle of hopelessness fuelled by addiction and crime. It’s another world most of us choose to ignore but some are tackling head on.
Unless you are living it, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to be homeless in Kelowna. But for a Montreal businessman I will call Tim, being homeless in Kelowna became his life for almost a month early this year.
Tim isn’t homeless. In fact he had enough money to stay in one of Kelowna’s nicer hotels if he wanted. A self-described humanitarian who watched his son struggle with a crack cocaine addiction for nine years before overcoming it, Tim arrived in Kelowna in February of this year to see family. Trusting, he befriended a couple at a local pub and they robbed him of $7,000 cash. With no money at hand, he decided to go to the Gospel Mission to see what happens to someone who has no other resources for survival. He pretended he was homeless.
For 28 days Tim, 52, was sheltered at the Gospel Mission, living amongst Kelowna’s homeless. He did spend a few nights in hotel because, in his own words, he just couldn’t take it.
But what he witnessed was a shock to the system. Drug use and abuse, apathy, hopelessness. The situation, he said, is dire. He said the community of homeless people in Kelowna live in a vicious cycle of drug abuse and a system that enables them to stay homeless.
And the majority of the public just doesn’t care.
“I felt depressed. I felt lonely. I felt ignored. I felt degraded,” said Tim after voluntarily leaving the mission and heading home. “People drive by in their cars and look to see who is out there. They drive by and think these are the assholes of the community. I was one of them standing on the doorstep. I saw people mistreat others in such a way that made me feel ashamed to be Canadian.”
More than ashamed, Tim was scared to go back to Leon Avenue. After leaving the Gospel Mission and deciding to share his story with the Kelowna Capital News, he didn’t want to go near Leon or be back amongst the homeless, some of whom had questioned whether he really needed the help.
What he saw will stay with him for a long time.
“I took this on as a humanitarian experience,” he said. “I’m hoping someone hears this story and cares, gets involved and says I can help some of these people. It’s awareness. Just to be aware of your fellow human being. I met people who were dangerous, so mentally unstable it’s frightening. Why are they just walking the streets? They don’t know what to do. They are just lost. They think this is the way it is, this is our life.”
Inside the Gospel Mission Tim said he witnessed workers who were uncaring, not helping, apathetic to the people they are there to serve. Not all of them, but some of them.
“People would come in drunk or stoned and the would just laugh at them,” he said. “I was talked down to by the people that work there. I’m not putting everyone in the same basket. Some of them were competent where I felt secure and some of them were in ‘I don’t care mode.’ It’s just a job. I heard it all the time: ‘You’re lucky we are here.'”
When I met with Tim he was adamant something had to be done at the Gospel Mission. He was vowing to make public what he saw. That’s how I ended up outside, snapping pictures, talking to homeless men and meeting with Randy Benson, the mission’s executive director.
“I know it’s not a matter of the staff not caring, it’s if they have the time to give because everyone needs something,” said Benson, who added Tim wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last to examine what happens in the mission. “I don’t think anyone is just here for the pay cheque. You have to have a heart for these people to stay here. I know one of the frustrations the staff expressed is they feel frustration at not being able to give more one-on-one. But you have four people dealing with 80 homeless.”
During the evenings, when as many as 80 men file in to fill the beds at the Gospel Mission, there are just four employees, spread out over the building. The homeless must store luggage and their belongings in a secure locker and are given pajamas, access to a shower and a bed in the dorm room.
Drugs and alcohol are not permitted inside. But Tim said he was approached in the dorms to purchase drugs and also witnessed drug use inside.
“If we find anyone around the facility is selling drugs or trying to peddle drugs we give them a loss of service,” explained Benson. “That is a constant battle because when you have people dealing with addictions and trying to gain some sense of victory over that, they are going to be vulnerable to the people that want to prey on them. It’s part of the reality of the emergency shelter. It’s not isolated to Kelowna. It’s everywhere. The high percentage of people we see are dealing with addiction or mental illness or both and those are the most vulnerable to the people that want to prey on them. I won’t kid you that it’s not a problem but we certainly do our best to create as safe of a place as we can.”
A couple of days after I first talked to Benjamin, who first came to Kelowna in 2004 and said he was a carpenter by trade, I went back to find him. I couldn’t stop thinking about him and his life and what had brought him to the streets, how he is surviving.
Like clock-work, there he was, ambling up the street towards the mission at coffee time, stopping to pick-up a tossed away cigarette butt as he walked alone on Leon Avenue.
I had questions. And he had answers.
He told fantastic and elaborate stories. He talked about global issues, ways other countries are dealing with drug and homeless problems, solutions to Kelowna’s problems.
In the end I walked away with more questions than answers. I have no idea how to help and no clue how hard it would be for someone to bounce back and get back on their feet, living amongst the wolves.
“This (the mission) is all great but every person is a drug dealer and if they aren’t a drug dealer their friends are,” he said. “There are people who need drugs, people who want drugs and all of the people are on welfare. It’s a thriving community of thieves and it doesn’t matter what it is someone will buy it.”
Montreal native Tim, back home now with his family, says the public needs to understand the situation and do whatever they can to help.
“What I have done here is hopefully by bringing it to light the people in this area will be able to do something and help them out and to be aware that it exists in your community,” he said. “People should be ashamed that a human being would have to sleep in the street and be enabled with our tax money to just keep on doing what they are doing.”
For the Gospel Mission’s Randy Benson, he says they are there to catch the people that fall through the cracks of society. It’s their last chance to try to turn it around.
“I’m positive about what we do and I’m still realistic that there is a lot more we could be doing,” said Benson. “I think there are a lot of great partnerships and collaboration and I think as a community we are doing very well with the resources we have. As agencies we work together to try and figure out how we can do better. We are the safety net. We are the last resort to catch the people that fall through the cracks. We like to say we are the purveyors of hope. If we give them a little bit of hope their life can change.”