While there has been controversy, Rob Brown says in his experience living on the streets in Parksville, “the people are awesome.”
“When I first got here I had a hard time getting used to everybody saying ‘hi, how are you’ and stuff on the street,” said the 29-year-old who came here for work from Grand Prairie, Alberta last summer.
A city a bit smaller than Nanaimo, 150 kilometres northeast of Prince George, Brown said an ugly situation got a lot worse with the slowdown in the oil industry.
“It’s just been getting worse and worse as the years go on, and lack of work is the biggest part of it,” he said. “All of a sudden they’re sending people home, they basically fired half the town, a lot of people are going to go crazy and do whatever they have to to get money.”
According to Statistics Canada the city now has the highest violent crime rate in the country.
Friends in Qualicum Beach said they had work for him and bought him a bus ticket, but the bus company lost his bag, including all his ID. The bag was never found, he was never compensated and the promised work didn’t pan out.
He stayed with his friends for six weeks until the landlord threatened to kick them all out if he didn’t leave. So he ended up on the street in Parksville last fall.
And while he found most people in the area surprisingly friendly and inviting, his bad luck continued. He’d managed to get a tent and sleeping bag from the Manna Ministries van when he first arrived, only to have it all stolen by the first person to show him a good secret camping spot.
Brown did bits of work over the months when he could, washing dishes and working on a gold claim, but like most of the homeless people he knows in the area, he just wasn’t able to save up enough to actually change his situation.
With a shoulder dislocating painfully several times a day, Brown was caught in a Catch-22, unable to get surgery, or even regular access to doctors until he had a permanent address, which he couldn’t do until he had work, which he couldn’t do without surgery for his shoulder.
Brown had some short stays in various housing, or with friends, but ended up living outside again last January.
And while people often talk about the mild Island weather, Brown said, “the humidity was the hardest part. Minus four or minus five here with the moisture is like minus 20 back home. Days that it was raining it felt like 30 or 40 below back home. But when it’s 30 or 40 below back home you can still go to work, it’s dry.”
Things are looking up for Brown, who is now housed through the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness and scheduled to get surgery on his shoulder this week.
Calling himself a “jack of all trades, master of none,” Brown is eager for a chance to work on improving his own life, looking towards general labour work and completing his welding certificate, which he’s a year into, he said.
Having a place to live has changed a lot for him, “making it a lot easier to relax and keep life on track. It’s easier to eat, hot meals are nice to have and you can’t have a fire everywhere.”
He points to the importance of simple things like having dry clothes and bedding when you’re trying to get up for work in the morning.
He said that while the public help through Manna and the Society of Organized Services (SOS) are crucial, most of the homeless in the area he’s gotten to know also get a lot of help from friends and family.
He said people on the streets are all dealing with their own complex issues, “everyone has their own story.”
While he hasn’t come across of much of it directly, he is aware of recent local controversy and when asked how he’d address critics, Brown said, “Don’t judge a person until you’ve tried life in their shoes. It’s different for everybody. Some people have great success right from the start and others don’t, that’s the way the world works, unfortunately.”
“Not all of us get stuff handed to us. I’ve had friends who’s parents buy them vehicles and stuff, get spoiled instead of having to earn it and make their own mistakes.”
With things looking up, Brown said he likes the area and hopes to be able to stick around.