Mike Sowinski finds all sorts of useful items in the trash bins behind Langley’s apartment buildings — objects that make being homeless a little bit easier.
“I try to keep enough stuff to keep comfortable. I like to have all the comforts of home, like heaters or whatever for the season,” says the former garbage collector who has been living on the streets, off and on, for the last five years.
“I got a sandwich cooker in my bag right now. I was making grilled cheeses at the corner of the bus loop last night and my friends were rolling up on me and I handed out a few and [had] a few for myself.”
Sowinski says he often has trouble convincing people that he has acquired items — which include the griller, a bike and a tent — by honest means.
“People were like, ‘Wow, this stuff is too nice to be lying in a bin. He must be doing crime.’ Even my best friend, Dwayne, he started doing that too. He was like ‘There’s no way, man. You gotta be doing crime. You gotta be doing cars or houses or something like that.’ So I took him along. I took him binning with me, and we found all kinds of stuff.”
‘I did the thing I knew I’d do’
Sowinski worked as a garbageman for 18 years in Surrey before losing the ability to work due to asthma. Six months after becoming unemployed, he lost his apartment in Surrey and became homeless.
He decided that if he was going to be on the street, it might as well be in Langley, where he could be closer to his two sons, ages 15 and 17, and his daugher, 19, who live with their mother.
About two years ago, Sowinski had an apartment in Langley City. It cost him $750 per month for a “dive” he says was infested with bugs. He was evicted only seven months after moving in.
“I did the thing I knew I’d do: let people in, and too many at a time, and let them have free rein. I just felt that we all needed a place to have a little break from the streets. I knew that I’d get kicked out eventually and I told everybody exactly the way it was.
“I had people in, cooked food for them, let them sleep… Whatever they needed. Because I knew exactly what it was to be out there, especially in the wet season — It’s horrible.”
‘I just figure it will be the same way’
Since being kicked out of that apartment, Sowinski has been living on the streets, often sleeping in a tent with his girlfriend. He says he hasn’t looked for a place since, because he finds it discouraging.
“I never even tried to get a place [since the eviction] and I don’t see the point. I just figure it will be the same way. Because I know it’s not helpful for me to let everyone in and it sucks but I think I’d do it again.
“If I have a way to help, why wouldn’t I?”
Sowinski says he doesn’t want to be homeless but finds it hard to get motivated to look for a home.
“It’s not that I don’t want to be happy in a place. It’s just, I guess, I’m kind of jaded about it now. It’s just going looking for a place and feeling, you know, beat — like ‘I’m not going to get a place. they’re not going to give me a place.’
“I just feel helpless.”
Sowinski receives a disability cheque each month, because of his asthma. He receives about $525, which is $375 short of the full $900 he would receive if he had a place to rent.
There are more challenges to everyday life for a homeless person than someone who hasn’t experienced it might realize, Sowinski says. One example, he says, is using a bathroom.
“The thing is, there are no porta potties around here that are outside a fence and the only thing that’s open is 7-Eleven, and they don’t have a washroom after 10 o’clock [p.m.]. There’s nothing. Tim Hortons is open till midnight but you gotta go in and buy something.”
‘I missed my son’s birthday’
This problem led to Sowinski being incarcerated for three months. He says he snuck into a construction site to use the portable bathroom and was arrested and charged with breaking and entering with the intent to steal. He says he had no intention of stealing anything and simply wanted to relieve himself somewhere appropriate.
“I pled guilty because my lawyer and the Crown were agreeing to a release into a recovery house and so I was like: ‘OK, whatever, I could do that.’ And I plead guilty and the judge went away from their ideas and said ‘No, I think 90 days is in order.’”
“I missed my son’s birthday… Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday.”
Sowinski uses crystal meth because he says it helps him stay active, which is necessary to survive on the streets.
“I try to stay awake as much as I can because I gotta go, go, go out here. If I rest, I lose pretty much everything every time I go to sleep. I wake up and my bike’s probably gone and half my supplies.”
Sowinski says his girlfriend (who declined an interview) has been motivating him to start looking for a home once more. He says she is less comfortable on the streets than he is: “She’s afraid of the dark and we live in a tent.”
“I’m trying to get myself to that point where I can go looking for a place.”
‘…They’re there because that’s where they want to be’
Langley City Councillor Gayle Martin, who chaired the Homelessness Task Force, which recently released a report with a list of strategies and priorities for tackling the issue, says there is much to be done to help people like Sowinski find housing. She is in favour of supportive housing.
“Supportive housing, to me, is a place that has all the services. It’s supportive in itself. In my estimation, if you find a place for someone that has been on the streets and they’re either drug [or alcohol] addicted or mentally unstable, you need to have the services to provide them support so they don’t go back into their routine that they just came out of.”
Martin says that people like Sowinski, who are considered chronically homeless, are often there by choice.
“A lot of the people that are living on the streets, they’re there because that’s where they want to be.”
Pastor Leith White from Friends Langley Vineyard — which runs a “free store” and serves lunch and cake to homeless people on Wednesdays — says that the notion of people being homeless by choice is a myth. White says he knows only of “one or two individuals” who don’t wish to have proper housing, out of the dozens of local homeless people he knows.
“It’s extremely rare. Quite frankly, those individuals that don’t want a place, the reason is they’ve given up hope. They’ve given up hope because they’ve jumped through enough hoops; They’ve tried to do what’s been asked of them… They’ve just totally given up hope on the system that they could have a place.”
White, who sat on the homelessness task force with Martin, says the official report is lacking in immediate solutions, as well as ambition. He says that Langley should look to places like Medicine Hat, Alta., which has been widely reported to have “solved” homelessness using a “housing first” strategy, wherein people are given housing as a priority and then other issues are tackled.
He admits that Langley is not working with the same set of circumstances as Medicine Hat, but it should still find inspiration in their ability to house virtually the entire homeless population in five years.
“[Medicine Hat] had the perfect setting to accomplish that. They had a whack of cash money; They had a heritage fund that they could draw on, that Medicine Hat owned themselves; They had a provincial government that had a provincial strategy,” White says.
“Do we have a whack-load of cash? No. Do we have a provincial government that has a provincial strategy on homelessness? No. Do we have the ability to immediately solve our social system so that it supports this housing first [strategy]? No. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible; It just means that we have to start someplace.
“It’s gonna take us longer than five years. It’s going to take maybe 10 years, or 15 years, but if we don’t start now [we will never get there.]”