Newf was fiercely independent and liked to call his own shots. But he was open and caring, and tried to make a difference in the community.
But Newf, as he was popularly known, also lived in a tent and he died this September.
“To hear about where he was found behind a dumpster wrecked me,” said Rev. Chuck Harper, a community chaplain.
“Not a word was spoken — like he had never been born. That’s how I took it.”
Eight street people who died in 2015 were honoured during a ceremony at Polson Park’s homeless memorial Thursday.
But while the memorial focused on those who died last year, the harsh realities of 2016 couldn’t be ignored.
So far this year, there have been at least 15 deaths related to drugs, poor health and accidents, and it could actually be as high as 25. Among them is Newf.
“Newf had value. He was a person, he was a friend. Each one of us has value,” said Harper.
“I don’t want our friends, our family members and the people we walk beside to become a sideshow. I want to respect each one for the individual they were.”
Kelly Fehr, John Howard Society’s director of operations, says it’s easy to look at possibly 25 people dead so far this year and dismiss them as street people.
“Any other segment of the population and it would be a massive epidemic,” he said.
The memorial service came a day after a homeless survey. Nine camps and 30 people were identified.
“We’re moving back up and that’s a concern,” said Annette Sharkey, Social Planning Council executive director.
A primary reason for homelessness is Vernon’s extremely low rental rate.
“Landlords can pick and choose tenants and for anyone with barriers, that’s a challenge,” said Sharkey of addiction or mental health.
Former oil workers in Alberta have also come home — often with drug habits they developed while in the patch.
“They don’t have income but they still have addictions. They can wind up on the street,” said Sharkey.
The federal government has promised a national housing strategy and Sharkey says action is required soon.
“B.C. is in a crisis and that needs to be recognized. It needs different supports and funding,” she said.
“No other province is in this shape.”
Juliette Cunningham, a Vernon councillor, is calling on homeless to be an issue in next May’s provincial election.
“People can’t survive on the welfare rates and with minimum wage, when you look at rental rates, it’s not enough,” she said.
But while Fehr agrees changes are needed politically, he says pressure must come from the community. Rank-and-file residents must abandon poor bashing or questioning why a person is living on the street or isn’t working.
“People are too interested in their own lives and it’s easy to close a blind eye,” he said.
“People need to pull their heads out of their asses and care for their brothers and sisters. We are not better than anyone else.”
But even as the death toll continues to climb on Vernon streets, there is hope.
In just a few weeks, Denis St-Louis will celebrate his first anniversary of being clean.
“I’m here because of the grace of God,” he said.
Addiction had a hold on him for 15 years.
“I hit rock bottom and wound up on the front door of Gateway (shelter),” he said.
“People from John Howard have been helping me and the people from my 12-step program.”
With fentanyl making the rounds, St-Louis has a warning for those still out on the street.
“There’s never been a good time to use and now, it’s a bad time.”