Homelessness happens to working people.
During a global pandemic, it happens to even more of them.
And they need our help. Mark and Richard got that help: stages of housing that gave them time and stability to become independent again. And now, they are living as roommates in their own apartment.
“Being given that opportunity is fabulous,” says Richard Settle, a former Sears store manager who doubts he’ll ever receive the money he is owed by that company.
What’s more, Richard and Mark are already choosing to give back, donating some of what little money they have, and pledging to volunteer at the Salvation Army where they found help.
United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island sat down with them at the Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre in Nanaimo, near where they spent several months at the homeless shelter, and then several more months in the rooms above while part of the United Way funded Fresh Start program.
Before finding themselves homeless, Richard had left a difficult situation where he had been supporting his mother, and Mark lost his employment during the pandemic, his relationship and his apartment.
“2020 was a pretty rough year for a lot of people,” says Mark Baird. “Everything just crashed, my whole life fell apart.”
Mark had struggled with alcoholism before, and had been homeless some time ago. He was glad to find room at the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter. While there, he was on the hunt for a place to rent, but his calls got him nowhere.
“Out here, the vacancy rate is really low … so it’s hard to get a place, even a half-decent place.”
Richard, who experiences mental illness and deals with alcoholism, ended up spending a night at the hospital before being told to head to the Salvation Army for help. He, too, said he was lucky to find a bed right away.
There, he met Brenda Shanahan who works at the Salvation Army. “I’ve been speaking with her twice a week for the last eight months, and I’ve been sober for the last eight months.”
Mark and Richard met on a trip to Woodgrove mall to use the free wifi there, and bonded over their sobriety. That’s also what made them outcasts at the shelter.
While having a bed at night was essential, the shelter was a also a difficult setting for Richard and Mark to find their own stability, as many folks there are dealing with severe mental illness and drug addictions.
“I witnessed a lot of scary things,” says Mark of his three-month stay at the shelter. “A lot of guys struggling with addictions. I’ve been clean and sober for a long time – 19 years now – but I see these other guys, they are addicted to drugs and all kinds of stuff. I see them under the influence, boy it was horrifying. I never realized how tough they had it.
But, their sobriety and willingness to make changes made them candidates for the Salvation Army’s Fresh Start program. It offers stages of sober housing where your responsibilities and independence grow at each stage.
First Richard and Mark moved into the rooms above the shelter where they maintained a lot of contact and support from Salvation Army staff. Then, they moved to Robarts House, a new part of the program where participants get their own room outside of the New Hope Centre. Mark and Richard were provided furniture and other needs, but gained responsibility for maintaining the home, with Salvation Army staff doing regular check-ins ever two weeks.
Having finished the program, Richard and Mark chose to be roommates, and now have their own apartment.
They stressed how much it meant to them to have an opportunity to have a home and leave the shelter relatively quickly, and the benefits of having time to get their feet under them again.
“For me, it gets better by the week,” says Richard. “I just get calmer, and a lot of the stuff that used to bug me doesn’t anymore.”
“[It was] like winning the lottery,” says Mark of participating in the Fresh Start program.
But it shouldn’t be.
So many more people need this and other kinds of help.
With the support of United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island, and funding from the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, the Salvation Army in Nanaimo is able to run the Fresh Start program. But more help is needed.
“The folks on the street – I can’t say enough about how much we have to look after those people in a better way,” says Richard.
“For us, having a place to live, it’s great … [but] I’ll keep coming back here forever and volunteer wherever I can and do whatever I can just to lend a hand. Because I can identify with folks who have mental health issues like that.”
“Salvation Army, and the United Way … keep doing the good work,” says Richard. “It’s helped us immensely,” adding that he hopes the public, too, will keep donating and volunteering.