News / Vancouver

Vancouver residents recount being homeless on eve of new national housing strategy

“People are all different. The reasons for becoming homeless vary tremendously."

Marisa Abraham, a resident of the tent city at 58 W Hastings, packs ahead of the City's court injunction to dismantle the site on Nov. 24th, 2016.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Marisa Abraham, a resident of the tent city at 58 W Hastings, packs ahead of the City's court injunction to dismantle the site on Nov. 24th, 2016.

Jim Mandolin escaped family violence at 15, became homeless, addicted to drugs and a drug dealer. He was in and out of prison, and joined a gang.

“At 22, I had a drug and alcohol seizure that led to my cardiac arrest.”

That was 40 years ago. “I’m still here,” he said.

Shawna Blomskog was married for 11 years, had a good job and her own home. But then, “I found myself addicted to drugs — and homeless.”

After his mother died and his father became homeless, Ray Arabi lived with foster families, then became homeless at 17. Now 21, he’s struggled to find a place in Vancouver’s rental market. “I visited so many places,” he said. “I even changed the way I looked, the way I talk.”

Mandolin, Blomskog and Arabi told their stories of becoming homeless, being housed and — more elusively — finding home at the 2017 Housing Central Conference in Richmond on Monday.

Tana Copperthwaite was living in a tent city set up near the intersection of St. Anne Avenue and 223 Street in Maple Ridge. (Photographed on June 1, 2017.)

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Tana Copperthwaite was living in a tent city set up near the intersection of St. Anne Avenue and 223 Street in Maple Ridge. (Photographed on June 1, 2017.)

Hearing these stories is especially important now, said moderator Catharine Hume, co-executive director for Raincity Housing. The non-profit runs shelters and supportive housing and is a proponent of the “housing first” model: the idea that people who have addictions or mental illness can be housed before working on health challenges.

The City of Vancouver is rolling out a plan to build temporary modular housing buildings to house people across the city, and the initiative has sparked protests from some residents who say they fear for their children’s safety.

“We are increasingly facing municipal concerns and community concerns that kind of group people into one big group that talks about people as ‘the homeless,’” Hume observed.

“People are all different. The reasons for becoming homeless vary tremendously."

Mandolin spoke about how his near-death experience led to a decision to change his life.

Robert Silva was a resident of a tent city at a city-owned vacant lot at 950 Main Street, on May 25, 2017. This site was also the site of a previous tent city 10 years ago.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Robert Silva was a resident of a tent city at a city-owned vacant lot at 950 Main Street, on May 25, 2017. This site was also the site of a previous tent city 10 years ago.

For many years he feared falling back into homelessness, but for the past 25 years Mandolin has found housing security and a community in a housing co-op in Vancouver. He became a husband and father and has published two books.

Blomskog lived outside for three years. Finally, she came into an emergency winter shelter, something she had been reluctant to do before because her partner was not allowed to live with her in other shelters.

“They would have separated us and co-dependency in homelessness is huge,” Blomskog said.

“I refused to go to the shelter until the very first Raincity shelter opened up and they let us be a couple together and to push our mattresses together and be a couple. That was the only thing that got me off the streets.”

Blomskog then got housing at the Biltmore, a former hotel on Kingway. She’s lived there for seven years, but now feels she’s ready to move on and live without the rules and restrictions of supportive housing. But: “There is absolutely no way I can afford market housing,” she said. “Even the cheapest cities are a lot more expensive.”

More on Metronews.ca