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Letter: Coquitlam's homeless population deserves our help year-round — not just during cooler seasons

Writer explains his recent encounter with multiple vulnerable residents in one night; believes more can be done to provide proper care and adequate shelter.
Homeless person sleeping outside under blankets and umbrellas. | Getty Images

The Editor:

As I left work the other night, I was reminded of why we need to ensure our communities are inclusive, supportive, and welcoming to all.

As I locked up the store, I spotted this disheveled little old man hobbling through the parkade and he appeared to be talking to himself.

As he got closer, I was better able to hear what was being said. What he was saying was "I'm hungry, got to get to Safeway." I had to explain that Safeway was closed. In a voice that was breaking with emotion, he then asked me if I could help him.

I'll note, he didn't ask me for money or food, he asked for my help.

I had no money on me and I said I'm sorry. He walked away and continued to ask in his pleading voice if anyone had any food.

As I walked to my car, I was extremely upset with myself and upset that our so-called social safety net had obviously failed this poor man.

I hopped in my car and had to drive past him, and that was when I decided I had to do something. I parked the car and got out and told him again I had no money, but I did have my debit card. I asked him if he would like a meal from McDonald's. He said yes and I said tell me what you want and I'll go get it.

He asked for a Quarter Pounder Meal. I told him to stay where he was and I'd be back as soon as I could. He said will you really come back, and it was obvious to me that people had let him down in the past. I asked him his name, Hugo he said,  and I gave him my name. We bumped fists and I said when I give my word I mean it.

I headed over to McDonald's and picked Hugo up his meal. I had them throw in an apple pie as well as a bottle of water and a $25 gift card.

When I got back to Safeway Hugo was waiting for me. I gave Hugo his meal, as well as the gift card, and all he could say was "God bless you." I thought Hugo was going to start crying. I suspect it has been some time since anyone "saw" Hugo and treated him like a fellow human being deserving of love and respect.

I asked Hugo where he was going to sleep tonight and he said he didn't know. At this point, I noticed the hospital ID bracelet on his wrist. I asked Hugo if he had been discharged from hospital and he said "yes." The hospital discharged him knowing he had nowhere to go.

At this point, I noticed a young lady by the corner of the building listening in on our conversation. I asked her if she was on the street tonight and she said "yes."

She asked me what was up with Coquitlam's Homeless Shelter, and I said sadly it has been at capacity since it opened six years ago. To the best of my knowledge, the shelter the Phoenix Society was running at the Coquitlam Best Western has not reopened since it was forced to close a few months ago after a fire broke out on the third floor.

I let this woman and Hugo know that they should try to contact the Hope for Freedom Society or the Phoenix Society tomorrow. I said if they saw a local Police Officer they could also ask them for help.

As I prepared to leave I apologized and said I wished I could do more. I told them to stay safe.

As I drove away, I was angry because while I had been able to help one person, how many more people in our community are falling through the cracks.

It's going down to 12 degrees tonight. Would you be prepared to sleep rough outdoors tonight? Would you want one of your loved ones sleeping rough, and hungry tonight?

I'm really angry because we've known since 2015 that our homeless shelter has been at capacity and we haven't done anything since to improve conditions for those who struggle with homelessness.

The fact that we have "affordable" housing in the development stream doesn't do the person who is sleeping rough tonight any good. I have to ask myself why haven't we put up any temporary modular housing to bridge the gap till our "affordable" units come online.

I also wonder why we wait till the weather is extremely poor before we decide to bring the homeless inside temporarily.

Here is what I do know. It's getting cold at night, on the weekend it's going to rain. If Hugo is still outside this weekend he risks getting wet, and possibly getting sick. If Hugo gets sick, someone in his frail state has an increased risk of dying.

How is this even remotely acceptable in our community? Why do we blame the homeless for being homeless? Why do we always assume that they must be mentally ill or drug-addicted, as if that absolves us of responsibility?

Ask yourself this, what if it was one of your family members or friends who was in this state? Would it be okay to leave them to fend for themselves?

Now more than ever, we need affordable housing, we need mental health and drug treatment services available on demand, and we need food and income security for everyone.

The homeless and needy shouldn't have to keep waiting for our elected officials to do the right thing. One has to wonder what might happen if a tent city were to show up at one of our many public parks. Would our elected officials finally be moved to action, or would we instead see a demand for the police to move them along? 

If we are not prepared to bring the homeless inside this Fall, what are we prepared to do to see that they can get out from the cold and the wet? Or are you ok with their plight as long as it isn't someone you know and care about,

I'm tired of writing about the plight of the homeless and nothing changes. Either we are an inclusive community or we are not.

What's it going to be, people?

- Rob Bottos, Coquitlam