in focus

🕔Aug 04, 2005

I am walking on the street with a man who will become my greatest contact with the street life in Smithers. He is telling stories; one of them involves crawling into the back of an abandoned car to sleep. I ask the question, “What does it feel like to wake up in the back of an abandoned car?” I think I am being really deep, delving into personal philosophy, life choices, and roads less travelled. “Cold,” he answers. He visibly shrinks into himself, and then straightens up, “Really cold. And sick. And hungry.”

I know just enough by now that by sick he means alcohol sick. And in this moment I realize I am given an opportunity to twist my preconceived notions around homelessness and poverty.

The man I am talking to is sharp, articulate, honest. He has been sober for eight months. We are not friends yet, but he is telling me his story, and I am listening. I am touched by his boldness, his honesty. He offers to take me on a tour of his Smithers.

Larry* is the self-described founder of the ’74 Club. This is a tightly knit group of men and women who meet almost daily to drink wine, generally brand ’74.

I facilitate the Homelessness Project of the Smithers Community Services Association, which in 2004 received funding from the National Homelessness Initiative to study homelessness, to provide outreach assistance, develop community awareness, and to address some of the reasons people find themselves without a place to live.

Every day that I do this work, another filter is removed and I can see things I’ve never seen before. I notice the alleyways where people walk, the trails known as the “jungle” where people go to drink, the seedy apartments where they live, the people passing time, shifting invisibly from place to place, leaving very little impact.

During the course of a year, around 250 people are homeless in Smithers—not counting the 300 women and children that stay in the transition house. In a town of just over 5,000, that is a shockingly large figure. Approximately 800 beds are filled each year—or two each night—at the emergency shelter administered by SCSA at the Twin Valley Motel each year.

Other towns in the Northwest have the same problem. For example, 27 people use the emergency shelter in Prince George every night, and 10 in Terrace.

But homelessness is not a distinct issue: people can fluctuate between poverty and homelessness indefinitely. The people I meet are dealing with all kinds of separate issues—alcoholism, substance abuse, mental illness, physical disability, fetal alcohol syndrome, poverty, childhood abuse, or a combination of the above. Two-thirds of homeless people have a mental illness, according to a review of shelter resources in Greater Vancouver, 1999.

Many also struggle with substance abuse. Last year, 20,000 needles were handed out at the two needle exchanges in Smithers: the Positive Living Northwest, and the Public Health Unit.

No one I meet tells me they had a happy childhood but decided to take up substance abuse and cycle in and out of poverty. Contrary to what some may believe, homeless people do not arrive in a community and take up residence on the street; homeless people generally die in the same town they are born in. The precursors—the childhood, the poverty, the environment—are integral factors in people’s situations and stories.

It’s three months later. I am standing in the parking lot at the liquor store at 9:30 in the morning. I shift my feet on the gravel. The man I am waiting for rounds the corner: Leonard Joseph, current president of the ’74 Club, as far as I can tell.

This week I handed out disposable black and white cameras for a photo contest about the “other side” of Smithers and Moricetown. I am holding in my hand the last camera, the fiftieth. I call the man over to my car, look at the sky, hoping the drizzle won’t turn into a downpour. I want to be sure that the ’74 Club will be represented.

I respectfully address him like a delegation from another culture. His eyes hold curiosity, tension, exhaustion and pain. I try to speak clearly, but quickly because it’s morning and I understand the pain of alcohol sickness can be intense.

It seems like a gamble, giving this man a camera at all, but he assures me he is excited about the project—to take pictures of life as it really is, for him. Some of his buddies arrive, only to discover the rest of the cameras went as fast as the lunches in the soup kitchen last Saturday.

Some Saturdays, up to 200 people gather at the Anglican Soup Kitchen behind Safeway. It is staffed by saints: men and women who volunteer their time to prepare soup, and serve lunch and dessert to the men, women and children seated at the long tables. Children run amok, some people chat, admire babies, check in on relatives. Some are silent.

Prince George has a similar soup kitchen, staffed seven days a week. People there can access shelter “wet” or sober at any time of day. The Association Advocating for Women and Children Emergency Shelter (AWAC) offers a program where women can start out in the “minimal barrier” shelter, with beds on the floor in a shared room, graduate to the 24-hour shelter dormitory, and finally to a subsidized, supported apartment in the same building. AWAC houses eight per night or 250 different individuals each year in the barrier, in addition to the dormitory where the numbers are even higher: 15 per night, or 300 different individuals each year.

Fetal Alcohol Spectral Disorder is a factor in many people’s lives. Around 17 per cent of babies born on reserves have FASD—a condition that causes difficulties for the rest of their lives.

Simple poverty affects all communities. The low-income cut-off is currently $18,849 per year for a single employable person. People receiving income assistance are living at about 50 per cent of the nationally recognized poverty line.

Although the camera project is clearly interlinked with homelessness and poverty, such a generalization is too simple. Most of the participants aren’t homeless—at least not right now. Most wouldn’t even consider themselves to be at risk of homelessness even though some sleep in bushes and the occasional dumpster. Some would be confused by, or possibly offended by words like poverty, marginalization, multiple barriers.

Leaning on the wall of the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre on Main Street, one project participant reflects on the problems associated with poverty, though he wouldn’t use the word. “I see a lot of people just wandering around,” is how he puts it.

There really is no positive, welcoming place locally for people to congregate, to rest, access services, gather their wits. With nothing to do, people wander, drink coffee, meet each other for booze, drugs.

During the camera project I gave people something to do for a week. This empowered them to see their lives through the filter of art, and allow art to make everything okay, at least for a while.

Just as in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, where the camera idea originated, artists were invited to judge the works. Of the 839 photos received, several were stunning. One roll in particular had a number of excellent photos. “This person has a real eye,” one of the judges, Monty Bassett, said, and I couldn’t help but feel a glow of pride for the person whose eye I had looked into, in the drizzle of the liquor store parking lot—the fiftieth camera.

This man captured moments of camaraderie, joy, mutual support, oblivion. Other artists photographed their families, friends, surroundings. I went home that evening, still seeing the black and white intimacy of homes and lives so far removed from my own world.

Forty-two of the photos were exhibited at the Smithers Art Gallery in the show Reflections of Hope, from June 30 to July 6, this summer. The artists were excited to see their works on the walls—and many to see the gallery for the first time.

I hope the images will personify some of the issues, and to make visible difficult topics we shut out. Now the onus is on the community to give these artists, and people like them, a place to go and something to do for the other 51 weeks of the year.

If you missed the art show, you can contact Michele Johnson at to view or purchase the artwork, or to borrow a DVD slide show of the winning photos.

*Larry is a fictitious name.