Every city should have a park for its homeless, a place where $2 will get them a shower and, for a little more – a fiver, perhaps – a place to sleep.
It’s an idea mulled often by Steve Robinson these days, over coffee, from his sleeping quarters under a loading dock behind White Rock’s Central Plaza and, more recently, while pitching his story to a newspaper reporter.
Robinson has only been homeless for about a month this time, but he knows his situation is far from unique in this seaside town. Despite a recent survey that logged few homeless in White Rock, Robinson notes he knows of at least 50 who have no place to call home.
And he says it’s high time city officials took some responsibility for the situation.
Resources for those on the street here are few, the 54-year-old says. The closest homeless shelter to White Rock is 12 kilometres away in Newton. But Robinson says he, for one, doesn’t feel safe there.
Many with no place to go are struggling with addiction, and come from backgrounds of abuse – situations that make getting life back on track all the harder.
Simple things, like access to warm water, can make a world of difference, Robinson says.
“Every city should be responsible for their homeless, to some degree.
“There should be public bathrooms, and a decent shower you can plug your twoonie in and have a shower.
“Every city should have a homeless park. But society is not going to accept a homeless park across from their million-dollar home. Society has a bigger problem with homelessness than the homeless.”
Robinson says he is one of the lucky ones; he won’t be homeless for long.
Forced onto the street by high-season rates at the local campgrounds – where the cost of parking his fifth-wheel jumps beyond what he says he can afford through occasional renovation work and bottle-picking – he beds down under the loading dock most nights.
Cushioned by a layer of scrap carpet and a foam bedroll, Robinson doesn’t mind the arrangement. It’s dry. The loading dock provides shelter from the elements, and there’s room enough for his dog, Echo, and best friend from high school, Don Severeid, to hunker down, too (though Severeid did get a little damp during last weekend’s downpour).
In exchange for a night’s sleep, Robinson says he takes out garbage for area businesses, cleans up the back parking lot and is careful not to leave his cigarette butts lying around.
He just wishes he could get through more nights without being awoken by police in the wee hours and told to move on.
“They’re kicking the homeless people out of White Rock,” Robinson says. “Wherever we sleep, they come and roust us.
“I just phoned the (White Rock) RCMP detachment, and they told me to move to Surrey… just get out of town. They’re not having us anymore.
“Where are we supposed to sleep?”
Hard on family
His calls to one family member have been relentless at times – as many as 22 in one night, and most recently at 3 a.m. last Thursday.
In a brief meeting later that morning with his sisters – one of whom he hadn’t seen in 10 years – the one he calls frequently is sympathetic to his plight, but clearly frustrated.
“I’m sorry that you’re homeless,” she says emphatically, before drawing a line in the sand and threatening to call police if Robinson crosses it.
“I’m asking you to cease and desist calling me.”
“I’ll try,” he responds. “I can’t promise. I’ll do my best.”
After his siblings leave, Robinson apologizes to a reporter for double-booking his morning.
The reception wasn’t what he’d expected, he admits.
“I thought it would’ve been a little warmer.”
Road to despair
Robinson attended Crescent Park Elementary as a child, then Semiahmoo Secondary. He was married the first time for nine years, and the second time for eight. He is twice-divorced, and says he signed off on his share in two White Rock houses in lieu of child support.
He lost his driver’s licence after his first wife took him to court and went after him for that support. His second wife still sends him an occasional cheque.
After his tenancy in a rental home near Five Corners ended last year, Robinson says he bought and renovated a 10-year-old fifth-wheel trailer to live in, parking it on a local motel’s property. Last month, when a neighbour of the motel complained, Robinson discovered area campgrounds were either full for the summer, had lengthy waiting lists or wouldn’t accept an older fifth-wheel and dog on their grounds.
He’s been on White Rock’s streets ever since.
An alcoholic “since I was born,” Robinson falls quiet when asked about his children. Pressed, he divulges the two daughters are in their 30s now and live in the Fraser Valley… then fades off.
He brightens when he thinks of a disabled sister who had asked for his help to commit suicide.
“I backed out,” he says of a pact.
She went on to find the love of her life and live another 10 years, he says with a smile, remembering the thanks he received at Peace Arch Hospital in the 48-year-old’s final moments.
It makes the current relationship he has with his surviving siblings all the more painful.
“I was probably a little intoxicated, and she’s taking up space in my head,” he says, referring to the early-morning calls that prompted the threat of police action.
His eyes well with tears when he explains why he couldn’t make the promise not to call his sibling.
“We were tight, right up until I became homeless. I just want my sister back.”
Police in White Rock and South Surrey say they field few calls related to the homeless.
Unless there’s a complaint, the approach taken when officers come across someone living on the street is more about seeing if the individuals are OK, and directing them to resources, says South Surrey Staff Sgt. Scott Campbell.
“We don’t just say, go to the next town over,” Campbell says. “What we always do with people in those situations is offer them a card with all the options.”
While police ultimately want to help the homeless turn their lives around, the reality is, no one can be forced into a shelter or to seek out the services offered, Campbell says.
“There’s certainly a wide range of services,” he says. “A big part of it is, the people don’t really want it. They don’t want to be regulated by rules.”
White Rock RCMP Staff Sgt. Lesli Roseberry responded by email to Peace Arch News’ requests to discuss Robinson’s claims that she advised him to go to Surrey. She states her officers have also not been directed to “crack down” on homelessness.
“Nobody identifying themselves as a homeless person has spoken to me,” Roseberry writes.
Robinson’s concern for his safety at the Newton shelter – “I’m not going to go live with a bunch of crackheads” – came as a surprise for Hyland House assistant manager Jay Blaschuk.
The facility is a clean-and-sober shelter, Blaschuk says. That means, while no one who needs a place to stay is turned away, per se, anyone using, carrying or under the influence is redirected to a “no-barrier” shelter such as that in Whalley.
“If they’re under the influence, they can’t come in,” he says.
A break in the rain last Thursday morning was good news for Robinson.
“I might be able to work today,” he says, his blue eyes taking in the brightened sky from under the brim of his black Miller ball cap.
Dressed in jeans, a jean jacket and work boots, Robinson’s hands are dirty and cracked. He parks his electric bike and ties Echo’s rope leash to a nearby garbage can. The 11½-year-old is great with people, but less keen on members of her own species, Robinson notes.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asks a reporter. “I’ll buy you a coffee.”
Returning with two steaming mugs, he reiterates that his situation isn’t forever.
He didn’t share his story to gain sympathy. He simply hopes it will help those for whom life on the street is more permanent.
“My situation’s temporary,” he says. “Come September, when the tourists leave and the campgrounds open up, I will find a place. But I have a lot of friends that it’s not temporary for.”
Severeid is one.
Homeless after a job working with a friend on Vancouver Island went sour, and disabled by arthritis, emphysema and asthma, life on the street is all that’s available to him, Severeid says.
“It’s not a choice. It’s just the way it is.”