It has been two years since Nicole has had a home of her own.
While relocating to a new community for a job, her rental arrangements fell through at the last minute, leaving her with nowhere to go.
Since that time, Nicole has bounced around the West Kootenays trying to find a place to call home. She says she has finally found a sense of community in Castlegar, in spite of the fact she is sleeping in a tent.
“The homeless shelter, outreach staff and Deb McIntosh — they have been great,” says Nicole. “They were like a family when I needed it.
“Being a vulnerable, single female in the community and trying to maintain camp is hard.”
But Nicole is on the move again.
Occupants of a homeless encampment set up behind the Castlegar Chevron station, including Nicole, have relocated at the request of the property’s owners.
Last week, the camp’s occupants were given notice that they would have to be off of the property by May 9.
Some of the occupants had previously been housed at The Way Out Shelter when it closed its doors on March 31, making this the second time in six weeks they have had to find a place to pitch their tents.
Castlegar and District Community Services (CDCSS) staff and volunteers helped moved the group’s possessions and supplies to a new location in an unused area near the railroad tracks in south Castlegar. They are also making sure the former camp is cleaned up.
Nicole says the group didn’t realize the area they were in was private property and that they were simply trying to find an out-of-the-way place to camp.
She says the current group setting up in the new location is made up of “warm, welcoming people” and that the general public should not be afraid of them.
Deb McIntosh, who is in charge of the CDCSS street outreach program, says that it is unfortunate when all people experiencing homelessness get painted with the same brush.
She says the majority of Castlegar’s homeless population are harmless, but acknowledges there are a few “bad apples” that make people think homeless camps are riddled with crime.
“We have women and seniors sleeping in cars and families sleeping in vans,” says McIntosh.
“This could happen to anyone or anyone’s family — the only way we come out of this in a safe fashion is if we embrace it. Talk to the people, listen to their story. These are not people who don’t want to be out there functioning in society — they just don’t have a home.”
McIntosh says its time for elected officials across the country to take action.
“You don’t need more studies, you don’t need more groups or panels — just build some housing!”
But until there is more affordable housing available, Nicole says it would be a huge help if cities would at least designate certain areas where people can camp so that they are not constantly having to move.
One of the volunteers at the move was a former camp occupant, who has now found a place to stay.
“These guys were here for me when I was at my lowest, it was the least I could do,” says J.
He says he gets frustrated when people have the idea that homeless people choose to be homeless.
“No, I didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t go to the camp to party — I went there to have a place to be safe and sleep. What we really need is housing.”
Sadly, there is a small portion of Castlegar’s residents that mistreat the homeless population, according to McIntosh.
But Nicole says Castlegar’s police and fire departments are definitely not among them.
“They have been very kind. They have been really good with the homeless and really good with wanting to work with us while, of course, enforcing the law.”
There is light at the end of the tunnel for Nicole. With the help of BC Housing, she has found a small apartment to move into at the end of the month.
“It feels good,” says Nicole. “But it’s not going to stop me from working with the homeless community — getting involved and with ANKORS and REDUN and shedding light on the issue of homelessness — because, I could very easily not have the ability to pay my rent and be right back here.”
If you want to help someone experiencing homelessness, McIntosh says the first step is showing a bit of kindness and respect.
“These are not castaways, these are people in our community that we love and care for, that are our friends and family and they shouldn’t be treated any different than the guy next door. It’s not fair, it’s not right. These folks deserve better.”
If you are inclined to donate something, you can give items directly to those in need or drop items off at the Community Connections Centre at 1660 Columbia Ave.
Nicole says that the camp members are always appreciative of donations or refundable recyclables.