Street Stories

Just beyond a business centre in Guildford, about a kilometre away from the area’s busiest mall, there’s a small patch of forest.

There are no obvious points of access, but pushing aside the right tree branches exposes a bare and walkable path.

As that path snakes through the thicket, a cardboard “fort” becomes visible.

Protruding from the box are a pair of denim-covered legs, with work boots on the feet.

Inside is a 29-year-old woman, who’s been living on the streets for eight years.

She’s a former secretary, bartender and waitress, a mother-turned-heroin-addict, and she’s one of this city’s 470 homeless people.

The pain of her devastating transformation is evident on her face, particularly when the notion of her 14-year-old son is concerned.

Her brown eyes pool and her voice softens as she describes her life in a box.

She understands that her addiction to heroin played a big role in getting her here, but she insists turning her life around will require a more stable environment.

“If you don’t have a home, you don’t have an address,” she said, and it’s hard to stay stable like that.

Gesturing to her makeshift home in the woods, she says, “This is all I have.”

She says the city needs more supportive housing, a place she could afford, that would allow her the bare essentials: an address, identification and, perhaps most importantly, a place to go that’s away from the drug-drenched street life.

She’s one of the few found still in her camp on Tuesday morning during Metro Vancouver’s Homeless Count 2008. An icy wind blew through the city that morning, so most street people were up and walking to somewhere warm. Tent cities were abandoned.

A 32-year-old woman found riding her bicycle through Whalley agrees that housing is necessary to get off drugs.

She’s been living on the street for three years now, she tells two enumerators during the one-day regional count.

She’d like nothing better than to give up heroin, but living on the streets makes it very difficult.

“You’ve got to have a place to do that,” she tells the pair. Asked why she didn’t stay in a shelter the night before, the woman said she “didn’t want to burden them.”

The woman who describes herself as a mix of Hawaiian and Chinese, flashes a warm, gap-toothed smile as she answers the enumerators’ questions. She has no money, describing the welfare system as “too much of a run-around.”

Like many in her position, she carries all her life essentials with her in a backpack stuffed to the brim with spare clothing, and a fanny pack fitted with all the things she needs quickly.

She thanks the volunteers as they hand her a zip-lock bag containing a toothbrush and toothpaste, along with some snacks.

It goes into the backpack – she won’t be needing it right away.

She’s good-humoured and lucid, and apart from her addiction, she exhibits no signs of obvious mental illness.

Such is not the case with others, as the volunteers head toward the city core.

The Vietnamese man in the ripped jeans and torn shoes has difficulty answering some of the questions.

The 35-year-old has been alone on the streets for the last four years. He says he has no mental health issues, but as service providers will attest, many of those they interview may not have the psychological capacity to understand they do have a problem.

The 44-year-old aboriginal man across the street hesitates when asked if he has a mental illness.

His pause is caught by one of the volunteers who asks why.

“What are you going to do with that information?” he asks.

He’s comparatively well-dressed, donning new blue jeans and Nike running shoes. Missing is the carry-all used by most homeless folks.

He has his stuff stashed somewhere where he hopes it won’t get stolen, he says.

As to why he’s homeless, he says quite simply that he can’t afford rent. He feels it might be different if he could find someone who could share the rent.

“It’s hard to find a place when you’re alone,” he says.

Homeless portraits:

"Frenchie" Denis, 53

He asks for leftover food at a free lunch for the homeless in Whalley so he can take it to some friends who also live on the street.

"Could I give it to the girls?" he asks in a Quebecois accent still intact after years of life on the West Coast.

"The ones that do too much drugs. They forget to eat."

He admits to a substance abuse problem.

"You put $10,000 in my pocket, I bet I spend it in one night."

At different times in his life he's worked in a furniture factory, a sawmill and construction.

He ended up on the streets after his wife died.

"It just broke my freaking heart," he says.

"My dreams came to an end."

He has a son, who is being raised by a stepfather.

People forget the homeless are human beings, he says.

"We're still people. You have a mom, you have a dad," he says.


"Mom" Lynnette, 46

"I never thought that I'd be in this position," she says.

She was working full-time, renting a place to live.

"I was proud that I'd been off welfare for 11 years."

Then she contracted pneumonia.

By the time Lynette got out of hospital, she'd lost her job and her home.

She stayed for a short period of time in a run-down Surrey rooming house that she calls a "human warehouse."

Living outside was better.

"I used to have a tent down by King George hill where the billboards are before they kicked us out."

Mostly, she couch-surfs, staying with understanding friends who have convinced her to seek financial assistance.

"I'm trying to get into a shelter now, but it's really hard."


"Madman" Brad, 42

He says he ended up "camping out," as he puts it, after a bad marriage and a worse divorce.

He calls being homeless "my little mid-life crisis."

"Everyone's just one bad day away from being in the same position that I am. I mean, it turns out it's a lifestyle choice for me to be camping, but everyone's got different reasons for being here. You know, we're not all criminals and junkies and panhandlers. You know, we're just trying to survive. We need some compassion sometimes."

He writes poetry about being on the street:

You can’t know

They say you can’t know

What another’s been through

Until you have walked

A mile in his shoe.

So why is it then

That people all seem

To judge and condemn

Before they have met you?

There’s always more

Than what you can see,

A case in point

For example is me.

I live in the woods

I ride my bike

I collect weird stuff

That I find and I like.

I’m not on the dole

So I have no cash.

I pick butts and cans

And add to my stash.

I’ve got too much stuff

For a guy on the street.

But what I am lacking

Is food stuffs like meat.


"The Commander," 55

He doesn't want his name or face revealed.

"I have a family that thinks I'm living in a nice condo somewhere."

In fact, he was living in a tidy camp in the woods until some young men found it and sprayed him with mace before setting it on fire.

He tried to pursue them, but was blind from the spray and ran into a tree.

He showed up at a free lunch the next day covered in soot.

"I'm not going to let some hooligans run me off," he says in a gravelly baritone rumble.

He estimates he's been on the streets in Surrey at least four years.

He says he has been in the Canadian Armed Forces all his life and peppers his conversation with military jargon.

He is well-liked by the women at the Front Room homeless shelter who describe him as an old-fashioned gentleman.


Lance, no age given

When he can, he takes jobs as an ironworker.

He was sleeping in an abandoned house.

Lance and his buddy shared with another man who lived upstairs in a reasonably tidy bedroom, but forced Lance and his friend to sleep in the vandalized downstairs because they snored.

Early one morning, the house caught fire and burned to the ground.

"I got my bedding out."

Before that he slept on a couch in a carport.


"The Artist" Eugene, 48

He came to Surrey from the small First Nations community of Hartley Bay.

He is a accomplished artist, whose paintings of West Coast native designs adorn the office at the Surrey Urban Mission.

He suffered severe head injuries in a car accident.

"A police car ran over me, then he stopped, backed up and ran me over again," he claims, grinning.

He currently sleeps at a Surrey transition house, and is hoping to find a permanent place to live.


Bonnie, no age given

She's originally from Wetaskiwin, Alberta, where her family had a farm.

"I stay straighter when I'm homeless," she says, because there's less temptation.

Currently, she is couch-surfing, trying to avoid a return to the outdoors.

She has a son, 23, who lives in Cloverdale.

Bonnie is bipolar but takes her medication.

Trying to get assistance to get off the streets is a frustrating struggle, she says, because most agencies are reluctant to help people with no addresses.

"When you do ask (for help) you don't get it."

- by Kevin Diakiw and Dan Ferguson

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