Kathy Schuster, 45, sorts some of her belongings in the South Okanagan Women In Need Society’s SAFExst space at an unspecified location, where she gets a bit of warmth and can stock up on some basic supplies. For Schuster, a loss of supplies is a serious personal security matter. Dustin Godfrey/Western News

Homeless, hurt and harassed

A B.C. city’s most vulnerable speak out about violence and theft on the streets

After chasing stories related to housing, homelessness and addictions in Penticton, this is the story that we will close the year with. Penticton Western News reporter Dustin Godfrey worked on this story for months — he first heard about the increase in violence against Penticton’s homeless population in the summer, and was finally able to sit down with Bryan in October and Kathy Schuster this month. With a bit of patience, we have the tragic story of the violence, harassment and theft some of the city’s most vulnerable residents face.

Bryan hadn’t been back on the streets for half a week when he was attacked with golf clubs in his sleep. Kathy Schuster, standing proudly below five feet, says she has lost count of the times she has been hit since she was pushed to the streets in March.

Two of Penticton’s most vulnerable residents, both of them are getting on in their years. Theirs are two of the most tender hearts you will encounter. Both have experienced difficulties getting proper housing.

At 64 years old, Bryan was a resident of one of the city’s most notorious slums: the Highland Motel, home to over a dozen of Penticton’s most vulnerable.

Bridges are a natural spot for homeless to set up camp, including Bryan who went between the beaches and bridges during his nine nights on the streets after the Highland Motel fire.
Gwen Wain/Submitted photo

When the building caught fire this summer, the former residents of the Highland were given four days at an emergency shelter to give time to find a new place to stay, at least temporarily.

Related: Motel fire highlights Penticton’s housing crisis

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Bryan, who asked his full name not be printed for fear of retribution, was out of luck and back on the streets for the first time in 20 years for nine days until he secured a spot in social housing — something he had applied for twice a year for several years, but was unable to obtain until recently.

In an interview in October, Bryan pulled up his pant leg to reveal dozens of dents that speckled his shins, remnants of a golf club attack on his third night sleeping on the beach in early July.

“It’s all caved in there from a golf club. I went to the hospital the next morning,” he said. “It’s a pretty deep thing on the shin bone, there. I limped for a couple of days.”

Bryan had been using a couple of bags of cans as a pillow, which he said were just what his assailants were after, adding it was too dark out to see them before they ran off.

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It wasn’t the only time Bryan said he got into an altercation in his nine days on the streets between his time at the Highland and getting into a social housing project, though he said it was the only one in which he got hurt. He believed both instances were tied to young addicts.

“There’s a huge addiction problem here in town,” Bryan said. “I’m an addict, too, don’t get me wrong. Forty-five years I’ve been an addict, but at least I’ve tethered it off in the past two-and-a-half years. I haven’t touched anything; I’m too scared.”

Related: Lack of resources and drug addiction to blame for rise in property crime

Schuster is still young, compared to Bryan, but the 45-year-old has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and global mental delay, which makes accessing services like social housing or even the basics particularly challenging, and arthritis in her knees, which turns the simple task of getting up into a grind, especially in the cold.

Hear Kathy Schuster talk about her experience on the streets. (Story continues below)

She proudly states her height at four-foot-11 and three-quarters — “I’m a tall midget,” she said with a giggle — but she weighs just 90 pounds, having lost about 30 pounds since landing on the streets.

“I’m just usually a happy person, but the last little while, I was living on the street there, since March, and it’s not bad in the summer, but in the winter, oh my goodness. It is so hard,” she said. “It gets chilly, and it’s so hard because people are stealing from you.”

Financial struggles, including from thefts, has led Schuster to go up to three days without eating at a time to save up money, and she is usually too nervous to go to the Soupateria. Her purse has been stolen twice, including once this month the day after she got paid by social services.

“I had some pictures of my kids and stuff, my cell phone. I can’t even afford a cell phone. That’s the only contact with my kids,” she said, adding she had some expensive perfume stolen as well, and though it wasn’t a necessity, it was a solitary luxury.

For those living on the streets, everything becomes an issue of security — cans help feed you, your cart holds everything from your warm and dry clothing to your sleeping bag. Even if you don’t have minutes on your phone, it can still dial 911.

Schuster said she has called the emergency line about five times since March, adding she has been physically hit regularly since March.

“I’ve lost count. It’s been so much.”

Listen to Schuster talk about losing important items. (Story continues below)

An escalating issue of violence

The South Okanagan Women In Need Society’s SAFExst program co-ordinator Gwen Wain said she has seen the incidence of violence against elderly and ill homeless people increase in the past few years, and she now hears about it weekly.

“This summer seemed to be the peak, what I really hope was the peak, with violence. … It’s definitely simmering,” Wain said, adding violence was far lower for the more vulnerable homeless individuals three years ago.

“It was very, very rare. I’m really not sure (why). It’s a complex, huge question. I know that there’s far more of that population who aren’t safely housed.”

Related: Cost of housing continues to skyrocket in South Okanagan

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Penticton RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager said it’s difficult to get proper statistics on what portion of calls are coming from homeless individuals.

“We do get calls from them. Often, it would be safe to say we get more calls about them than we do from them,” De Jager said. “But our dispatch system, our switchboard doesn’t differentiate who’s calling. If someone calls, we respond.”

About a month ago, De Jager set up the Community Support and Engagement Team (CSET), headed up by Cpl. Laurie Rock, which is intended to curb property crime by targeting problematic areas, but CSET will also specifically aim to help connect homeless people with services that can mitigate some of the risks and security issues, even if temporarily.

“We’re not the solution. We’re often the people that get called at three o’clock in the morning if there’s an issue, whether it’s somebody that’s either being physically confronted or assaulted or feeling unsafe, or is actually in danger themselves because of the cold,” De Jager said.

“We need a place to bring them if there is a safety issue, so of course we have our own cell block, which is not our solution to homelessness at all. We don’t arrest our way out of homelessness. We have the hospital if that’s the case, and we have the drop-in shelters and the shelters that are being developed in the community.”

Related: City adding five more cops by 2022

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For Wain, the best way to help mitigate violence and security concerns for homeless people is to fill the void of resources — Wain’s mobile outreach provides simple supplies, like toothpaste and sanitation products, clean needles, warm clothing and others — so there isn’t that battle for the basics on the streets.

That plays into the housing first approach to homelessness, which posits that if you provide the basic necessities — particularly housing — that provides the stability needed to help combat underlying issues like addictions and mental health.

Schuster said reporting to the police often doesn’t make much of a difference, which Wain said can lead to feeling helpless and underreporting. Too often, violence or thefts occur in darkness or while a cart is left alone or while a person is sleeping, and that makes it exceptionally difficult to be able to recommend charges, let alone convict in court.

De Jager acknowledged the RCMP likely doesn’t have a full picture of crimes against homeless people, but he said the more they know the better they can serve moving forward by making note of problem areas.

However, as property crime increased this year, so, too, did frustrations in the community.

Related: Penticton crime rate highest in Valley

Related: South Okanagan-Similkameen property crime increases

Penticton RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager stands outside the local police detachment on a cold, winter day. De Jager says while police more often get calls about homeless, they also respond to a number of calls from homeless reporting.
Dustin Godfrey/Western News

“Unfortunately, what we’ve also seen with the increase of homelessness, we’ve seen an increase in vigilante-ism, what I would definitely call vigilante-ism. So people coming up to homeless camps, shining their lights, flashing lights at people, telling people to get out or move on. Threats of raiding the homeless camps or other acts of violence.”

De Jager said he hasn’t heard reports of vigilantes actually heading out into the streets, but he said he has seen some of the Facebook commentary, those he called the “keyboard warriors.”

“To be clear, anybody who assaults anybody, whether that person is committing a crime or not, is probably going to find themselves in more trouble than the person that they were confronting,” he said.

“We have a great deal of training in using the appropriate amount of force to stop something, and somebody without that training is probably going to get themselves into trouble. So, Canadian law does not allow for people taking the law into their own hands. It simply won’t be tolerated, and it’s a dangerous game.”

De Jager suggested using phones and recording and sending that to the police rather than getting involved, and suggested anybody who falls victim to vigilantes come forward to the police.

Out of the frying pan…

As Bryan and Schuster were thrust into street life, they both transitioned from a bad situation to a worse one.

Schuster’s home was another spot of some notoriety, often referred to as the KFC house. At the house just off Main Street, behind KFC, Schuster lived in a motorhome on the driveway. But her boyfriend was a hoarder, which had resulted in the property being inundated in junk.

That was cleaned up in a community effort in March, while the two were ejected from the property and their motorhome, a car and Schuster’s dog were all lost in the process.

Crews from Penticton Fire Rescue muster as smoke billows from the Highland Motel Saturday afternoon. As yet no cause has been indicated.
Mark Brett/Western News

And at the Highland Motel, where Bryan had lived, an environmental report following the blaze obtained by the Western News remarked on “an extraordinary amount of rodent excrement present, and the smell of rodent urine was overwhelming in some rooms.”

Related: Moving forward from Highland Motel fire

Related: PIB man offering cheap campsites during housing crisis

But in the motel, Bryan acted as a one-man harm reduction army. Whereas tents and buildings are set up in bigger cities like Victoria, Vancouver and Ottawa, Penticton has individuals like Bryan, armed by groups like SOWINS with an arsenal of harm reduction supplies, like clean needles and naloxone kits.

“It hurts, you know? I’ve lost 10 people (who) have died, and I’ve saved 41 people’s lives from overdoses. I’ve got 41 credits to my name,” Bryan said. “I’m not afraid of people or of helping them. … I love helping people. A person who is overdosing is a human being, too.”

Schuster talks about trust on the streets. (Story continues below)

Schuster, too, said she is accustomed to sharing what little she has with others around her, and even amid the full-time job of survival on the streets, finds time to help her mother, including shovelling the driveway when it snowed.

“I always like helping people, but sometimes it’s a little awkward, because sometimes they steal from you, but I still try to be there for them,” Schuster said. “It’s very hard, because now I feel a little not trusting people, and I used to trust people right away, instantly, and now it takes me a while to trust people.”

Related: Super 8 getting more than social housing

When the Western News spoke to Bryan, he was living in a social housing project, but he was told he would soon have to leave, because of his best friend, Wally, a dog bounding with love. The housing project allows residents who already have dogs, but Wally hasn’t gotten along with some other dogs at the complex.

“I don’t know what to do. My dog means so much to me,” he said.

If asked to choose between Wally and housing?

“It’s going to be Wally. I won’t have any choice. Literally, if you had a daughter or a son, and they weren’t allowed to stay where you are, what choice do you got?”

Bryan managed to stay in his spot for Christmas, but after that, as the city enters the coldest months of the year, there’s no guarantee he will continue to maintain shelter, and with that comes the threat of violence.

“I know there will be. It’s not whether I fear it or not, I know it’ll be more violence.”


@dustinrgodfrey

dustin.godfrey@pentictonwesternnews.com

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