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Homeless pair describes life on the margins in Quesnel

2 addicts share realities of their life from a tent by the river days prior to it catching fire
A large encampment on the Riverfront Trail was occupied by at least five individuals several days before it was cleaned up on Thursday, Nov. 17, following a fire. (Frank Peebles — Quesnel Observer photo)

By Frank Peebles Staff writer

Less than 48 hours before Quesnel’s largest ramshackle tent caught fire by the river, the Quesnel Cariboo Observer stopped in at that very home.

There was no one inside at the time of the fire, but there were five people there at the time of the visit. Two of the occupants – one a regular resident and one visitor planning to trek that day back to similar conditions in Vancouver – agreed to be interviewed.

One was a man and one a woman. Both were from the local region. They stayed behind the tarp walls but spoke over the stabilization ropes. The tarps showed signs of melting from some past encounters with excessive heat.

“We’re trying to survive,” said the man. “Some of us have been kicked out of the shelter, you know, so we’re trying to live this way. We’ve got nowhere to go. Some of us don’t have family.”

He had a weathered face that no doubt made him look older than he was, probably in his early or mid-20s. He spoke with a nervous energy, a clipped speaking manner, making no eye contact because it seemed he couldn’t focus on one fixed point, but staying engaged in the conversation and was consistently polite.

He was born and raised in the Anahim Lake community but confirmed “some of us don’t even have homes, you know. Our family doesn’t accept us because of the drugs we do.”

You have to make your own street family after you are rejected by your blood family or if you have to flee them, said the woman.

“It’s sad. I just got back from Vancouver, and it’s bad all over. I have been here a few days, and I can’t believe I’ve got family and friends living in a tent. I just spent five months like this, down on Hastings,” she said.

Her voice was thin but clear and articulate. Her face had multiple piercings, but nothing out of the modern ordinary. She made constant eye contact, and were it not for the setting itself, one would be hard-pressed to think she was anything but a normal young woman.

“I’ve been addicted to everything. It’s been 12 years for me,” she said, adding that she’s 30 years old. Like the man, she said that opioids are their high of choice, with full awareness of the death they so often represent. Four of her friends have died since her last visit home to Quesnel.

She is smart enough to know sobriety is safer, and so is staying indoors during winter, but intelligence is no match for the power of addiction. She laments the lack of backup housing options. Bad behaviour at a shelter can get you kicked out for good, she said, adding people often face judgment from shelter staff.

“Why would we put ourselves in that situation when we have enough childhood trauma, or whatever it is, that makes us get high,” she said, adding, “There is nothing wrong with being a drug addict. We are not bad people.”

“Just treat us the same instead of looking at us dirty,” said the man.

The woman sides with the public on situations like open needle use and agrees that destructive and unsafe behaviour is often exhibited by those high on drugs or in desperate need of drugs. She said that could be greatly reduced if addicts were dealt with like sick people in danger and not immoral people who might be dangerous.

She and her companion took turns apologizing for their occasional swear word. Without prompting, they pointed to the garbage around the encampment and to the overflowing garbage can nearby. They would dump it all in the trash bin if one was provided, each said.

When asked what they could use to make life safer and more bearable, the list was short and full of expected items: blankets, food and bottled water. But the female then asked for something unexpected. Hand sanitizer. But not to kill germs. Those in ultra poverty know that hand sanitizing gel can be lit on fire and produces a small, slow-burning flame making it safer than propane or wood fires.

Ultimately, what they said was needed was housing and rehabilitation on the terms of the addict, not the expectations of a public that largely doesn’t know the powers or characteristics of the malaise.

“I just went to one (a rehabilitation centre), but I didn’t last that long. Two months and 25 days,” the man said.

The woman said she had just gotten out of the hospital, touching on the broader ways that addicts cost the taxpayer. The personnel and other resources deployed to the fire that would later strike their tent is another example of the bills the taxpayer must pay, begging the economic question (which way would be cheaper)? and the moral question (which way would bring the greatest safety to all?)

“I just got over pneumonia, too. I’ve been hospitalized numerous times,” she said.

The man said bylaw services officers are constantly around the encampment.

“They follow you with a camera. They don’t want us here,” he said.

We prepared to part.

“It’s just the beginning of winter. It’s going to get colder,” the woman said. “Whatever addiction you have, it’s going to get you hypothermia.”

“Thank you, we really appreciate it,” said the male, saying goodbye.

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