The whole Valley was justifiably shocked last week by the tragic death of a homeless 62-year-old man, Harley Lawrence, on the streets of downtown Berwick. His sad demise, which RCMP are calling suspicious, has brought our area national attention.
Writing the Cruiser report over the past six months, I feel like I got to know Harley a bit, although he was nameless in the police reports. People complained at least once a week that he slept in doorways, spit on the sidewalk and yelled.
Some members of the community clearly wanted him removed from the downtown, but police were hamstrung. Harley rarely broke the law. As one police officer commented, “they can’t be roasted out of the community because they don’t look right.”
One day early on, I had a long telephone conversation with a woman who felt badly about Harley. She was looking for intervention, but the man himself wasn’t keen. We never did figure out how to help Harley.
What worries me is Harley wasn’t the sole homeless person turning up in the crime reports. There is a homeless woman who is continually reported bedding down in bank lobbies. She has been the object of complaints 59 times since 2008. Lately she seems compelled to randomly cross busy roadways.
There’s another fellow, long accustomed to living in substandard housing, who has totally frustrated family members. He spent part of the summer in a tent by the old rail bed.
John Andrew, street pastor at Open Arms, knows there are more homeless people. He is aware there are no easy solutions for people who might choose to be homeless and can’t help being mentally ill.
The Valley’s emergency shelter program, Inn From The Cold, has hosted nearly 600 Valley residents or passers-through over the past ten years. Many others have been given assistance to locate apartments or rooms.
Inn from the Cold doesn’t start up until Nov. 1, so some people feeling the chill are likely sleeping in barns and derelict buildings now. The seven local churches and 150 volunteers who keep the program going are unsung heroes.
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- UPDATED: Autopsy to be performed after Berwick death
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- Berwick cleaning up, remembering after tragic day
- A last kindness for alleged Berwick fire victim
In British Columbia, the Campbell River Housing Resource Centre has found one alternative. The centre uses “cargotecture” - retrofitted shipping containers - to provide safe and dignified lodgings. They replace cardboard boxes, wet tents, and dirty blankets.
According to a story in the Courier Islander, these temporary shelters made of 40-foot containers house up to 16 individuals under a temporary roof on any given winter night. The containers are heated, have reading lamps, smoke detectors, a handicapped accessible washroom and two beds.Each container is staffed with two trained and caring individuals. They are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to keep people alive.
The homeless can bring belongings, shopping carts, and even dogs into the space. When they leave, each one is welcome to go to a nearby church for breakfast.
Centre spokesman Paul Mason called the containers safe, low-barrier shelters, which are centrally located, mobile, and can be temporary measure during the winter. The funding for the project comes from BC Housing.
This same concept was used to house people in the floods in Hay River, Alberta, earlier this year.
Jean Vanier, who founded the worldwide L’Arche community, says what we really ought to do is meet people where they are and to give life. I hope that the loss of Harley Lawrence will prompt many discussions about how we might support the lives of the homeless around us.