UBC fourth year Fearghus Arnold is organizing a blanket drive that will collect warm clothes and blankets for homeless individuals in Vancouver. The drive will accept socks, sweaters, coats, gloves, hats, blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, scarves, formal clothes and any warm items in good condition. Collection bins will be placed in the Nest, Henry Angus Building, Robert F. Osborne Centre, Jack Bell Building and H.R. Macmillan Building from November 29 until December 5.
The clothes will be donated to The Door is Open — an organization on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver that gives away free clothing and runs a weekly soup kitchen for both homeless and low-income individuals. Arnold, who is working towards a major in finance, has been volunteering at the soup kitchen at The Door is Open since he started attending UBC. He was inspired by the charity work he and his mother did in Campbell River where he grew up.
Arnold is aiming to connect an organization “that is giving out warm clothing and UBC, that ... has the ability to donate.” As the winter approaches, the situation on the streets grows more difficult for the 1,746 homeless individuals in Metro Vancouver because of the cold.
Although Metro Vancouver has more than a dozen open-access shelters and several more specifically for youth and women that provide food, shelter and other amenities, many say they choose to stay on the streets because the shelters have bed bugs, violence, stealing and drug-riddled environments. They find the streets to be safer.
Tom, however, who has been homeless in Vancouver for about a year, said that the shelters provide good support. Despite his difficult condition, he feels he has enough to get by. He even said he has enough warm clothes.
Bradley and George, who usually sit on Granville street and have stayed drug-free their whole lives, say that going to the shelters makes them feel unsafe due to an environment of substance abuse.
“It's better to live on the streets than in a shelter because you get raked, punched and robbed,” said George, referring to an experience he once had.
George, who suffers from PTSD from events in his childhood, becomes triggered when he goes into an environment of substance abuse. Although both say it's cold on the streets, they would not go to East Hastings to pick up clothes because it is a bad area. George expressed that he is often in a state of fear and doesn’t “have friends, only people he respects.” They both wish that there could be more outreach efforts beyond just donating to stationary organizations.
Pete, who was lying on a bed of newspapers on Granville across from Pacific Centre, said he has trouble getting up. Shelters as well as stationary organizations are not a viable option for him. He suffers from learning disabilities and Grand Mal Seizures — the medicine for which he cannot afford and has difficulty acquiring even when he has collected enough change. He fears that, if even if he were able to go, his few belongings will be stolen because he physically can’t travel anywhere
“There is an unfortunate stigma that [homeless individuals] have made a mistake ... and that these mistakes have propelled them into a spot that make them unpredictable or dangerous," said Arnold. "That’s almost always not the case.”
In fact, according to The Vancouver Homeless Count, 74 per cent of homeless individuals suffer from some kind of medical condition, including mental health issues, disabilities and other illnesses.
Fifty-eight per cent report substance abuse, which in many cases is a result of underlying psychological and socioeconomic factors. Many, like George, have had rough childhoods without opportunities to escape their situation.
“Their situation is above and beyond them ... they started at the bottom ... they have been in this spot for a long time,” said Arnold. In Pete’s case, the metaphor is literal.
Pete said he would like a blanket to keep warm, clearly revealing the need for work like the kind The Door is Open is doing. Collecting warm articles is obviously not the entire solution, but it is a stepping stone to help these individuals — who are often in poor physical or mental health — have a some sort of protection from the elements.
“It’s so easy when someone asks for money on the street to just say ‘I don’t have any money’... your eyes just glaze over that person," said Arnold. "But if you are that person ... it is psychologically damaging.” He said that, while volunteering at The Door is Open’s Sunday soup kitchen, the members of the organization encouraged him to sit down, converse, eat and — most importantly — listen to the stories of homeless individuals. The most important part of their work, he said, is to be compassionate and humanize those who are more often than not ignored on a daily basis.
Most UBC students do not face the trials of homelessness or even encounter homeless individuals on a regular basis. Arnold hopes that the Blanket Drive will encourage UBC students to help those in need. Arnold said his own perspective changed when he began doing charity work for homeless individuals.
“I was guilty of having this idea that if you were homeless or quite poor, it was of your own making," he said. "When I was dealing with people who were homeless, I had this idea of being scared of them."
While speaking with the homeless individuals mentioned above, two unconnected pairs of individuals approached the homeless individuals as well, handing out sandwiches. Clearly, many are taking the initiative to alleviate the suffering of those on the streets. Starting November 29, UBC will be taking initiative too.
Editor's note: Names of all homeless individuals have been changed to maintain their privacy.