“We’re homeless hunting right now,” that’s how Mike Forster describes his searches for people experiencing homelessness in Penticton.
Multiple nights a week, Forster and Kristyn Trickey load up a van with supplies like food, hot drinks, blankets, clothes, dog food and more and hit the streets “hunting” for people in need to help get them through the night.
Forster founded the Keep the Cold off Penticton Foundation in 2016 after a trip to the local soup kitchen inspired him to do more to help. He was joined by Trickey, who felt the same need to do more, just over a year ago.
Since then, Forster and Trickey have spent two or more nights a week scouring the streets, alleys and stairwells of Penticton. The need for their services in the community is never-ending, Forster said.
A “slow night” Saturday Oct. 24 saw the pair provide approximately 10 grateful people — and one puppy— with clothes, food, blankets, hot drinks and dog food.
On the unusually cold October night, Forster starts the hunt by circling Skaha Lake parking lot looking for people living outside. He points out numerous vehicles that appear to have people living in them.
There are at least 150 people experiencing homelessness living in Penticton, according to a recent estimation by Penticton and District Society for Community Living. Forster suggests that number doesn’t include the many people living in their vehicles.
The first person Forster and Trickey find that night is hunched over in a sleeping bag under a covered area near Penticton Plaza. Stunned by the -10 C weather, the man asks for anything to help keep warm. Forster and Trickey give the man samosas, hot chocolate, snacks, winter boots and gloves.
|Forster’s van begins each night filled with supplies, it is often empty by the time he gets home. (Jesse Day – Western News)|
The pair soon after spotted another young man obscured by trees and alone in the corner of a large parking lot.
After warming him up with a mocha, samosas, an instant noodle soup, and a cup of oatmeal, they asked what else he could use. “Pants,” said the man, seemingly in his early twenties. After being given two pairs of pants, the man was overcome with a large, genuine smile.
Forster and Trickey wrapped up the night by helping a husband and wife with an energetic puppy who were living in a large moving van. The couple explained that their van had been towed multiple times in the last week, costing hundreds in impound lot fees and making the road to getting back on their feet even more challenging.
After being supplied with bags of dog food, warm clothes, hot chocolate, soup and snacks, the woman was visibly overcome with emotion. “You guys are just absolutely amazing… life-savers,” she said. “Hopefully I can do this for people too one day,” she said.
|Overdoses have spiked in Penticton in recent weeks. Forster and Trickey saved a woman’s life Oct. 7 after she was found overdosing in church stairwell. (Keep the Cold Off Penticton Foundation/Facebook)|
A few weeks earlier, Forster and Trickey literally saved a life. After spotting a woman overdosing on church steps they intervened and dosed her with naloxone before paramedics arrived.
Forster, a registered nurse, performed CPR on the woman for 15 minutes before help arrived. “(She had) grey, blue lips and no pulse… nothing but gurgling came from her lifeless body,” said Forster.
The “gurgling” Forster mentioned refers to a phenomenon colloquially known as the “death-rattle” — an exhaled breath caused by opioid-induced respiratory suppression with a very distinct, laboured and guttural sound from the throat.
After three doses of naloxone from Forster, three from paramedics and twenty minutes of being hooked into an oxygen tank and fluid IV the woman was revived. “It just wasn’t her time… She is someones daughter, maybe someones mother, she is a human being and I hope she gets the help she needs to get rid of these demons,” said Forster.
Forster and Trickey always carry ample amounts of naloxone on their trips, but this was the first and only time they’ve actually had to use the opioid overdose reversing drug.
With Penticton’s only shelter, Compass House, operating at half capacity to facilitate COVID-19 social distancing, Trickey and Forster anticipate a tough winter ahead for Penticton’s homeless population.
The city recently approved a new emergency winter shelter at Victory Church’s former location to make up for the lack of space at Compass House and demand for beds. The shelter’s opening was recently delayed to late November.
There’s no easy solution to end homelessness, said Forster.
“Everybody wants them somewhere else,” Forster said. “But where are they supposed to go? The whole thing about being homeless is that you have nowhere to go.”
“We realize there needs to be a lot more done to address the problem, but we figure at least right now we can at least make that person a little warmer, a little more comfortable, a little less hungry for the night,” said Trickey.
Many people living on the street would like to access support services but don’t know where or how to get them, said Forster. He’s been able to direct people towards social services. Some have even contacted Trickey and Forster after seeking support to thank them.
“Once you’re in that cycle and you’re out on the street and you’re tying to survive it’s so hard to get out of,” said Trickey.
Since starting the initiative, Forster and Trickey said they have received some backlash from community members who claim they are “enablers.”
Forster said he understands where those people are coming from, but ultimately wishes they would be more understanding of the complexity of the situation.
“Have some patience for people, they’re human beings,” he said. Forster understands many community members are frustrated by the apparent proliferation of theft and property crime.
“It’s aggravating, no doubt, but at the same time they’re doing what they’re doing to survive because the systems have missed them,” he said. “When you’re out on the streets in this kind of weather you’re going to do what you have to do to survive, that’s human nature… it’s fight or flight and they’re fighting to live.”
Keep the Cold Off Penticton Foundation procures the majority of food and supplies through donations by community members. The donation drop-off location is at the Penticton Legion daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Trickey and Forster are also always glad to have volunteers join them. To get in touch with them, visit their Facebook page.