I grew up loving super heroes, but I had never met one in person until Wednesday night.
Like a caped crusader, sans cape, Mike Forster takes to the streets, only he is not fighting crime, he is fighting a much larger and endemic scourge, the battle that many without homes face every night.
I had originally interviewed Forster in the early stages of his campaign to get dry socks and personal hygiene products to those living on the streets in Penticton. The Keep the Cold Off Penticton campaign has grown much larger in the month since, and as I entered his home while we prepared to head out for his weekly trip to Nanaimo Square, the generosity of the community was on full display.
Jackets, coats, blankets, towels and much more lined the walls, all donated from generous community members.
“This is clean,” he told me with a smirk.
Forster, his wife and daughter continually sort through the donations finding what they can use and giving what they can’t to organizations with similar goals. It’s not just the homeless he is helping, Forster pointed out one suitcase packed with clothes they are going to give to a woman who was recently abused by her partner and had to leave the relationship.
We hopped in his SUV, so chock-full of stuff that we would be set for a weeklong camping trip if necessary.
“I need a bigger SUV,” Forster said.
Not because he wanted more horsepower, but so he could fit in more of the necessities he brings to the homeless population on a weekly basis.
As we drove through the alleyway between Main and Martin Streets, heading to Nanaimo Square, he began pointing out where many of the regulars sleep.
He is on a first name basis with most, and tries to keep tabs on where they are and how they are doing.
“He hasn’t been there in awhile,” Forster said of one man. “I heard he was at the Soupateria Sunday, but he usually sleeps there.”
There is genuine concern in his voice as if he is speaking of a close personal friend.
As we pull up to Nanaimo Square, there was one busker playing violin, but aside from that the place was pretty much empty.
I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next, but within moments of exiting the vehicle, one younger woman approached and asked “are you the guys with toiletries and stuff?”
You wouldn’t know she was living on the street if you walked past her on your way to work.
“What do you need?” Forster replies eagerly, opening the trunk of his SUV. “We’re like a store, whatever you need.”
Next thing I know three or four more people approach.
“Do you guys have a backpack?” the woman from before asks. Forster gives her options, and she decides to go with the pink one.
“Any hoodies?” one man asks as requests start coming in from the five or six people now approaching the vehicle.
Forster, his wife Cora, his daughter Cherish-Lynn and his fellow nursing student at Sprott Shaw Leigh Sanborn quickly get to work taking requests for everything from blankets to socks and toiletries.
Once everyone had a chance to get what they needed, more non-caped crusaders showed up.
Kim Martins and her friend have been feeding those on the street since about a year and half ago. She showed up with a crock pot full of chilli, buns and coffee. More people started showing up for a hot meal. The two efforts had coincidentally found each other on social media, and now every Wednesday not only can those living on the street get the supplies they need, but a hot meal as well.
“I think sometimes people won’t even look at these guys,” Martins said. “So it’s just to show them that kind of love and that friendship with them. They are truly nice people.” I was not expecting what happened after the clothes were given out and the meals had been served.
It stopped being a campaign to help those living on the streets and turned into a social event. A few more people would show up here and there, and Forster and his crew would grab them what they needed, but after awhile it was just a group of people chatting, sipping coffee, laughing and generally having a nice time.
You could tell that one hour or so made all the difference in the world for many with few places to turn.
Forster said some of those on the street have undiagnosed mental health issues, or lack the funds and access to the right medications, but one of the biggest hurdles is the stigma they face.
Part of the operation has been breaking down that barrier on both sides. It’s a trust that needs to be built over time.
“They are just people, you just have to talk to them,” Forster said.
Some of those seeking help are unsure about the situation at Nanaimo Square, but Cherish-Lynn said it is about building a relationship.
“Nobody wants to be in this situation,” Cherish-Lynn said. “They are proud and it’s hard for them to take hand-outs.”
“I don’t trust it when people are too nice,” one man said, at first tentative to receive the help.
Cherish-Lynn speaks with the same passion for helping out as her father, and the family mutually agrees that she inherited it from him. She described the nearly impossible situation many living on the street face. Getting access to a computer to make a resume, making a resume, or even getting into an interview are daunting tasks when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from and your clothes are in less-than-good shape.
Mike also talks about being the helping hand that tries to break the cycle of addiction and rejection many fall into.
“My once little venture of getting toiletries, thermal socks, gloves and hats, the initial care package, has grown much bigger than what I have ever thought,” Mike said.
The operation grew much larger than the care packages as Penticton residents starting asking Mike what they could do to help. The input from those living on the street has been crucial as well.
“When they would ask and I didn’t have it, I would ask on my (Facebook) page and it would become real,” Mike said.
“It doesn’t matter what shape they are in. Drugs or alcohol, I just want them to be warm and feel safe. We help everyone in need though too, not just the homeless.”
His goals have shifted, with sights set much higher than the initial street-level effort. Now, Forster is determined to create a “one-stop-shop” shelter.
There is now a five-member board for the Keep the Cold Off Penticton Foundation, which received name approval on Dec. 8. The foundation plans to be an official registered non-profit by early next week.
In Forster’s mind, the shelter/centre isn’t an idea he hopes to accomplish one day, it’s an inevitability, it is going to happen.
Not only would it provide a warm (or cool) place to stay, but it would host a facility to treat and detox addiction issues. He said the centre would also physically clean up those who need it, give them a shave and clean clothes, and many other things others taken for granted by most.
“We must also address their possible mental health issues, schizophrenia, bipolar, maybe not even diagnosed,” Forster said. He noted even those on the street who are diagnosed will have trouble maintaining or affording medication.
Internet access to help with the job search would be another key component, as well as taking a look at educational needs including obtaining GEDs.
“At the end of this they come out, feel confident and know they always have support through us. They become that person who contributes back to the community.”
I realized after the hour or so I was out there, on one of the nicer nights this winter, that my feet were getting cold. It dawned on me that it was an extremely minute fraction of hardships many face daily, and I had only been there for an hour.
It was truly inspiring and heartwarming, I don’t use that word a lot, to see this kind of generosity, and many wonder how Mike finds the energy, but it’s infectious and had me asking how I could help next week at the end of the night.
I chatted with one man about the weather and how it was a nice night after that cold snap we had while people were enjoying a nice hot cup of chilli and some coffee.
“Yeah it’s nice out. You sleep inside though, that’s the difference,” he said.
Dale Boyd is a reporter with the Penticton Western News.