How did this happen?
by Jack Taylor
Linc Penner understands night life. He used to stand night after night working as a security guard in every imaginable form of Vancouver weather. He used to watch people walk by as they looked for shelter in places like the Union Gospel Mission, Catholic Charities or First Lutheran.
Now he hobbles up to me, depending on his cane, smiling through broken teeth, ready to chat. He is a survivor. He knows the city’s promise in 2008 to end homelessness is still a dream. He never imagined that he was watching his own life passing by on the streets when he worked as a guard. Renoviction by his landlord six months ago, so a relative could fill the spot, happened coincidentally with a severe disability which escalated his diabetes and heart failure. He didn’t get on the street early enough in Metro-Vancouver to be included in the 2017 homelessness stats which tallied 3,605 counted. He still might not be counted if his couch surfing options hadn’t run out.
“Now, I’m tired of having stuff in boxes,” Penner muses. “The only real things I own now are a footstool my dad made and an office chair.” Penner came from the Prairies 23 years ago. He went first to the missions to get help to stand on his feet. He eventually settled into family life, church life, and work life. As an extrovert, he rarely had trouble connecting with whoever was willing to talk. He even used to preach downtown to those on the street. Then came the renoviction last September. Penner was initially among the 20 percent of the homeless still trying to hold on to a job. He’d already lost his marriage and family. He’d moved away from his church support. Standing alone all night as a guard hadn’t helped his chance of building friendships.
He wasn’t alone in the lines patiently waiting for food, showers, or shelter. Others (72 percent of them male) took on the title of ‘homeless’ either because their rent was too high, their income too low or because no suitable housing could be found. Almost 80 percent of those in shelters, tents, doorways, alleys or extreme weather shelters were on basic income assistance or disability benefits (according to the 2017 Homeless Count in Metro Vancouver Final Report).
“I’d never been without shelter before September,” Penner says. “Now, I have my 3-zone transit pass and meds all covered but the cane I use has to keep me on my feet. When I finally got into Union Gospel Mission I was in for two weeks and then I had to get out for 30 days. They gave me a breakfast of two hard-boiled eggs, a muffin and coffee. I usually didn’t get in the first 15 who got their laundry done.
” Many of the homeless have to depend on places like The Gathering Place or the Evelyne Saller Centre for showers or affordable meals. Penner has memorized the schedules and offerings of every place and how much it will cost him to manage his way through a week. He has never been on unprescribed drugs but he is surrounded by their presence on a daily basis. Although he usually feels safer in shelters, the presence of drug users makes him nervous.
“Don’t stereotype people,” he tells me. “Many people are on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control. I meet some great people. We need to accept them as fellow human beings. In the shelters there is no discrimination. It’s like a United Nations of people.”
Penner is currently in a hostel where he can stay for 90 days before having to leave for 90. If he still can’t find a place after 90 days he can return for one more 30 day stint. He began on a mattress in the worst place in the crowded room but finally moved up to a reasonable location among the 16 who sleep together. He appreciated gracious, welcoming voices like Deacon Allen and his advocate Margaret.
“I still work when I can,” Penner says. “Mostly it’s volunteer – at the Foodbank or any place where they need help. I’m hopeful. I just want to find the next place God has provided so I can get some sleep and some support.”