Alien Messages: Salvation for the city’s homeless

We are having a conversation with Cameron Eggie, Fort St. John Salvation Army Executive Director. Cameron is a young First Nations man who contemplates the world with the sharp, empathetic eyes of someone who has been to hell and back again, and gained not an ounce of cynicism in the process, but instead tons of insight about the downfalls and the phenomenal resilience of human beings. 

Kalpana: “Cameron, do you think the right to a home should be listed among the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”

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Cameron: “I do believe that housing is a right, but it can be complicated since it also comes with basic responsibilities. At our shelter, people arrive in different states of intoxication and addiction and the two main reasons why we could refuse anyone would be if they are a threat to themselves or to other people. In that case, we often are forced to call the RCMP. We have violent people asking for their legitimate right to food and shelter but at the same time posing a risk to themselves and other guests. For example, an individual who, in his frustration, assaults staff or other guests; in my opinion, this person has forfeited his right to shelter at our place. It’s a tough call, especially in winter, when it could be a life and death decision. It gets complicated when it’s simply as a yes or no answer and the complexities often occur when the decision involves other people. What we see as the biggest clash is when the right for someone to be inside conflicts with the right of another to be safe.”

Charo: “In Europe and the U.S. there is an experimental program called Housing First, where they place homeless in rental apartments so that they can start their lives from a comfortable position. In Finland and Spain, this system is having an 85% success rate. Do you think this model could apply in Fort St. John?”

Cameron: “Yes, actually that’s what we are doing at the Salvation Army. We offer our guests a home for up to four years in the transitional housing program. Oftentimes, they will say, ‘I need to get out of the shelter, I need to do something with my life.’ For others, who are navigating addiction or mental illness, it can be a difficult journey. There are two levels of transitional housing, one where a guest may still be navigating addiction or mental health concerns, but are working on their health; and another what we call abstinence focused, which allows a safe space for those whom are fighting for their recovery. There they have their own bedrooms, but share common areas, have chores, which gives them a sense of community. In the last step, though, they find the problem of the lack of affordable housing.”

Kalpana: “Yeah, and I guess the added challenge of living by themselves again and the risk of relapse.”

Cameron: “Exactly. Living alone is largely a Western concept but I don’t think it is natural. I think the Eastern European or First Nations society model, which is more focused on community living, is more natural than the loneliness of the American way of life.”

Kalpana: “I agree. In India we are completely unfamiliar with this concept of personal space that is at the core of Canadian society.”

Cameron: “Exactly! We’re trying to sell people a way of life that doesn’t really work well. I believe we need to re-think that.”

Charo: “What do you think is the main factor that helps people succeed while in your facilities?”

Cameron: “I’d say it’s the security of having their needs covered. To think, ‘I don’t have to fight for survival today; I have food and I have a bed’ — that gives them the much needed mental space to think, ‘OK, now what do I want to do with my life?’ and to use our resources properly and sit down with our staff to develop individual case plans.”

Kalpana: “What percentage of First Nations people do you have in your shelter?”

Cameron: “I’d say 40 to 50% of our clients are First Nations.”

Kalpana: “It’s ironic to see the original inhabitants of the land seeking shelter in their own land.”

Cameron: “Yes, but many don’t consider it 'our' land. We are caretakers, not owners.”

Charo: “How does homelessness affect people spiritually?”

Cameron: “Well, it’s dehumanizing, for everyone. We often talk with men who are incredibly discouraged and who have to come to terms with the reality that they can’t sustain themselves and tend to their most basic needs, it makes it even more difficult when we live in a society that says you have to hit certain ‘markers’ to be considered successful.”

Kalpana: “Well, in India a homeless person would not receive the care and attention your clients get from the Salvation Army.”

Cameron: “Yes, I know, we are very fortunate in Canada to have social systems in place, as broken as they may seem at times, to catch those who fall through society’s cracks.”

Charo Lloret is from Spain; Kalpana Loganathan is from India. Each week, they’ll reflect on their experiences immigrating to Canada and settling into their new homes in Fort St. John.

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