Solving homelessness begins on the streets
Published Monday, January 24, 2011 8:31PM PST
Every night, Arnie Mulessa scours Vancouver streets for the homeless.
He's a driver of the Union Gospel Mobile Mission Van. His task is to make contact with the people who are otherwise off the grid.
"We go and we hunt in alleys, bridges, parks," says Mulessa as he drives the van around alleys in Kitsilano, then further east in the Cambie neighbourhood. "Industrial parks, abandoned houses. We find people who are living in there."
He hands out sandwiches and hot chocolate to anyone he comes across. Those comforts are his tools to build a personal connection with the people who sleep on Vancouver's streets.
Mulessa says people are happiest when they get socks -- having clean, dry socks in Vancouver's wet weather will bring out the people who would hide from anyone else.
And that's the first step to engaging them, bringing them indoors, into supportive housing and into treatment, he says.
"You never know when someone is going to say, ‘I'm ready,'" he said.
Their first stop is Vinnie, a binner who sleeps in an apartment parking spot. Vinnie's wife and child died in a car accident nearly 10 years ago. Vinnie hasn't been able to sleep indoors since.
"I have these constant thinkings," confides Vinnie. "The phone calls from the hospital. And the police. And stuff like that. I have constant reminders."
He says he drinks because of his memories of that day. That's one reason why Vinnie says he's not ready to go inside yet. He's tried, but the insomnia drove him back to the street.
One day, he says, he might be ready -- just not yet.
The next stop is a man who calls himself "Rockin' Rob." He collects stuffed animals -- he has a whole grocery cart full of them -- including one with a battery-powered stereo that's belting out "Grandpa got run over by a reindeer."
He doesn't mind telling Mulessa that he started drinking when he was 15. He was living on the streets by the time he was 16.
Stuffed animals, he says, are a way of making him seem less scary.
"I figure by doing this, kids will realize we're just like them," he says. "We're pushing carts now. Don't be afraid."
Rob isn't ready to leave the streets yet either. He does take a fresh pair of socks.
"Half a day of this," he says, gesturing to the rain, "and your feet are soaked. Your shoes are soaked. It's nice to put on socks in the morning."
If the nightly mission seems like simple charity, the Union Gospel Mission would disagree.
There's a larger plan, says spokesman Derek Weiss. If the Mobile Mission Van can make contact with homeless people and earn their trust, by the time they're ready to shake the alcohol, and the drugs, they'll know where to start.
They'll be welcomed into the Union Gospel Mission's new building on Hastings Street. When it's completed it will have a shelter, drug recovery house and supportive housing.
"It's a goal for us to provide a continuum of care," said Weiss. "It starts with a meal, then it leads to re-engagement with society."
Mulessa knows they'll need all the help they can get. At one point, he didn't have a home himself.
"It was hopeless. It was like, ‘What do I do today?' There was no reason to get up except for pure survival," he said.
He's not supportive of the idea that someone can ‘solve' homelessness. On the ground, he says it's an individual decision about what someone who's spent years on the street will do next with his life.
But knowing he's part of a larger solution that gives those people options -- that's what keeps him coming out to Vancouver's streets, night after night.
"It's for the one in the million. That's worth all the days where all we do is feed people and say hello and good-bye," he said.