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Thunderbird offers a safe haven to the marginalized

The Thunderbird Motel is changing lives, and opening doors for people struggling with homelessness
Homeless Program Coordinator Paul Keller (right) offers instructions to the crew at the Thunderbird Motel

The Thunderbird Motel is doing in a rural setting, what most major cities, have been unable to do in the area of providing safe housing to people struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

The facility is open seven days a week and provides a safe haven for its 24 residents and people passing through.

“Six thousand cities don’t have this — this is not something you see in small towns,” said Homeless Program Coordinator Paul Keller. “We are limited in some areas, but overall the model works.”

Retaining its original name, the motel was named after the Thunderbird, a First Nations mythological bird that is supernatural and represents both strength and power. The bird was traditionally used in North American Indigenous art, music, and found in historic oral traditions. Keller felt it was appropriate to keep the integrity of the original name when the Thunderbird Motel was conceived in 2011.

Client centered, the Motel which is located on three acres of land, offers support to its inhabitants. It’s a place where they have the ability to engage with one another in a supportive environment.

The Motel is unique in that it offers transitional and permanent housing options to people struggling with chronic homelessness. According to Keller, chronic homelessness happens for a variety of reasons, and generally people on the street recognize one another.

“They become their own type of family,” he said.

The Motel, which provides residents with a sense of security and a home, is set up to reflect the essentials of what a comfortable home life would provide for the average individual.

The main living area is spacious and creates the opportunity for residents to interact, enjoy a variety of activities, and contribute to the quality of life for everyone there.

“Contributing gives people a sense of belonging and wellness,” said Keller.

The Motel features an array of beautiful gardens that allow clients a chance to cultivate their individual green thumbs, while helping them to create a sustainable living scenario. By providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and with the arrival of the latest contribution to the exceptional gardens, a recent gift from Envision, which granted the facility over 35 new fruit trees — the nutritional needs of the clients will be met.

Through many partnerships, the Motel has created a sustainable living model that encourages people to take the initial step toward healthier living, while giving them an opportunity to live in a clean, inclusive, and integrity based environment.

Working in accordance with prevention outreach agencies, homeless workers, non-profits, BC Housing, The District of Hope, volunteers and the general community who help operate the motel, things are able to come together.

“Homelessness affects everyone and not accepting them, or putting high expectations on them doesn’t work,” said Keller. We take a holistic approach, centered on re-integration into the community.”

The Motel provides a safe, caring environment, that works with the individual as opposed to forcing the individual.

“We don’t want to create an institutional-like setting, that’s not what we want to do here,” said Keller.

Institutions behave like a band aid solution to much deeper problems, problems that need a more holistic and long term approach, according to the homeless program coordinator, who has been with the Motel, since its inception.

Ruth, a current resident at the Motel, told The Hope Standard that staff is great in helping residents with finances, while staying connected to services in the community like medical treatment, or recreation.

“We have food, stability and a clean home,” said Ruth.

Clients have the ability to contribute by doing different tasks, but it is not required of them.

“They generally enjoy helping out and they do it on their own,” said Keller.

The concept for the Motel was based on the idea of creating a comfortable living situation for clients, where they have the ability to live a harm reduction lifestyle; which, encourages gradual improvements to their unique circumstances, instead of extreme measures which often fail, due to the rapid and aggressive nature of treatment.

Treatment can take years for individuals, and often three month programs offered by wellness centres, or hospitals, don’t provide clients with enough time to properly address, treat or heal the root causes of their conditions according to Keller.

“When we were making the space, I thought, what could we put in it, that would make it feel like home,” said Keller. “We want people to get along and achieve a level of wellness.”

Keller admits that society is partly to blame for the current homeless population, a crisis that is continuing to be a prevalent and alarming issue in society, especially in urban areas.

“When an individual hits the age bracket between 20 and 60, they are typically thrown away by the system, so there is a massive amount of people who need support — people who aren’t able to make it on their own without enhanced supports and this creates a need.”

The Motel currently has 24 units and a drop in centre as well as an emergency shelter that has four beds (two for men and two for women.)

During extreme weather conditions beds are made available.