Richard Watson

Thunderbird offers new program

Emergency shelter offers homeless people temporary accommodation and access to essential services

A new emergency shelter has opened at the Thunderbird.

The program offers homeless people refuge from the streets, food, a case worker, and access to community referral services.

“We’re able to help people regroup,” said Paul Keller, homeless program coordinator. “Typically with someone on the street, they’re imbedded in a street culture. It takes a transition period and it can be lengthy. Shelter is the first step for someone to transition into housing.”

The newly-renovated space has a common area, kitchen, two bathrooms, and separate bedrooms for men and women, each with two beds. There’s no smoking, drinking, drug usage or guests permitted.

The moderate-barrier shelter doesn’t have 24-hour staffing, but cameras are installed throughout the unit. Keller said clients need to have a “certain functioning level” and be willing to identify their challenges.

“We’ll work with people for as long as it takes, as long as they’re working towards the same goal,” said Keller, adding that clients do have access to group programs at the Thunderbird. “Typically it is our local homeless population that we’ll be bringing into this shelter and working with them to get them off the street or out of that couch surfing pattern they’ve been into for years.”

Anyone interested in staying at the shelter must meet with an outreach worker for an initial assessment to determine if they fulfill the mandate of the program. Keller said it’s not geared towards people who are travelling through Hope or are broken down on the highway for a night.

Richard Watson was one of the first shelter clients and has since chosen to become a permanent Thunderbird resident.

“The emergency shelter gave me the time it took to decide whether I was going to feel comfortable in one of these units,” he said “If I’m going to stop drinking this will be the place I’ll do it. Everybody around here basically has the same problems – we all have our addictions. Because we all understand each other, it’s so much easier.”

Watson has battled with alcohol for over 50 years and experienced his first blackout when he was 12 years old. His mother died in a car accident when he was a baby and his step-mother was physically, mentally and sexually abusive, all of which he considers contributing factors to his drinking problem.

“The more you drink the more you want to drink,” said Watson. “It’s a progressive thing.”

His lifestyle eventually led him down a criminal path. Watson served five-and-a-half years in prison for shooting a security guard during an armed robbery.

In 2008, he decided to sober up and pursue a relationship with his daughter. He rented an apartment in Vancouver for the first time in 15 years.

“I chose to be homeless because I liked living outside,” he said. “But I missed my daughter’s entire life and I wasn’t going to miss my grandchildren’s life. So I started the journey, but it’s a hard, long road.”

Watson moved into his daughter’s basement suite last year to be closer with family, but after three months ended up on another binge. When he wouldn’t stop drinking, his daughter kicked him out. Before ending up in Hope to go camping, Watson attended the Union Gospel Mission treatment centre for a short time. He left because the program was too constrictive.

Watson is now looking forward to painting again and visiting with his family this summer. His story will be featured in an upcoming video for the Hope & Area Transition Society, as part of a new web series created by Brodi-Jo Scalise. The Capilano University film student launched the project in June to give people an inside look at the people who live and work at the Thunderbird. Each video is about 10 minutes long.

“A lot of people have stereotypes about the type of people there and the behaviour they’re into,” said Scalise. “I wanted to tell some of their stories because I think they need to be heard. Maybe they can dispel some of the myths surrounding homelessness.”

Visit hopetransition.org for more information on the web videos.