Seasons House as a receiving line for thieves. “Bus loads of homeless arriving at our doorstep.” These are a couple misconceptions Melanie MacDonald, executive director of the shelter, wants to quash after the Quesnel in Action rally that took place Aug. 27 outside City Hall.
“Everybody talks about the Seasons House. We need the Seasons House,” Lawrence Chouinard said into the microphone at the rally, after telling of being beaten in March by home invaders.
“We just don’t need it run the way it is. They should not be allowed to walk into that place with stolen stuff and walk out the same way.”
Chouinard also singled the shelter out a second time during his speech.
“We got to get something changed with the Seasons House that if they come in there with stolen property, kick them out,” he said.
MacDonald told the Quesnel Cariboo Observer that Seasons House staff were in attendance at the rally and the shelter wrote a letter of support for Quesnel in Action, calling for increased policing as well as other measures to protect individuals and businesses in the community.
“We absolutely believe measures need to be taken to protect local businesses and individuals from crime,” she said.
“We’re doing what we do because we care.”
MacDonald said she believes property crime is increasing in Quesnel, such as stolen bicycles and vandalism, “which has a huge impact on the community.”
However, she said the shelter, which provides emergency shelter beds, transitional housing units, meals, take home naloxone kits, and other supports to those in need, was disappointed to hear some of the messaging at the rally regarding their organization, and wants to work with the community to dispel misconceptions and stigma.
“I think some of the frustrating pieces that came out of that rally were some of the negative misconceptions about the work that we’re doing here,” she said. “We do at times feel frustrated because we don’t feel everyone in the community understands.
“We operate over capacity so that if people’s basic needs get met, they’re less desperate for things like food, and they aren’t sleeping in business doorways or bank vestibules. We’ve also tried to prevent a tent city situation from happening in Quesnel.
“We need help too, which is why it would be great to collaborate as a community rather than be attacked.”
For one, MacDonald said they do not receive, hide or harbour stolen bicycles at the shelter.
“We don’t get people bringing in stolen property here,” she said, noting that most often stolen property would “disappear” long before arriving at their doors.
On the couple of incidences where stolen property was discovered at the shelter, she said staff removed the item.
“If we know it’s a stolen item, we contact the RCMP, we provide video surveillance, we contact the owner,” she said, adding that the shelter has strong relationships with local officers.
MacDonald also said there is a misconception that the shelter “owns the entire homeless population” in Quesnel or has “some control over what happens outside of [their] doors.”
“We take all those steps that are within our ability to control,” she said.
“It’s important to understand that some individuals in the community are causing problems who do not have access to our services because we deal with the same problems with them that the community is dealing with.”
Also, MacDonald said “there is a huge misconception that people are being sent here in bus loads.”
“That is absolutely not accurate,” she said.
While she said communities around the province are experiencing increasing transient populations, she would still say “the majority of people [they] are serving are local or have local roots,” having come here for some sort of support, such as support from a family member.
She also said currently the biggest demographic staying at the shelter is seniors.
Most disappointing, MacDonald added, was messaging from Mayor Bob Simpson at the rally, where he took issue with harm reduction strategies.
Simpson told the crowd he had been vilified in the past for asking questions about “this harm reduction approach that’s being taken to give individuals with mental health and addictions issues their drug paraphernalia, a warm bed, warm food, all the things that they need to be in our communities and be safe from transmittable diseases.”
“Yet the one thing that they need to get through their day is illicit drugs that they obtain for the most part by stealing other peoples’ property,” he said.
“The last time that we raised this message about two years ago, there was a banner headline because we were asking questions about the Elliott Street new housing project, how it would not turn into another Seasons House.”
However, MacDonald said “there must be room for harm reduction strategies in this time of crisis.”
“Harm reduction is saving lives right now in Quesnel and preventing us from falling into an HIV or Hepatitis C epidemic alongside the overdose epidemic,” she said, adding that they give containers out with all sharps.
“A huge concern for us and other Quesnel residents and businesses is discarded drug paraphernalia. We heard this loud and clear at the rally,” she said. “Much of my time is spent writing grant [applications] and securing funding to employ [people with lived experience in substance use] on our clean team.”
She also said not all substance users are criminals.
“These types of messages are literally killing people,” she said. “People will never feel safe to reach out for help as long as stigma keeps them feeling ashamed and alone.”
While MacDonald said she believes there needs to be increased policing in Quesnel, “police is a piece.”
“There are other pieces that absolutely need to be addressed as well,” she said, adding that she thinks it’s time for an overdose prevention site in the city, which currently does not have a safe injection site.
Such a site could cut down on public consumption and drug paraphernalia, she said, as well as do referrals to detox.
“This crisis is the result of decades of underfunding to health and social programs,” she said.
“We need to rally and also demand a fully-implemented poverty reduction plan, access to affordable and supportive housing, health care services for people struggling with mental health or substance use issues, detox, treatment, and prevention initiatives to ensure our at-risk children and youth aren’t falling through the cracks and ending up homeless.
“Locally, virtually none of this exists, and we need to get loud and work together.”