Being homeless at Christmas is not all that merry when the air is frigid and warm places are scarce.
Cheyanna Dean and Michael Smith came to Salmon Arm from Alberta after Dean’s mother died and the family farm was sold.
They found a job picking strawberries and were doing fine. Until they realized reasonable rents couldn’t be found.
Not wanting to go hungry, they set up a little camp behind the Best Western.
“My husband built the most cool little abode,” says Dean. “We helped so many people to stay warm last winter and have something to eat because we could cook.”
However, they have since been kicked off that land by the owners.
Although Dean is not related to other homeless people in Salmon Arm, they have become her family. Tears well in her eyes when she talks about how much they mean to her.
She says she’s the designated mama who puts a smile on everyone’s face.
“If I have a down day, everybody has a down day. When I woke up this morning, I’m like, yeah, I’m back. I was so happy, I had to do the happy dance.”
But it can be tough to stay happy when the temperature is cold, there’s no place to live and there’s nowhere warm to go.
She and Smith stayed at the Lighthouse Emergency Shelter for the three nights prior to the interview. She said while the shelter is helpful – a place to get a warm meal, have a shower and perhaps watch TV, “we like to be in our own little home.” She said she and her husband can’t sleep together at the shelter so she doesn’t sleep well, and Smith, who has Tourette syndrome, often has bad dreams. When they’re together, she can help ease him awake.
Relaxing at the shelter can also be difficult for her with all the people and personalities, she says.
Although one of the restaurants in Salmon Arm would allow people to sit for extended periods last winter, Dean says new management, combined with bad behaviour from some people, have changed that.
“The troublemakers. The ones that are, ‘Oh, I’m only here for a few days being homeless and then I get to go home.’ They are the ones that screw it up for people who really are homeless.”
The night prior to the interview Smith had set up a tent in one of the stalls at the fairgrounds. Smith says a security company told him he had two hours to take it down or be arrested.
“You can’t go anywhere,” Dean says. “We want to be able to smoke a joint or have a beer, have a cigarette with a friend even in the next tent. Around here, there’s so much land, but they can’t even give a little area to the homeless just to set up for the winter.”
Dean said she was plagued with a drug addition but has kicked it.
It’s easy for people on the street to fall into that path, she says, because it looks like an easy escape from living and feeling their situation every day.
Depression is a big problem on the street. Dean knows how important it is for people to feel they’re wanted and loved.
“To say I worry about you. To say I need to know if you’re going to be okay. Make that person feel they’re wanted.”
Both Smith and Dean would like to have jobs, but Smith, who says he has a lot of training and is a journeyman plumber, points to the vicious circle.
“You can’t get a job without a house and you can’t get a house without a job.”
Dean says she’d be happy with even a part-time job.
“Something to make me feel like I’m wanted again, by humanity, by the population.”
They’ve heard about the affordable housing being built, but they’re not convinced it will be a fit for them.
The couple, plus a few other people nearby, say the community is not as kind to people who are homeless as it was last year.
“They’ve gotten worse, they’ve gotten meaner to us. Way meaner. Last winter they were so loving and caring. And you know, I used to sit in front of No Frills if I needed propane or gas. They were wonderful. This year, you can’t even get a Merry Christmas out of anybody and they just turn their noses down at you. What did I do?”
Dean dreams of having a turkey at Christmas to cook, maybe barbecue, for other people who are homeless.
“Make a little fire and you can rotisserie it. There’s so much you can do. Potatoes, just put them in tinfoil and put them in the fire.”
No matter what happens, Dean has a wish for the community.
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May 2020 be better for everyone.”