“A guy in a tent trailer came over with a little girl. She had her hands cupped in front of her. She threw handfuls of silver in my hat – and then she hugged me,” recounts Ken Derkach.
“Want to make me cry? That will do it,” he adds, pausing as the tears begin to well. He says he’s never experienced such a thing before.
Derkach sits with his friend Frank Johnson, taking refuge from the heat this August afternoon on a patch of grass underneath a tree across from Centenoka Park Mall. The men have known each other for five years; both are now homeless.
The Observer interviewed Derkach two years ago when he used to sit on Alexander Avenue. He also used to panhandle near the downtown Askew’s.
“Not a lot has changed. I’m still on the street, making it day to day, panhandling,” he says.
Now he often sits near the mall.
He said someone told him to get away from Askew’s, someone who wasn’t wearing a uniform but said they were working in conjunction with the police. He didn’t appreciate that.
Asked about the new city bylaw that restricts panhandling from within 15 metres of financial institutions and other businesses, he says it should be restricted to aggressive panhandlers, like the person who was approaching people outside No Frills before they got out of their vehicles. Not panhandlers like him. And he thinks the fact the bylaw includes a $50 fine is “ridiculous.”
Derkach says he misses being downtown where he was known, where he could have lots of conversations with people. He resents a bylaw that limits his freedom in such a way.
“I’ve had people tell me I’m quite articulate, polite, intelligent and they want to come and talk to me. That’s what I miss about downtown.”
His friend Frank Johnson came to Salmon Arm from Langley. He was in construction for 24 years but broke his back, has a brain injury and suffers from mental illness.
“I can do little odd jobs but can’t work full time anymore.”
He says he and ‘Kenny’ watch over each other every day.
Sitting with the two men is Ralph, who is not homeless but comes to visit them regularly.
Ralph weeps openly as he explains his wife died a year ago.
“I feel heartbroken. I watched her pass away in front of my face. I just come here because I have nobody in my life, I just come here to be sociable, to have some company.”
Death figures prominently for all the men. The death of Derkach’s wife 13 years ago led to his alcoholism, while the loss of his mother eight years ago also contributed. Both of Johnson’s parents have died.
Derkach says his Parkinson’s is worsening – “Yesterday and the day before I couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee, I was shaking so bad.” He adds philosophically: “It’s part of my life and something I’ve gotten used to.”
He says he uses a walker now as he loses his balance often.
“The health is going downhill. I don’t even know if having a home and hot meals would make a difference. I think the damage has been done.”
He says he has tried working but describes himself as having mental and physical disabilities, which makes comments like “Get a job,” from the odd passerby particularly hurtful.
Johnson, meanwhile, notes that he has medication for his conditions but it was stolen over the long weekend. He says days can be good if people would stop stealing.
Derkach pats the small backpack beside him and says it’s all he has.
“Things go missing otherwise. You try to hide it and somebody finds it, every time.”
Asked about solutions to homelessness, they both agree affordable housing is a top priority.
Derkach surmises that a person would need at least $3,000 just to get a one-bedroom when damage deposits, utilities, etc. are taken into account.
While they’re both hoping to get into the new BC Housing units being built, they expect it could be up to two years before that happens. Now they sleep “here and there.”
Both speak enthusiastically of the people of Salmon Arm.
People are so generous, says Johnson.
Adds Derkach: People of the Shuswap, I give them kudos. They’re the nicest people I’ve ever met. I’ve come from bigger centres and these people are so generous and so giving and so social. I love it here.”
And, despite his situation, he remains positive.
“I always tell people, ‘have a great day.’
“I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face, I say my prayers, and then I have a great day. I’m not going to lose my smile; nobody can take that from me.”