(SEE ACCOMPANYING REACTION TO HOMELESSNESS FROM COMMUNITY MEMBERS AT THIS LINK.)
Where are we supposed to stay? Where are we supposed to go?
Ken Derkach asks these questions several times throughout an interview last week from the sidewalk of Alexander Street.
Personable and thoughtful during this conversation, he is referring to the predicament of people who are homeless in Salmon Arm.
Derkach says police have kicked him out of three spots in the past three weeks or so. Last week an officer told him he can’t be within 15 metres of a bank, he says, pointing to the RBC Financial Group near him.
While he says he doesn’t like or respect the RCMP, “they’ve actually treated me fairly well.”
Bank staff, he says, are friendly.
“I want to go up against a judge. I’m even willing to do a little time in jail – at least I’d have a bed…”
He says he thinks the city gets the RCMP to crack down on homeless people because they’re bad for tourism.
“They don’t want anybody to know we have homeless people in Salmon Arm. You have to look good… The truth is, we’re here.”
He notes that the Salvation Army’s Lighthouse Emergency Shelter closes from April 1 to November 1.
“Where are we supposed to go? I’m not blaming anyone. One of my sayings is, ‘It is what it is. Deal with it.’”
Derkach says he spent 30 years in construction, as well as working as a DJ (disc jockey).
He lived in Coquitlam and, before Salmon Arm for the past five years, Kelowna.
His eyes fill with tears when he talks about how his life went into a tailspin.
“My wife died at 42. Brain tumour. That was kind of my downfall.”
He says he has two daughters, now 25 and 27, but he rarely sees them. Sometimes they talk on the phone.
His drinking spiralled.
“I used to be a weekend drinker. Now it’s pretty much every day.”
He adds, “I don’t cause any problems.”
Derkach now has Parkinson’s Disease and, last year, he suffered a heart attack. He’s 53.
He points out that he holds his knees as he sits on the sidewalk so his legs don’t shake. He also struggles with anxiety and depression.
Recently someone told him he looks thinner and more unhealthy than the last time they saw him.
“That’s the street life. I used to be about 195 pounds. Now I’m about 140. It has to do with health and everything else. You don’t get from 195 pounds to 140 and keep your health. I’m intelligent enough to know that. And it’s over the last two years. In high school I was 165, now I’m 140.”
“I actually feel like I’m not long for this world,” he says, as tears well again. “I’m sorry. I don’t worry about it – it’s one less mouth to feed.”
Forging ahead, he says when he was 12 or 13 years old, he remembers hearing there were about two billion people on earth.
“Now there are 7.4 billion in the world. I don’t understand how we’re going to take care of people.”
He says when he came here from Kelowna, he was on his way to New Brunswick.
“I got stuck here because of the people and the atmosphere,” he says, adding people in Kelowna weren’t friendly, whereas people in Salmon Arm are.
During the interview, a young man stops by to wish him well and give him a bottle of water. A woman also greets him and gives him a handful of change.
This year is the first he’s had to panhandle, he says.
“The people in this town are the best I’ve ever seen… Walking along the street, you hear ‘good morning, good morning.’ In Kelowna, you’re trying to have a conversation at a bus stop and they look at you like you’re crazy. People don’t understand I’m a sociable person, I get to meet all kinds of people.”
He says the odd person tries to verbally assault him and his friend, and they just say, “Have a nice day.”
He wants to rebut what he saw in a newspaper recently – that homeless people are lazy bums. He says he used to work at the bottle depot, and tried going back after his heart attack, but he didn’t have the energy.
Derkach grew up in Saskatoon and came to B.C. to escape the cold.
He says he is something of a social worker on the street.
I listen – that’s the biggest thing. Hopefully you can give them a little bit of advice – and maybe they follow it.”
What help would he like to see for people who are homeless?
“If they have the shelter open 24/7, 365 days a year, that would help.”
He says paying rent is out of the question because it would take $2,000 to get a place, with the damage deposit, utilities and the first month’s rent.
“That’s why a lot of us are homeless. We just can’t afford it…
“The RCMP say why are you here? I say, there’s no place else to be.”