Claire Pearen does what most people shy away from — she regularly sits down and talks to people who are homeless.
Their stories are an ever-present reminder, said Pearen, that “unhoused people are humans too. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The former Lacombe resident was driving through Riverside Meadows in Red Deer this week when she spotted a man sleeping on a grassy hillside off 60th Street.
As it was a hot day, the activist who works with people without housing in Edmonton, parked her vehicle and approached him to ask if he wanted a couple of water bottles.
The man gestured to the damp cardboard he was lying on and his worn blanket, and told her “I have everything I need,” Pearen recalled.
As she sat down and shared a chocolate bar with him, the man told her he became an alcoholic after his youngest daughter died.
The man spoke about how much he still misses his daughter and how hard it’s been to get back on his feet after five years — “how it feels pretty much impossible with all the barriers he faces and lack of supports there are,” she recalled.
Perhaps because he reminded her of her father, she got a lump in her throat.
After hearing about how he tries his best to clean up so he won’t get kicked out of the air-conditioned mall food court, she returned to her car to give the man some donated supplies — including a hygiene kit, a sleeping mat, pack of socks and underwear and snacks.
She said he became tearful over these gifts, telling her that not many people have been nice to him lately, let alone taken a real look at him.
“We all have a story. Many of us are one paycheque away from being out there ourselves so try and stay humble… no one is above someone else,” said Pearen, who was homeless for a time during her youth and now helps run the Water Warriors street outreach team in Edmonton.
She’s heard about Red Deer’s predicament, regarding whether the Safe Harbour homeless shelter should be allowed to remain it the downtown until a permanent shelter is built — and is dismayed.
While she feels for the downtown business people who have complained about garbage, crime and disorder, she hopes that everyone will try to work together to come up with a solution that does not overlook the needs of the vulnerable.
“The thing is, many of us have addictions, some of us just have the luxury of using under a roof,” said Pearen.
Going into detox or addictions treatment is only part of the solution to homelessness, she added, as there needs to be enough affordable or transitional housing available for people who are ready to get off the street — and right now there is an extreme deficit.
Pearen hopes more people will make an effort to recognize the humanity in those who are without housing, instead of just walking by them.
“If you’re out there and you see someone in need…a water bottle and a conversation can mean so much. Compassion can go a long way.”