Standing near a line of people waiting to be fed outside NightShift Street Ministries on a rainy January night, Denis says he doesn’t like to dredge up the past, but volunteers words to the effect that he lost his son.
Further conversation reveals he’s hasn’t had contact with his son for the last 10 years, or the rest of his family for 17 years.
“It’s like I don’t exist for them anymore.”
Denis, 62 (pictured below), currently lives in Surrey with his dog Princess inside a container, the type used to store materials on a construction site. It’s small enough to fit on a flatbed truck.
He became intermittently homeless a few years after his wife died of cancer 17 years ago. The self-described former workaholic’s health started to fail and his life began to unravel.
“A lot of shit happened,” he says.
For years he bounced between places to sleep, recurring pneumonia keeping him from being able to work.
A year ago, Denis lived for a few months in an apartment in Whalley that was infested with bedbugs and “cockroaches galore.”
One night, trying catch his breath, Denis nearly swallowed a roach that crawled out of his asthma inhaler.
He decided it was better to be out on the street and looked for another place to crash.
“I’ve got integrity,” he says.
Five months later, a landlord of a house he was staying at punted Denis after he hadn’t paid rent the whole time he was there.
One consistency is Denis’ life has been NightShift Street Ministries, a charity based in North Surrey.
It’s a place he’s visited daily – when healthy enough to do so – for the last 12 years.
He helps out around NightShift, sweeping or shooing those away who are openly using drugs.
It’s where he met MaryAnne Connor – “Mac” to locals – a pastor and founder and president of the non-profit charity that provides food and support for people living on the street (or close to it).
NightShift staff and volunteers are out every night of they year, on the ground, helping society’s most vulnerable people, no matter what their backgrounds.
They know the people – and their stories.
“I’ve known Denis since the very first night I was in Whalley,” says Connor.
The two often exchange “Je t’aime” (I love you) with each other, as Denis is originally from Quebec.
Connor began her relationship with the Whalley street community during a Jan. 4, 2004 snowstorm.
At the time, she had a successful real estate business and a healthy income, but was undergoing a midlife crisis and wasn’t happy.
Listening to the wind of the storm in the warmth of her bed, she thought about what people on the street were going through.
Connor drove up to Whalley from White Rock and convinced a local pastor to open up a church shelter for the night. He handed her a key and left her and a few volunteers to provide peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a warm place to sleep for 35 men, women and children.
“I lost my head and found my heart,” she says.
Before long, the former Gentle Shepherd Church became NightShift, and is now fully devoted to helping people on the street find hope and purpose.
Connor isn’t coy about crediting God for having influence in her decision to abandon her former life, nor NightShift’s Christian DNA.
“When we’re on the street and we’re serving, no one has an obligation to listen to a sermon or say a prayer before their needs are met, ever.”
They’ll get some physical needs met: Food, clothing and boots, and there will be people to talk to about their spiritual needs or other subjects, if they wish.
She’s heard stories from NightShift clients that make her believe she would not have survived herself had she faced the same hardships.
Connor goes over the basics of what pushes people to their vulnerable positions: Poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, family break-ups, physical abuse, sexual abuse and poor health.
Just as important, but rarely acknowledged, are the gaps between short-term housing and short-term addiction recovery programs. Put another way, people’s progress, be it in recovery or being released from prison, isn’t followed up, and the cycle that may have been there before continues, Connor says.
It’s a chronic situation not alleviated by support by the provincial government.
“What social services gives them a month is a joke to live on,” Connor says. “They don’t know how to get out of here. They’re entrenched. Even if they have a fixed address, it’s not for very long.”
Connor says local churches, social services and government agencies have to work together to tackle the issues, and not be proprietary or territorial about programs that work.
“I think it’s going to take an army to move this. And it’s bigger than us. The problem is bigger that we see here.”
She explains that people on the street have had extraordinarily rough lives and many – especially young “working” women in the area – have been abused.
“We expect they’re going to live what we call ‘normal’ lives? Give your head a shake. They just need a person to love them. They just need to be listened to. They just need to be respected as people.
“For us, it’s not about numbers, for us it’s about the one. If I can make a shift in one person’s life, it causes a positive ripple effect that goes on beyond Whalley.”
NightShift hands out food to clients 365 nights a year, and provides other services that include:
• The NightShift Care Bus, staffed by two nurses, a counsellor and driver, provide one-onone private care for physical and emotional issues for clients. The bus also has a book library which runs on the honour system. The bus comes on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
• The Love Hurts program, dedicated to domestic abuse.
• The AOK program, in which students go into community to donate food and provide support to locals.
• The Alpha program, for spiritual support.
• Programs that assist street people with conflict resolution, health and safety, advice on housing and help with paperwork for IDs.
• Stocked Street Outreach, where care kits, clothing and blankets are provided from a clothing truck, two or three times a week, at the same time as the nightly meals.
“We don’t realize how lucky we are,” says Annetta Davies after finishing up most of an evening’s duties.
Davies has volunteered at NightShift twice a month for three years with her crew from Southside Community Church.
“It’s incredible. It’s a realization for me. These guys are outside in the rain all the time and sometimes when we’re out there, we’re freezing ourselves. We just get a little bit of taste of what they’re going through.”
NightShift Street Ministries is located at 10635 King George Blvd.
NO FIXED ADDRESS: Read the other stories in this Leader special report: