Vivian downtown with her things and about to board a bus to a South Side shelter.  (Rahma Dalmar)

How the homeless keep their stuff

Monitoring belongings 24/7 can take a toll, and Edmonton’s
street people have limited options for storage
By Rahma Dalmar

WE GO OUT EVERY day with what we need, leaving non-essentials at home or stored in our cars. But “imagine not having a home or place to put your belongings safely,” says science-fiction author and part-time MacEwan University instructor Candas Jane Dorsey, a long-time Boyle Street resident and former community board member.

She’s talking about a crisis that plagues the Edmonton homeless population daily as they try to navigate life.

For example, Vivian, who became homeless three months ago, has had to carry the weight of her belongings everywhere, as she moves through the city every day. (She has asked to have her last name withheld.)

“It’s scary, because I have been robbed before,” she says. “But I don’t have any other options.” 

She says the “shame and judgement that comes with homelessness” has bothered her throughout the short time she has experienced it. At 43 and with adult children who have moved on, she says she finds the added weight of her belongings makes facing the future more difficult.

One problem homeless people have, which we never consider, is how to keep what little money they have safe. With no address, it’s pretty well impossible to open a bank account.

Four Directions banking was established in partnership with ATB Financial and Boyle Street to simplify the banking process. With biometric identification, the city’s most vulnerable can access their income during business hours. However, to open an account, they still need a valid government ID. This is something that affects health care for the homeless, too.

Celina Dolan of Alberta Health Services piloted an identification program in 2014 for homeless people to both acquire identification and store them.

“It was really an unintended learning that we have come to know that clients who present without ID contribute to a major barrier,” she says. “And it’s a problem not only for the client and the health provider, but the health provider has an inability to refer clients to appropriate levels of care.”

‘It would be nice to see a space
for people to be able to put their valuables’

Mailing services are also provided through the Royal Alexandra Hospital for citizens with no address.

“Without these services, the reality is they would lose their IDs and would continually have to renew them,” Dolan says.

As of October 2019, 1,729 people were experiencing chronic homelessness. As more housing is needed in the city, there are day-to-day issues that need mending.

Homeless people face “theft on a daily basis,” says Sarah, an employee at Boyle Street Community Services (who wishes to remain anonymous). As daily activities take place in the social room, volunteers constantly see the need for lockers or locations to store clothing, electronics and wallets, among other belongings. 

“Just the other day, a man whose luggage was stolen was devastated,” says Sarah. “It would be nice to see a space for people to be able to put their valuables when they come to the centre … So much conflict would be avoided.” 

Boyle Street Community Services provides housing, mental health support and services on many levels. However, Vivan says, her stays at homeless shelters are “opportunities for my belongings to be taken, since there are no lockers … I have to put my stuff under my bed as I sleep.”

The situation is all too similar in daytime support facilities such as Boyle Street, and overnight addiction centres like George Spady. Michael, who has had addiction problems, says he considers himself lucky to be able to store his “belongings at his mother’s home,” while he receives treatment. However, his friends struggle when moving throughout the city to access services.

“We need to reframe how we define homeless people and look at defining long-term solutions, rather than short-term issues, such as laundry and storage solutions,” Dorsey says. “That way, we may look at solving their problems overall.”

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