The Will to Change documentary looks at homelessness in Kootenays

·7 min read

Home may be where the heart is, but the street should never be where anyone resides. Kimberly filmmaker Mark Locki, who started his career in 2020 after transitioning from still photography, wanted to tell deeper stories. The Homeless Outreach and Prevention Program coordinators, which are a part of the Community Connections Society of Southeast BC, reached out to Locki with an idea for a film and campaign on the stigmas that people experiencing homelessness face in Cranbrook and the East Kootenays. Locki and Jessica Fong, who was co-director of this project and her first film, instantly fell in love with the idea, which became the powerful documentary The Will to Change. It can be viewed at www.thewilltochange.ca.

“We'd been following the debates about the shelter and the opportunity to make an impact in the lives of people experiencing homelessness through this documentary really inspired us,” Locki said. “The people who take part in the film are truly everyday people: a cook, a young father and a social worker. They have families, jobs, talents, dreams, and struggles, one of which has been to secure housing. Two of them experienced homelessness in the past, while one lost their housing, but received help from the Homeless Outreach and Prevention program in time to avoid homelessness. Their stories show us homelessness can happen to anyone.”

Locki moved to Kimberley in 2019 and completed his first documentary, New Roots, in 2021. When Locki and Fong were approached by the Homeless Outreach and Prevention Program, there were many negative opinions and whispers throughout the community about not only the shelter's location, but also about people experiencing homelessness in general. The rumour mill produced tales that people experiencing homelessness were shipped to the Kootenays from other places in B.C. and how they were all hopeless addicts, dangerous to youth and children, the ones responsible for crime and should be put away outside city limits. Those behind the film realized certainly perspectives needed to be changed.

"It is our hope that this film will help people to have more compassion and understanding of the plight of individuals that are homeless, have faced homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless, said Tracy Pound, the program coordinator at the Homeless Outreach and Prevention Program. “It is also our desire that bringing awareness to this issue will help reduce the discrimination and stigmatization of the most vulnerable members of our society."

Homelessness is a growing crisis and concern and the East Kootenays are no exception. A study done in 2020 revealed that 63 people were experiencing homelessness, with 48 per cent identifying as Indigenous. This is in comparison to the Indigenous comprising nine per cent of the total population. The 63 people classified as homeless in 2020 was an increase from 29 in 2018. While the crisis is more evident in Cranbrook, it remains a Kootenay-wide problem. This concern allowed Locki and Fong the opportunity to tell their stories and challenge stigmas around homelessness, while also providing a more compassionate view to community members.

“Making the film has been a great experience because we worked with wonderful people to support a good cause. Right now, the most rewarding part is seeing it making an impact,” Fong said. “One of our participants in the film gave an interview to the media and she said telling her story was ‘empowering.’ A person touched by the film decided to write his own personal story of homelessness and publish it in a local newspaper. To learn the film is encouraging people to speak about homelessness without shame and challenge prejudices with their stories is very gratifying.”

One of the participants in The Will to Change is Keira Casimer, a Carrier woman from Saik'uz First Nation and social worker who works out of the homeless shelter in Cranbrook, providing support to those struggling with the very same challenges she endured. Colonialism has made Indigenous peoples more vulnerable to homelessness, which makes Casimer’s participation in the film even more important.

“I had always struggled with housing and job insecurity, but always somehow managed to survive,” Casimer said. “What spiralled myself into homelessness was an abusive relationship with a guy I just met. I was already struggling with alcoholism and maintaining a productive life even before I met him. At first, he made a good drinking buddy and companion. This only lasted six months and our last fight ended violently.” Casimer said she is now five years sober, with March 17, 2017 the start of the period of sobriety.

“I am living my goal of being a mother to my 12-year-old daughter, who is the sole reason I made the choice to turn my life around,” Casimer said. “She deserved better than I was giving her. We both have an awesome man in our life and that is my boyfriend who supports us in anything we want to do.” Casimer added she has been fully employed since June 2017 and now works at the Cranbrook emergency shelter. While the shelter offers free services, it is not enough to keep up with the growing crisis, leaving many turned away at times due it already being at capacity. Both filmmakers hope the documentary will have an impact on anyone who has experienced homelessness.

“There is a lot we can do to help people experiencing homelessness. It doesn't take much to make someone’s day,” Locki said. “Instead of ignoring the next person experiencing homelessness you meet, try saying hi, smiling and treating them with respect. Help educate your family, friends, and online community about how people experiencing homelessness are not to be feared, but to be helped. If you want to take the next step, you can support organizations that provide housing and addiction services and demand our government to expand these supports. Let them know ending homelessness matters to you.”

Locki and Fong said they both feel fortunate to have worked with the participants who had the courage to share their stories. Losing their housing and how social rejection made everything worse were journeys shared in this documentary. “The hardest part was listening to the heartbreaking stories of people who have been left behind by society. We spoke with about 15 people who had or are experiencing homelessness as part of the research for the documentary,” Locki said. “Each one had stories of suffering due to stigma and judgment. They face rejection and shaming almost everywhere they go, from the clerk at the gas station to the nurse at the hospital. People were out looking for jobs and housing but faced closed doors around the community.”

Both filmmakers are grateful for the education they received through their research in making the documentary. They quickly learned that without a safe shelter for protection, those struggling with homelessness are more likely to be victims of crime. They also noted that being without a home does not define how kind, nice and gentle those struggling can be. The filmmakers hope the audience will use The Will to Change as a tool to challenge their views on homelessness and learn that people can regain housing and rebuild their lives. Homelessness is impossible to fix, and the documentary educates audiences on this and shows how homelessness can happen to everyday people. It also illustrates that with the right supports, recovery and a better life are possible.

“I feel it is important for documentaries like this to be shared so people connect a face and story to a problem. There are many negative things that are connected to the homeless community, and I believe that sharing my story on a deeper level can bring certain things to the attention of people who view the homelessness community in a negative light,” Casimer said. “We need more support. We need more programs revolving around stable housing and substance abuse recovery programs. People need to understand that homelessness can happen to anyone because it’s just a chance of unfortunate circumstances that leaves one finding themself displaced. Stable, safe, affordable housing would have given me a platform to start dealing with my problems and saved me a lot of turmoil.”

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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