Donovan Miller has a home and a job to look forward to. But he hasn’t always been so lucky.
The 53-year old has been a long-time client at the Fort Frances Family Centre, and credits the facility for his recovery.
“I’m not homeless anymore, but I was living on the streets, addicted to alcohol and drugs. If it wasn’t for the Family Centre, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
Miller feels his story isn’t unique – he’s confident many homeless people would be doing worse, or would have already died, if it wasn’t for the soups and sandwiches, and the safe place for homeless people to shelter from the weather, eat and rest. It also provides dignity, by giving them access to bathroom and laundry facilities.
Another client, Justin, knows the Family Centre can seem a little scary or intimidating to those watching from the outside.
Justin, 31, has been coming to the Centre for the past three years. It became his favourite spot when he had nowhere to go.
“I feel like outsiders or others are afraid to come here almost, because of the things they hear maybe or the people that eat here,” Justin said. “But really, when you’re here, everyone is really respectful of the rules and stuff… It’s a safe place. There’s nothing ever to worry about. Most of the problems come from things that don’t even involve the Family Centre.”
Although the clients who use the Family Centre are grateful for the service, it hasn’t existed without controversy. Although it’s nestled against the CN rail line, and housed in the old CN station, residential homes line the opposite side of the street.
It’s proven to be an uneasy arrangement, with many allegations of vandalism, loitering and mischief from neighbourhood residents.
Since 2017, the Family Centre has operated as an unaccredited shelter, offering refuge to anyone in need. It survives on food and monetary donations and volunteers as a grassroots solution to the epidemic of homelessness. However, its lack of accreditation has long been a point of contention with some residents and councillors.
Poor safety and hygiene is a common criticism, due to needles and garbage found by residents in the area. In addition, the effectiveness of a service without structured programming and licensed workers has also questioned in the past.
The Family Centre is often compared to government sanctioned programs, such as those provided by the United native Friendship Centre and the Out of the Cold Centre, operated during the winter months by the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board, according to co-founder Traci Lockman. These programs employ trained personnel, who facilitate access to community resources. However, they do require that clients not be actively under the influence of drugs or alcohol while using the facilities.
Lockman and co-founder Monica Sus acknowledge that government facilities provide a valuable service. But as the system sits, they see too many cracks for people to fall through, and feel the Family Centre’s role is to fill those gaps in the system.
“The other agencies in town, they do what they can, but they’re governed by rules. We aren’t,” Lockman said. “When they walk in that door. They’re welcome here and they know it. And having been an addict for years, there aren’t too many places they’re welcome. Their behavior has warranted that but we remember them for a long time. And we care. They know we care.”
Sus agreed. She feels the Centre provides a place for those who have few other options.
“If you had to live the life of a homeless person, you would be doing drugs like that too,” Sus said. “In a country that gets to 40 [degrees] below, can’t we make sure that everybody has a roof over their head? And yes, there is a place for most of them to stay, but if your behavior is not what they want, you’re gonna get kicked out. And that’s the part that just drives us crazy.”
Lockman noted that many people who access the Centre have been in foster care, survived residential schools, or experienced trauma and mental illness. While both Lockman and Sus agree that their shelter is not equipped to provide professional mental health services, they work hard to provide what they can.
“We’re a wraparound service,” Lockman explained, describing their personality as “jump in and get it done.” Most recently, Lockman and Sus have been helping with housing applications.
Lockman has been invited as one of the guest speakers at an Opioid Awareness Walk, to be held next week. On August 31, starting at 9 a.m. the public is invited to gather at the Couchiching multi-use facility, to take part in the awareness event, in honour of those lost to drug addiction.
Lockman has seen the destruction of drug addiction first-hand. She shared that the most traumatic experiences on the job happened just the night prior, when a girl overdosed and nearly died. Lockman administered six Naloxone and a colleague named Rhonda used CPR to revive her heart.
“And I truly thought she was dead,” Lockman said. “I probably took last night home with me more than I ever have, because we didn’t expect her to live. I’ve never had to give somebody six Naloxone. It was a very traumatic time for everybody. … You just don’t know what someone’s living with. What’s too painful for them to be sober.”
Unfortunately, these events happen almost daily at the Family Centre. Building relationships with people who are so deeply cared for, but whose lives are often cut short, often takes a toll on one’s emotional and mental wellbeing, she said. But Lockman keeps going with her work, because she sees no other place for these people to go.
According to Lockman and Sus, although they are supported by donations from residents, they have had received minimal support from town council and administration. Most recently, Family Centre were involved in a disagreement that arose from the tents set up behind the Volunteer Bureau. The tents were installed after a water flooding emergency that closed down Point Park, a common spot where the homeless live in the warmer months. The tents were removed once the emergency passed, and facilities were again operational at Point Park.
Sus explained that the park is not a suitable home for the homeless, especially those who needed equipment such as refrigeration for medicine, or who could not safely walk from Point Park to downtown Fort Frances because of physical disabilities.
“But somehow our town keeps thinking that this is the place where the homeless should go,” Sus said. “And we keep trying to tell them there is not one reason that is good for people to go there.”
Through a grant from Trillium, the Family Centre is renovating four offices at their location on Fourth Street West. About 20 volunteers currently work at the Centre – less than usual due to the summer holidays. Lockman expressed their desire to partner with professionals who can provide mental health services onsite.
“You cannot tell someone to go to an appointment next Thursday at two o’clock. They don’t even know what today is, and they don’t know when next Thursday is,” Lockman said.
She hopes that an on-site nurse, who could provides professional help directly and consistently could bridge the gap in mental health services at the Family Centre. Renovated offices at their facilities could be rented out by willing organizations who could participate in programming, counseling, or whatever they deemed most helpful. But so far, those services are still just plans.
“I’ve learned to evaluate success differently,” Lockman said. “What I would have wanted four years ago for an individual is no longer what I would hope to see anymore. I think I’m okay with baby steps. I’m okay with it not being the outcome that I would have pictured.”
For clients like Miller, those baby steps were enough to rise him out of a life of addiction and homelessness.
“I consider them my family because I never had a family. So they got to know me, I got to know them,” Miller said. “I just spoke to them and told them that, you know, the gratitude that I had as an individual and my circumstances and what it meant for them to help me. … Now I’m not living on the street. I have a home, I have a job. But you know, I keep in contact with them.”
To hear more stories of homelessness and addiction in our region, and what can be done, attend the Overdose Awareness Walk in memory of Chauncey Lyle Grover III on August 31.
This will be a full-day event including a wide range of guest speakers from addiction survivors to OPP who will talk about the addictions crisis in Fort Frances. It will take place at the Couchiching multi-use facility.
To contact the Family Centre, call 807-274-9555.
Elisa Nguyen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times