How wilderness treks help formerly homeless connect with peers, nature and themselves

You'd think a group of formerly homeless people wouldn't be too keen to spend a lengthy trip outdoors.

But a multi-day hike last year through Vancouver Island's coastal forest was a very different experience for them: They were on a journey of personal growth and discovery.

Last year, Anawim House, a support home in Victoria for those in poverty, partnered with mountain guide Ken Wylie and the Mountains for Growth program, a company that leads people on outdoor adventures, where they can connect with peers, gain confidence, and learn about themselves.

After a series of day events including rock and mountain climbing, a small group of men spent four days hiking the lush wilderness of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail — a strenuous, rocky path near the shoreline, with picturesque views of the ocean.

A second such hike recently took place in mountainous Strathcona Provincial Park, in central Vancouver Island.

Ali, whose full name the CBC has agreed to withhold, was one of the participants on the hiking journey last year.

He connected with Anawim House through other community services after finding himself alone and in a "mental health crisis." 

"Sleeping outdoors … it can be frightening and demoralizing, especially when you're really unsure how you got there," he said of his past as a homeless person.

Heather Mosher/The Weight We Carry

During the hike, Ali said the time he spent cooking and sharing stories with a small group of people who'd struggled through similar experiences gave him confidence and made him reflect on everything he was capable of.

"I think anything that challenges us to get outside our comfort zones, be together with other people, get active and trust others is good for personal growth," he said. 

Ali said the journey helped him realize he was a good listener, and willing to watch out for the wellbeing of his companions.

Challenging assumptions

Wylie said the idea for the program came to him on a walk through downtown Victoria six years ago. 

"I was struck by how many homeless people are on the streets," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, there's something I need to do here."

He began offering two-hour climbing programs in the city, which quickly ballooned into a business. 

"I think the whole thing is about connection to self, others, and the environment," said Wylie.

Mike McArther/CBC

On their trek last summer, Wylie said he would ask the hikers a question of the day, such as, "what are you most proud of?," to help the participants think more deeply about their lives. 

"Some of the stories that have bubbled up on the trail about how they wound up on the street just left me feeling humbled. … They'd been teaching me about homelessness to the point where [my] assumptions are crumbling," he recounted. 

The feeling of trust and fellowship was palpable among all of this year's participants, said Anawim House director Terry Edison-Brown, who said he'd just returned from the Strathcona hike this week. 

"One of the biggest things I deal with is that people feel worthless," he explained. "By engaging them and making them do different [activities] together, they're able to be better." 

This story is the focus of a new CBC documentary called The Weight We Carry, available on our streaming platform Gem. You can also watch it on CBC TV on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. local time.