Alice Sam, left, Graham Hughes and Lisa George (holding Hughes’ puppy Riot) volunteer at a nighttime ‘pop-up’ warming centre at a city-owned parking lot on Fourth Avenue, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. The temporary warming shelter included two propane firepits, food, warm drinks, Naloxone and hygiene kits. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Alice Sam, left, Graham Hughes and Lisa George (holding Hughes’ puppy Riot) volunteer at a nighttime ‘pop-up’ warming centre at a city-owned parking lot on Fourth Avenue, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. The temporary warming shelter included two propane firepits, food, warm drinks, Naloxone and hygiene kits. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

QUINN’S QUIPS: Volunteer gives name, dignity to people living rough

“Our aim is to get people off the streets. We don’t want to have to have a warming centre.”

Alice Sam has been a quiet presence at the “Occupy the Shelter” tent cities in Port Alberni since late October.

She shies away from the camera, but she listens, observes, and whispers her thoughts to others to remind them to bring up this point or that point. Saturday night (Dec. 12) she was bundled up in warm clothing and sitting at the warming shelter on Fourth Avenue, ready to show people who arrived to warm up where the individually packaged sandwiches and coffee cups were, and to reassure them that bowls of chili would be arriving in half an hour.

She speaks to people quietly, respectfully, addressing them by name if she knows it, asking them if they need anything. She explains that she’s not being nosy, she wants to do what she can to help them get through the night. She is no stranger to this process.

Ask Sam for her thoughts on whether Port Alberni’s homeless population is getting the help it needs, and she is firm with her words.

“Our aim is to get people off the streets. We don’t want to have to have a warming centre,” she said.

“We do need low to medium barrier housing with supportive services that are going to support them through getting permanent housing,” she said. “Rather than (health-care workers) try and find them all over the city and homeless situations, to have them in a spot where they can see them all.”

Sam is one of three people—the other two being Lisa George and Lindsay Mitchell—that have started the Grassroots Homelessness Coalition Society, the latest group attempting to lessen or eliminate homelessness in the Alberni Valley. They have been receiving advice from the Victoria Homelessness Coalition on how to formalize some of the activity they have been doing for the hard-to-house people living on the streets in Port Alberni.

Sam worries that the numbers of people living in the shadows are going to increase now that the city has taken action against Randy Brown, owner of Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue, who is trying to build an illegal RV lot beside his apartment (he doesn’t have the proper zoning or city permission). She said for every trailer on the lot, there are two or three people living in each. They could all end up on the street again if the trailers are removed.

It’s a no-win situation. “We don’t have anything in place. The ones who are coming here specifically (to the night-time warming centre) aren’t allowed in the shelter,” she said.

Four people who had been sleeping in tents had their situations re-evaluated, Sam said, after Mayor Sharie Minions and council asked Port Alberni Shelter Society staff to re-examine the reasons some of the people had been banned from the shelter.

“The ones they took from our camp, they’re no longer in the shelter—we’ve been supporting them while they’re on the street, providing them with warm blankets and whatever we can find for them.”

Sam has been a boots-on-the-ground advocate for the city’s homeless for 10 years. That’s a decade of taking action, of asking the people who live in our streets what they need in order to survive. Tenacious, Sam does what she can while never losing sight of the fact she is helping people, not statistics.

She wishes everyone would do more in the same respectful manner.

As long as there are people walking our streets who have nowhere safe to sleep, we need to do more.

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor

Alberni-Clayoquot Regional DistrictFirst NationsHousing and HomelessnessPort Alberni