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Charla Huber: Watching someone’s possessions at Our Place turns into a valuable lesson

The experience was a reminder that folks with very few possessions are at risk of losing them every day, because of something as simple as using the washroom.
Participants leave from Our Place last Saturday during the 2023 Coldest Night of the Year fundraising walk. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

This week, we’ve experienced some cold weather, snow, ice, rain and the inconveniences that come with them.

Many students experienced school closures on Tuesday, and I am sure others stayed home, too.

Across Canada last Saturday, people were participating in The Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser. I received invitations to participate in the event from Our Place Society and VicPD, since I serve on both organizations’ boards.

In Greater Victoria, there were two sites for The Coldest Night of the Year event. One was in Langford at Starlight Stadium and the other was at Our Place on Pandora.

Between the two locations, nearly 850 people participated — the highest participation in all 182 Coldest Night of the Year events across Canada.

The event raised $167,000, with donations still coming — already $30,000 more than last year.

I registered with a friend to volunteer as cheerleaders, which entailed greeting people as they arrived, directing them to the check-in desk, and answering questions.

Shortly after the participants left Our Place to embark on their walk, a young man sitting with his possessions asked me if I could watch his belongings so he could go use the washroom.

The young man was Indigenous, and I felt that he must have felt some camaraderie asking me to watch his things.

I was sitting in a chair a few metres away. Julian Daly, CEO of the society, stopped by to chat with me. In the quick conversation, I mentioned I was keeping an eye on the young man’s items.

“Hopefully he comes back,” Daly said. “Sometimes I’ve been watching people’s things and they don’t come back.”

I’d never thought about the option of him not coming back. But he’d only been gone for about 10 minutes.

I asked Daly: “What do you do if they don’t come back?”

He looked at me and replied: “I make sure to store it in a safe place.”

I felt moved, and that I’d learned an important lesson. Daly is the CEO, and the fact that “family members” (what Our Place calls its clients) feel comfortable asking him to watch their items speaks volumes.

I admire Daly for his compassion and understanding of people getting sidetracked and taking longer to return than expected, and for ensuring he is honouring the responsibility of watching the items.

As I waited, a staff member with a radio got a medical call. I worried it might have been the young man. Not because I was watching his things, but for his own wellbeing. It reminded me how vulnerable “family members” are.

As I watched the items, there were folks who approached his belongings to get a closer look. I told several “family members” that I was watching the items and that the owner would be back — sometimes it deterred people and sometimes not. In one case, the person took a juice and some cigarettes. I couldn’t stop them.

I was saddened for both parties. It’s a tough situation and people are struggling. I am not sharing this story to condemn anyone or their actions. It was a reality check for me and a reminder that folks with very few possessions are at risk of losing them every day, because of something as simple as using the washroom.

The young man came back in 20 minutes. He apologized for taking longer due to a lineup. He thanked me, and then I had to tell him about the missing juice and cigarettes, and apologize. I wanted him to know that I took his request seriously and that I had tried my best.

It was cold outside. I was wearing boots, a scarf and a toque with a hood pulled up. Even though I was cold, I knew in a short while I’d be back in my vehicle with heated seats, and after a short drive, I’d be back in my warm home.

I know we are aware of the struggles and challenges vulnerable people on the streets face. Even with that awareness, it’s good to refresh our perspectives and get a better understanding.