Marco Argieri, 57, tends to his “therapy plants” in his permanent, secure home in Richmond.
This is a far cry from the years he spent homeless, couch surfing and in shelters.
Now living in a BC Housing shelter-rate bachelor apartment, Argieri said he finally feels safe and secure.
“This place has pulled me out of (depression),” he said about Rosewood Towers.
And tending to his plants also helps him cope with depression, he added, by calming him down and keeping him busy — he said his mind is always “dead-heading.”
“I’d rather buy these (plants) and be proud of myself that it’s not alcohol or drugs,” he said.
Argieri first experienced homelessness 20 years ago while living in Abbotsford — after a fire destroyed his home.
At that point in his life, “drugs were in the picture” and were taking over his life.
He moved back to Richmond — where he had grown up — and lived for a while with his sister and niece and then with his parents. But neither situation was tenable and he ended up homeless again.
At some point, he lived in an abandoned house that had power and water — even a TV. But that was short-lived relief as the house was demolished two months later.
Argieri finally connected with St. Alban’s Anglican Church, which has a number of programs for people living on the streets.
He started attending their dinners, talking with their counsellors, which helped him start climbing out of the hole of his addiction.
Next, with some rental assistance from CHIMO, he found an apartment on Bennett Road, only to be pushed out onto the streets again by another fire in 2015.
After years on the waitlist and advocacy from CHIMO and other community workers, Argieri finally got into Rosewood Towers. It lifted a weight from his shoulders as he knew his disability cheque could cover his rent and leave enough to live on.
But while he now enjoys the security of a home, he worries about other people who are struggling with homelessness — like a good friend of his who was recently evicted from temporary modular housing (TMH) on Alderbridge Way and now is just managing to survive.
Homelessness Action Week
This week, Oct. 10 to 16, is Homelessness Action Week and the theme this year is “Bridging the Gap.”
This means solving homelessness takes the whole community, explained De Whalen, chair of the Richmond Poverty Response Coalition (RPRC), in a press release about raising awareness on the issue.
But there also needs to be seamless services and resources as well as appropriate, affordable and stable housing to help house people, she added.
Richmond Homeless Connect is normally a day-long event — which included flu shots, foot care and haircuts — during Homelessness Action Week, but for the second year running COVID-19 has cancelled these plans.
While some are advocating for more affordable housing in Richmond, the city has opened one TMH; another is in the works.
In 2019, the first TMH opened on Alderbridge Way despite vociferous opposition from the community. This provided 40 low-barrier homes for people who were living on the street.
The second one is scheduled to open on Smith Street next summer.
In the meantime, the former seniors centre next to Minoru Park is being used as an emergency shelter until the end of February — the deadline has been extended a few times — and the city hopes to have it running until the new TMH opens.
More outreach needed
Hugh Freiberg has spent the last 20 years as an outreach worker, finding unsheltered people in Richmond, feeding them and counselling them and trying to direct them to shelters and services.
During the regional homelessness count in 2020, 85 people in Richmond were identified as being without a permanent home. This was up by 21 per cent since the last count in 2017.
But Freiberg thinks this number is low — he would peg it at closer to 200, if not more.
Freiberg connects with between 40 and 60 people every evening in Richmond.
He finds them in the woods, under bridges, in camps and living in vehicles. He said homelessness in Richmond is not “in your face” like in other communities, rather it’s hidden with homeless people usually only venturing out in the late afternoon or at night.
Freiberg spends his outreach shifts – usually from 4 p.m. to midnight – finding these people, giving them a hot meal, providing them with some hope or just a listening ear.
But the number of unsheltered people needing help warrants a lot more services in Richmond, Freiberg said, including a detox centre and more.
Many of them have multitude of barriers stopping them from getting off the street, Freiberg said, and many have given up hope “because the system has failed them.”
“If I can get them in a shelter where the case workers and social workers are, then we have a better chance (of helping them),” Freiberg said.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation for the homeless, he said, but the number-one need, in his opinion, is for mental-health and substance-use support.
“We need big time support in that area with additional outreach to find these people and guide these people to the proper services,” Freiberg said.
Freiberg said he’s grateful to community members who have been stepping up over the years and have offered their “sweat equity” – even during COVID-19 –many of whom are part of the inter-faith community, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities, to take care of the vulnerable, street-entrenched population.
“There are fantastic people in this community, in the middle of a pandemic, who go the extra mile to try to help out as best as they can,” Freiberg said.
With 17 years clean and sober and a secure roof over his head, Argieri said he’s happy to put money into his therapy plants rather than drugs.
He even donates $10 a month to the food bank to give back for the support he’s gotten over the years.