A night on the street

Sep 19 • Feature Story, Local NewsNo Comments on A night on the street

Johnathan Fournier and Jeff Parker took part in the fourth annual Boxes and Blankets fund and awareness raiser event Sept. 14 in front of the Downtown Chatham Centre.

Just seeing volunteers setting up for a night of simulating homelessness moved Johnathan Fournier to tears.

He knew he had to be part of Friday night’s Boxes and Blankets event where about two-dozen people spent the night in cardboard boxes to simulate part of what a homeless person endures.

“As soon as I came here (to the Boxes and Blankets event) I knew I had to be part of it,” he said. “I couldn’t just walk around and turn a blind eye. But others are. Look around. People are hurting.”

Boxes and Blankets is an annual event, organized by Chatham Hope Haven, in which people sleep for a night on the street, with only boxes and blankets. The objective is to shed light on the issue of homelessness, as well as raise money for the mission, which opened last November.

Fournier is all too familiar with the grim reality of being homeless. He said he spent six years living on the streets in Toronto.

“I was homeless basically from 18-24. When turned 18, I went from shelter to shelter to shelter,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to feel what I felt. It feels like you have no options.”

He moved to Chatham in May of 2017.

Fournier said his time spent homeless in Toronto tested his will to live.

“I was homeless; I was tired and I wanted to give up. I have scars on my body from hurting myself. I was in so much emotional pain,” he said. “If I didn’t have my dad, I literally would have committed suicide.”

Coming to Chatham, where his father lived, saved Fournier’s life.

“The second I moved here, the feeling in the community … you can feel the love,” he said.

But love cannot conquer all. Where in Toronto there were many support structures in place to help the homeless, Fournier said there are so many people trying to manipulate the system that those in need find it difficult to get the necessary help.

Here, the manipulators may be gone, but so too is much of the support structure.

“A loving community needs tools to love and help each other,” Fournier said. “

Today, Fournier is in a better place. He said he lives in a rooming house with his girlfriend, is on Ontario Works and is addressing his mental health issues.

But getting to where he is, despite the move to Chatham, wasn’t easy.

“There aren’t many options around here. There wasn’t even a shelter down here (in 2017),” he said.

Jeff Parker, supervisor at Chatham Hope Haven, said the men’s shelter only opened last November. There are 10 beds, but two are kept in reserve in case the police need to bring someone in an emergency.

The eight other beds are quite often filled each night, Parker said, adding more are needed. And additional supports are required.

“People need to know this is a reality,” he said. “We’ll take anybody in but we’re not counsellors. We can get them in touch with people who can counsel.”

Willis Pollett, client services co-ordinator for Hope Haven, said providing support for the homeless men who come in to the facility is not just about getting them some food and a place to sleep.

“We have one on ones to see why they are homeless,” he said. “A homeless person is not just an addict, or out of work or on ODSP. The problem is they are homeless; they aren’t hopeless.”

Fournier believes there is no excuse for the lack of support for local homeless; it’s a lack of attention.

“A road costs thousands of dollars; so does mental health. What’s more important?” he asked.

Final numbers from the weekend fundraiser weren’t released as of press time.

Volunteers are needed at Hope Haven. Shifts are 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or the full 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. Stop by at 183 Wellington St. W. to learn more.

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