Summerside volunteers unite to help the homeless
On a cold, sunny February morning in Summerside — Prince Edward Island’s second-largest city — Ivy Inkpen sits in her car next to the city’s communal refrigerator in a downtown parking lot.
“Someone made potato soup in containers, which is a nice hot meal,” Inkpen said from the front seat, turning to peer in the back of her car.
“We have a box of sandwiches, another box of candy bar sandwiches, and I have two more boxes of sandwiches in the back seat on the floor.”
This is a perfectly normal morning for Inkpen: she’s sitting in her car full of donated groceries, waiting for someone in need of a free meal to come by. For the last few months she has been here six days a week.
Summerside’s communal fridge is a small wooden shed that houses a pantry on one side and two fridges on the other. Everyone is welcome to either leave a donation or take what’s there.
Inkpen and her volunteers use this parking lot next to the fridge as a hub to distribute packed lunches to those in need and to collect donations from community members.
In addition to food, she has blankets, sleeping bags and warm socks to give away in her car.
“I don’t have an office. This is my office,” Inkpen said. “People come here every day to give me things to help the homeless in Summerside.”
Much of the homelessness talk on PEI in recent months has centered on Charlottetown, the provincial capital. City and provincial governments recently tore down a large camp that emerged as the city’s housing shortage hit an all-time high last summer. Many of the camp’s residents are now staying in a new shelter that opened in December.
But homelessness is also a growing problem in Summerside, according to Inkpen and her group of volunteers.
There are more than 90 people in the area who are homeless in some form, Inkpen said — either renting motel rooms, couch surfing, or living in barns or old RVs.
I needed someone to just say I matter. And I want other people to know that they matter. — Volunteer Susan Gower
Inkpen worked as a social worker in British Columbia for 30 years and returned home to PEI to retire a few years ago.
Her work at Summerside began when she stepped in to help someone who had been displaced. From then on it snowed.
“People told me about people living in tents all over town. So I found some people who were in the tents and I tried to give them blankets and food to make sure they were okay,” she said.
“It breaks my heart”
Inkpen never expected to take on a job of this magnitude during her retirement.
“I don’t want people to die,” she said. “When I see people living on the streets or in tents and people who don’t have enough to eat and are suffering… it breaks my heart. This is what inspires me to help people trying to find housing. “
Inkpen formed an ad hoc group called Homeless Helper and set up a Facebook page. She now has 13 active volunteers who cook meals, deliver food to motel guests, collect donations, and sit by the community refrigerator to distribute groceries and necessities.
One of those volunteers, Constance Duncan, was in her own car next to Inkpen that February day to help fundraise.
“There is a great need in Summerside. It’s kind of a hidden need. I don’t think people really realize how many people have housing and food issues,” Duncan said.
Duncan has a personal connection to these issues – her son Jay used to be homeless in Charlottetown. Before witnessing his struggles, she said she was unaware of the magnitude of the problem in PEI
“Especially here in Summerside we thought we were a little bubble and we were doing so well, but in the last few years we’ve really started to struggle,” Duncan said.
“I find [most people] Think of homelessness as living under a bridge or in a tent. It’s not always. They are people living in extreme circumstances with no heating, no electricity, no food.”
“Homelessness is everywhere”
Her son, Jay Griffin, stopped by the parking lot that day to see his mother. He said he was “thrilled” when he heard his mother volunteered with the homeless relief group.
“It’s amazing to hear that things are finally moving towards the West Side [of the Island]…because homelessness is everywhere,” Griffin said.
You can sweep it under any rug you want. It’s still there. —Jay Griffin
“You can sweep it under any rug you want. It’s still there.”
Griffin was homeless in Charlottetown for about 18 months before he sought help with his addiction and got back on his feet. He now lives in Sackville, NB and works as a spring lobster fisherman on PEI.
“Once you’re in, it’s absolutely horrifying to try to get back out, and I know it from personal experience because I’ve fought my way out with claws,” Griffin said.
He said the patience of workers at places like Bedford MacDonald House, a Charlottetown men’s shelter, was key to getting him off the streets.
He wants others to understand the difficulties faced by those who become homeless.
“You don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to beg on the street for money. I will.’ Nobody wakes up and decides that. They’re pushed to that point because it’s about survival,” he said.
“To people who haven’t been there, they’re only human. We are only human. We’re just in a bad place.”
“Grown Up Not Knowing”
A common omission from volunteers and those who bring donations to Inkpen and her team is that they are unaware of the scale of homelessness in the Summerside area – and that is what spurs them into action.
“Honestly, I couldn’t sleep at night. That worried me,” said Priscilla Giroux, another volunteer who showed up in her car to help distribute items. “I’ve lived here almost my entire life and it’s just that it’s getting really bad … it’s really hard to see when you’re local and you grew up not knowing that.”
Giroux started by raising funds for men’s boots and now helps fundraise and distribute.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m not helping enough. I feel like I wish I could do more to help. But it’s very rewarding,” she said.
Make ends meet with the communal fridge
People who stopped by to pick up donated items the morning CBC News visited are lucky to have a roof over their heads, but are struggling to afford essentials like groceries.
Heather Campbell wheeled a shopping cart over and looked across the pantry shelves at the canned goods. Her two-year-old grandson was visiting and she wanted to get him some stuff and settled on a can of beans with pork and molasses, a can of soup, and an energy bar.
“This closet is – it’s amazing. It’s so amazing what the girls and the community have done,” Campbell said.
The two fridges across the small shed were almost empty, but Judy Griffin was able to snag a carton of eggs to give to her boyfriend, who has a disability and sometimes struggles to make ends meet.
“I do what I can for him because I have a steady income. So I can only do so much because I have to take care of myself too, right?” Griffin said.
Another volunteer, Susan Gower, cooks and delivers hot meals to people living in motel rooms across Summerside.
Gower discovered the homeless volunteers by accident last autumn when she herself was in a difficult situation and stopped by the fridge to get a few things.
“Ivy was here with Constance and they asked me, ‘Would you like lunch?’ And I said, ‘What?’ So that’s how it all started,” Gower said.
“We just started talking and she said, ‘You know, that’s what we do.’ And I said, ‘Can I volunteer?’ And I’ve been going at full speed ever since.”
Gower cooks and delivers between 30 and 100 home cooked meals a week.
“When I started, you know, they didn’t even open the doors … I left the food on the doorstep until it was gone. Now trust me to open the door,” she said.
“I want others to know that they matter”
Gower said she helps because she knows how easy it is for anyone to land when times are tough.
“What if I needed it? I needed it this week. I needed someone to just say I matter. And I want other people to know that they matter. And there are people out there willing to help.”
The people in this community care about other people and that’s what it takes to make the difference. — Ivy Inkpen
The provincial government is doing what it can, Inkpen said, planning to open a new men’s home in Summerside and helping people who call 911 to find a room for the night.
But it just isn’t happening fast enough, she said, and now it’s up to the community to get involved and fill the void.
“If you look in the back seat of my car, you can see that. Because it all came this morning. All that food and the sleeping bags and socks and blankets. The people in this community care about other people, and that’s what it takes to make the difference.”