Over three editions of The News, we shine a light on people in the community who are helping those struggling with addiction, poverty, and mental illness on the streets in downtown Maple Ridge. They reach out not because it’s their job, or for pay, but simply because they care about their fellow humans. There are many of these Samaritans, and these are just some of the city’s stories.
It’s not overreaching to say Brian Smeding and the other volunteers in his group are saving lives on the streets of Maple Ridge.
Smeding is the man behind HELP Now Christian Fellowship, who goes out four or five nights per week giving food, hot drinks, and warm clothes to the homeless people in Maple Ridge’s downtown.
They have administered Narcan to people overdosing, they have helped people stay warm during the coldest nights, and about once a month they help someone get off the streets and move toward addiction recovery and a better life.
Feb. 3 was a typical night, with a group of three riding in Smeding’s pickup, looking for street people. The corner of 224th Street and Lougheed Highway is a place where people congregate. Smeding pulls his truck into a parking lot beside the Tim Horton’s restaurant, and people drift over, recognizing him and the vehicle.
There’s five people – four younger men and a young woman. It’s a bitter night, less than a degree away from freezing. They are dressed in warm coats, but everybody looks cold.
Brian knows them by sight and by name. Their exchange starts the same way every night.
“Do you want a sandwich?”
His fellow volunteers pull bins of food out, using the tailgate as a prep table. By the light of a portable lamp, Lyn Tait starts pouring steaming coffee and hot chocolate.
“Peanut butter and jam, or peanut butter and Nutella?”
Leigh Savege slathers gobs of sugary tastiness onto bread. It’s more desert than sandwich, like something a kid would make for himself. She explains people using hard drugs generally crave sugar. They don’t want a pesto chicken sandwich.
She knows firsthand. Savege spent time on the streets of Chilliwack as an addict, until her brother saved her.
“It took one year on crack to lose absolutely everything.”
Now she’s 65. Her mom is 101, and recently went into a seniors home, and that freed up a lot of her time.
“I’m not ready to sit around just yet,” Savege said.
Since joining HELP Now, she’s busy. She recalls the first time she saw Smeding help an overdose victim. The man was laying on the sidewalk at a gas station. Three men were standing over him. They had called an ambulance, which was on its way, but they didn’t know what else to do.
Smeding did. He found out that the unconscious man was breathing faintly or not at all, and couldn’t find a pulse. Using ‘pain stimulus’, Smeding brought him out of it. He asserts that this kind of early intervention can jolt an overdose victim back, and they won’t need naloxone.
With the crisis averted, Smeding told him, “I’m glad I didn’t have to Narcan you.”
“No, but you cared,” came the answer.
Leigh said such nights are vivid memories.
“They’re like photographs in my head.”
During December’s snow and freezing rain, they found a man who appeared to be freezing. He was laying on his side behind a drug store. Savege said his fingers were curled into claws. She touched the back of his hands, and remembers it went through him like lightning – the warmth and the human contact.
He said he had been thinking about giving up when they came along.
Some people on the streets spiral in their emotions, not caring what happens to them. Simply talking to someone can make a difference. Smeding will talk for an hour, listening to their problems, or talking about his faith. He’s a pastor. He’s been on the streets himself as a teen. Although he said his drug of choice back then was alcohol.
Smeding had done outreach work in the past, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the supports for people on the street in Maple Ridge stopped. He started going back out in March 2020, seven nights a week.
The first night, he made 25 sandwiches, and gave them all away. By June of that year, he had given away 5,000 sandwiches, and by September 25,000. Since then, he’s stopped counting.
He also takes a new tack, making the sandwiches on the streets. That way, people stop to talk for a few minutes.
Everything was coming out of his own pocket, but now there are donations.
Smeding is hearing that their work is making a difference. He recalls a conversation between people, talking about him. A man said he was ready to end his life, “and then some guy comes up and offers me a sandwich…”
Smeding talks to people in private conversations. It’s clear these people know him, and trust him. He digs into the plastic tote bins hands out blankets and some warm clothing.
Everyone is respectful, with “pleases” and “thank-yous.”
One man, who says his name is A.J., gets a sandwich and a hot chocolate whenever he can.
“I think they’re awesome doing this – give everyone who can’t have something to eat or something to drink… it’s really caring.”
They pack up, and continue on.
Smeding pulls the truck up to a bank on the Lougheed Highway, where an apparently homeless man can be seen inside, in the well-lit instant teller area.
A security guard pulls up in a little car at the same time. They both spot the homeless man at the same time.
Smeding waits, while the guard rousts out of the building what is actually a small group who had been warming up on the floor of the ATM area.
A man, who is in his 60s, wearing a Vancouver Canucks jersey comes out. He’s complaining bitterly about how security has taken to checking the place every hour, and there’s no place to get warm.
“Want a sandwich?”
There are two younger men. One is apparently the older man’s son. Another is limping badly, dragging his foot. He tells them he seems to have an infection.
Smeding says later that it’s common. He recalls a gruesome hand injury, with bone protruding and flesh hanging, that almost cost a man his life.
They are dressed warm, but they take gloves, socks and blankets. Smeding says many of the warm clothes these men have were given to them by the HELP people on previous nights, but they go through blankets rapidly. They wear out, they get wet, and they get left behind. He gets a lot of the clothes by donation, and says the best blanket for someone on the streets is one you could wrap around your shoulders, and wear like a poncho, without it dragging on the ground.
He said there are many reasons people become homeless. There is a lot of mental illness on the streets. There are many people who are right out of prison. Drug addiction is an obvious cause, but even for those who arrived in their dire circumstances for other reasons, drugs soon become a comfort, and then their only priority. Most are from Maple Ridge.
He talks to people who say things like they have been on the street for six months. He’ll correct them, saying things like “I first saw you out here in 2015.”
“That’s not the drugs, that just street life – you lose track of where you are,” he said.
Smeding believes the time comes for every person who is living on the street, drug addicted, when they will have simply had enough of the life, and want out. If you can catch them on that day, you have a chance of getting them into a recovery program, to get their life back. The biggest problem, he finds is that they too often get told they can get a bed in a recovery facility next week. By then, too often they change their mind.
“You’ve got to get them right when they’re ready to go.”
Next week we look at a group of volunteers who have been able to seize that moment, and are helping homeless people off the streets of Maple Ridge.
Anyone who would like to support or contact Smeding or HELP Now can see the website helpforlife.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a story tip? Email: email@example.com
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