Randall Chilton strums a few chords on his battered royal blue guitar and tests the microphone.
Under the brim of a black hat, his face is barely visible, his voice gravelly, but wise.
The Crosby, Stills and Nash song he’s about to sing brings back memories – of a love lost, of a beautiful woman who gave him his six-stringed prized possession.
Southern Cross was their song and when she left Chilton to enter a drug treatment program, he put a silver chain around her neck and said: “There, my love’s tied to you” – repeating the lyrics of the rock ’n’ roll tune.
To Suzanne Donald, who is seated in the audience at the Salvation Army’s Caring Place, it’s a moment of true tenderness, a glimpse of talent and humanity she wishes the rest of the world could see.
With a crisp British accent, a pretty navy blue dress, beads around her neck and shiny black pumps, Donald looks like she could have tea with the Queen.
She wanted to look nice for the talent show on Wednesday – a day which marks a month since she first set foot in the shelter.
A dual Canadian and British citizen, Donald fled domestic violence in the U.K. only to return to Canada and find herself on the streets.
Turned away from her mother’s home in Langley, Donald was dropped off at the Caring Place on a Saturday night in September, her luggage in tow, and joined the ranks of the homeless.
Maple Ridge is the only municipality in Metro Vancouver where the number of homeless people has increased in the past three years.
One hundred and two people were found in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows without a roof over their heads during the 2011 Greater Vancouver Homeless Count, conducted in March. That’s up from 90 in 2008.
Of the 102 – 40 were housed in emergency shelter facilities, while one person was listed as having no fixed address.
The municipalities were the only place in Metro Vancouver where the number of street homeless also rose – to 61 from 40.
Although Donald didn’t stay homeless in Maple Ridge for long – she found an apartment and job within five days with the help of Salvation Army staff and outreach workers – she has a keen sense of why and how it feels to be destitute.
She spent three years living on couches, in shelters and on the streets in Portsmouth, a city on the south coast of England.
“The English system is very, very harsh. If you are not strong, you crumble like a cookie,” says Donald.
“Homelessness has actually become an occupation that keeps people employed and keeps people in jobs. It’s now becoming a money making scheme so they don’t want to cure the problem. They keep you in the system as long as possible.”
Those years hardened her. She learned to project a steely front.
“For me, putting on a mask is what I do. You learn a stiff upper lip. You plod on,” she says thoughtfully.
It’s why she picked a poem about masks to read at the talent show that marked Homelessness Action Week. The poem tells people not to be fooled by exterior defences, to seek what’s really inside.
“These people need hugs, need cuddling. They need someone to listen,” says Donald, adding that the empathy must be coupled with a little tough love. She’d like to start a boot camp at the shelter.
“What they need is a colonel sergeant. They need somebody to reprogram into thinking they are viable assets to the community,” says Donald, who hopes to begin training as an outreach worker soon.
“They reach for the bottle or needle because they’ve given up. Why try when everything they do blows up in their face? This is why I think it might be my calling.”