Working to find housing for people struggling with poverty, mental health issues and addiction may sound like a tough job, but Chantelle Burke says she can’t imagine doing anything else right now.
“It makes me feel really good. It fills my heart,” she says about the impact of her demanding role as a Community Outreach and Recovery Coordinator for the Town of Gibsons. “The people I work with are so honest. They are appreciative, they are grateful. And even though they are living in the elements, they have a smile on their face in a way that a lot of housed people do not.”
Chantelle brings an enormous skill set to bear on her work. In addition to being a housing advocate and public outreach coordinator, she is also a certified counsellor and a massage therapist. Although her official role is to help find housing and resources for unhoused people in the Gibsons area, she admits that she goes above and beyond.
“I do a lot of counselling with individuals who are already in supportive housing. I do a lot of transportation, taking people for groceries, hospital appointments or to recovery facilities off the Coast.” In the winter, Chantelle connects with people at the cold weather shelter and does whatever she can to make people’s lives a bit more comfortable, including laundering people’s clothes and bedding while they warm up. She puts together care packages for people who are struggling to get by and tries to stay connected with former clients who are still making their way toward long-term stable housing.
“I find that it’s really important, once a person has moved out of the elements and into supportive housing, to keep that connection. It’s not like, ‘Now that you have housing, I’m out of your life.’”
Although the perception of homelessness is often that people are living with mental health concerns or addiction, Chantelle wants people to know that the person helping them at the grocery store or the bank may be someone who is unhoused. “I have a client who works full time, and her partner stays home with the kids because they can’t find or afford childcare. They don’t have a home right now simply because they can’t afford anything.”
She is also concerned that mental health and addictions have been lumped together. “Not everyone with mental health concerns is a drug user, but all the services are joined, so people end up being stereotyped as one thing or another.
As Gibsons grows and develops, she hopes to see better understanding and awareness from individuals and business owners about how they can support people who are struggling rather than seeing them as a problem. “If someone is asking for money outside a store, maybe the business owner can offer them a job to do or some way to contribute to the area. If you see someone outside, buy them a coffee or ask them if they need something to eat.” She believes that with creativity and compassion, the community can find space for all its residents.
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