Posted by John Shillabeer
Nanaimo’s Extreme Weather Shelter

Wendy Pratt introduced Kevan Griffith, coordinator of the Unitarian Shelter, saying she is happy that Kevan is in charge because he runs a “tough love” program, and it works.

Kevan thanked Rotary for its support and then immediately caught our attention when he said that thirteen year ago he had only a backpack and a stereo, was addicted to alcohol and was borderline homeless. He had been in several addiction treatment programs and was in his seventh when the people that loved him stopped what they were doing to underwrite him. Only then did he realize that he had a choice: die or dry out. After his seventh treatment program, the Salvation Army offered him a hand up, a job on a trial basis. He has not looked back since and now looks after those most desperately in need.

Kevan believes that all humans, however low, are capable of changing themselves for the better. He also believes that everyone needs support to get better, especially in the first year.

He says he is not a hand out guy but a hand up guy. He believes in people’s potential.

The shelter has thirty beds, is co-ed in one big room and is now open every night of the year. They provide breakfast and dinner, storage and a place to do laundry. Keven says that they don’t ask a lot of the guests, but “if you come to grief in the neighbourhood, you can’t stay”. On the other hand, “if you do make a mess and clean up afterward, you can stay”. Staff patrol outdoors at night and this keeps vandalism down. In general these few simple rules are sufficient and people feel better for taking responsibility.

Keven says that they have taken in some really difficult cases with some success. Frequently these are folk with mental health issues, often unable to take their medication on time. It helps that he and the staff are welcoming and make a point of saying to everyone, “I’m really glad you’re here”

They organize talks at the shelter to help people understand what they must do to cope in today’s complicated world. For example they have had talks from Literacy Central Vancouver Island, VIU and Canada Trust, among others.

The staff at the shelter are people who have changed their lives around. Kevan said they make excellent workers as they have experienced it all. Guests see that the staff have been down and out too and now are examples to encourage others.

Today Keven sees many working poor. These are people who are doing the right things and working hard, yet without housing and forced to live in their vehicles. His guests include more old people than in the past and even include people released from hospital with nowhere to go or no money to get home.

In conclusion Kevan answered several questions from the floor:

  • Beds are not allocated on a first come first served basis, but instead if you had a bed last night you can have one tonight too. Any vacant beds are allocated to new arrivals after 8:00 pm.

  • The average age of the guests is about 45

  • Other effective support groups for the homeless include the John Howard Society, The Salvation Army and the Island Crisis Care Society.

  • There are three regular staff in the evening and two at night, plus volunteers at meal times.

In thanking the speaker Brent Stettar said we are proud to have Keven in the community and we appreciate what he does. In keeping with club tradition, Brent presented Kevan with a special handmade Rotary pen. The Club members then gave Kevan a standing ovation.