On a sunny but cool spring afternoon in Courtenay, I accompany three kind-hearted ladies who volunteer their time to spread a bit of kindness to those in need. Nicole Morrison, Sue Edwards and Brandi Kothlow run Community Cares Peer Outreach, a low barrier service that provides food, clothing and, when needed, medical attention to people on the street.
Our first stop is behind the Evangelical Free Church on McPhee Avenue, where we come across a young man and woman near a railroad crossing. Morrison stops her pickup and asks if they are hungry. They approach the back of the truck, from where the ladies serve soup, sandwiches and hot chocolate. When the man and woman finish eating, we pack up and drive along the alleyway to the Courtenay train station at Cumberland Road. The scene repeats itself. Two men are at the site, but within minutes a few others gather around the truck. The ladies are acquainted with the entire crowd.
A man named Rusty agrees to an interview. He said he grew up in Courtenay and has family in town, including a son.
“We all lived together in Black Creek for years, and then we went our own separate ways,” he said. “I didn’t bother getting a place. It’s just too expensive…I’m not going to live in a tent.”
Rusty has arranged with the owner to live at the Cona Hostel, which was destroyed by fire in 2019. It beats trying to stay warm in a spot outside the Sid Williams Theatre, where he hunkered down for several hours during the coldest part of winter.
“It’d be nice if I had a house,” Rusty said. “I like cooking my own stuff. You eat healthier. If I had my own kitchen, I’d definitely do that.”
While volunteering last year with Comox Valley Street Outreach, Morrison, Edwards and Kothlow branched out to offer a Friday night service where they provide harm reduction supplies, drug testing and on-the-spot naloxone training. At times, they need to intervene in overdoses.
The service morphed into Community Cares Peer Outreach, which hosted a winter warming centre at the Salvation Army church. Over 10 weeks, the centre had 2,225 visits. It also spawned more volunteers that has enabled the outreach to operate five days a week.
“With everybody on our team, I think we complement each other quite nicely,” said Morrison, a licensed practical nurse who works in addictions. “It brings community awareness….These people don’t ask to be on the street. There’s a reason why they’re out there, so let’s deal with those problems too.”
“Everybody brings something to the table,” Edwards said. “We’ll train the people in naloxone, we’ll do drug testing right on the street for them. We’re very rounded in a lot of areas.”
After some friendly banter at the train station, we head south to a gated swath of private land off 29th and Piercy. Morrison stops near a large tarp set up in a treed area. Kothlow lowers her window and yells, “Outreach!” A middle aged man named Vance appears from behind the tarp. He has a smile on his face. He tells the ladies he is doing well. They load his arms with food and he returns to the shelter, where a woman is also staying. She does not show her face.
We then drive through the property, passing by some vacated camps until we reach an area inhabited by seven people, though no one is visible. We exit the truck, and the ladies announce that outreach has arrived. They call out a name, and two dogs burst around a corner to greet us. Moments later, the dogs’ owner approaches. The young woman is happy to see her friends, filling them in on what’s happened since their last visit. Another woman has also come over for food, but she keeps to herself. Before heading off, we hand them cups of soup and bottles of hot chocolate to share with others at the site.
The next stop is the outdoor volleyball courts off Cliffe Avenue. Several people from the walkway leading to the Courtenay Air Park detour towards the truck.
Among the visitors is an animated man on a bicycle named Dusty. He tells me he has been through hell and back, “in and out of the game” since age 13.
“I have this family down here,” Dusty said. “These ladies are amazing.”
“Without them, what happens is desperation can make people susceptible and prone to doing things they wouldn’t normally do,” said a man named Kevin, who has also lived in Kelowna and Nanaimo. “These people, they take away that desperation. The hearts of these girls, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
The final stop is the parking lot beside Courtenay City Hall. About a dozen people, including Rusty, are gathered at the bottom of the stairs by the walkway. Most of them come up for food. Like the previous stops, there is plenty of laughter as the ladies chat with different people. Rusty has a pair of binoculars, which he hands to Kothlow. She notices something covering one of the lenses. Rusty discovers the culprit when he pulls out a container of apple sauce that has opened in his pocket. It strikes me as being one of those light-hearted moments that don’t come frequently enough in an otherwise harsh existence.
Kothlow has seen it from both sides.
“There was nothing like this (service) when I got sober,” Kothlow said. “There were no options. It was either you go to rehab or you go to the hospital, and then they send you to the psych room…I spent a lot of my years doing drugs in this town, and being an opioid addict.”
She is thankful she had her parents on hand to provide daily support.
“To see what’s going on now — I have three kids and I want to give them something,” Kothlow said. “If something like this happens to them in the future, I want to ensure that they have avenues and places (to go). It’s pretty scary.”
Connect with Community Cares Peer Outreach on Facebook.