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‘I don’t want to see people die’: Volunteers in this P.E.I. city band together to help homeless

On a cold, sunny February morning in Summerside — Prince Edward Island’s second-largest city — Ivy Inkpen sits in her car next to the city’s community fridge in a downtown parking lot. 

“Someone made potato soup in containers, which is a nice hot meal,” Inkpen said from the front seat, turning to peer into the back of her car. 

“We have a box of sandwiches, another box of sandwiches with chocolate bars, and I have two more boxes of sandwiches in the back seat on the floor.”

This is a regular morning for Inkpen: sitting in her car packed with donated food, waiting for anyone who needing a free meal to come along. For the past few months, she’s been here six days a week.

Two women stand in front of a red shed with two doors. One holds a carboard pallet of sandwiches.
Inkpen and Duncan both spend time collecting donations and handing them out to folks in need. Usually they are stationed in the downtown parking lot on the corner of Foundry and Granville streets, where Summerside’s community fridge is. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC)

The Summerside community fridge is a small wooden shed that houses a pantry area on one side and two fridges on the other. Anyone is welcome to either leave a donation or take what’s there. 

Inkpen and her volunteers use this parking lot next to the fridge as a home base from which to hand out packaged lunches to people in need, and collect donations from community members.   

Along with food, she’s got blankets, sleeping bags and warm socks in her car to give away. 

“I don’t have an office. This is my office,” said Inkpen. “People come here every day to give me things to help the homeless people in Summerside.”

Police watch over as the encampment is dismantled.
Charlottetown’s tent encampment was cleared of debris in late January, and the few people still staying there were forced to leave, after the province opened up emergency shelter units nearby. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

Much of the conversation around homelessness on P.E.I. in recent months has centred around Charlottetown, the province’s capital. The municipal and provincial governments recently dismantled a large encampment that cropped up as the city’s housing crisis hit an all-time high last summer. Many of those who had been living at the encampment are now staying at a new emergency shelter that opened in December. 

But homelessness is also a growing problem in Summerside, according to Inkpen and her group of volunteers. 

There are more than 90 people in the area who are experiencing some form of homelessness, said Inkpen — either renting motel rooms, couch-surfing, or living in barns or old campers.

I needed somebody just to say I mattered. And I want other people to know that they matter.— Volunteer Susan Gower

Inkpen worked as a social worker in British Columbia for 30 years and came back home to P.E.I. a few years ago to retire. 

Her work in Summerside began when she stepped in to help someone who had been evicted. It snowballed from there.

“People started telling me about people living in tents all around the city. So I found some people that were in the tents and I tried to give them blankets and food to make sure that they were OK,” she said. 

‘It rips my heart apart’

Inkpen never expected to be taking on work of this magnitude during her retirement. 

“I don’t want to see people die,” she said. “When I see people living on the streets or in tents, and people that don’t have enough food and they’re suffering … it rips my heart apart. So that’s what gives me the inspiration, is helping people trying to find housing.” 

Inkpen formed an ad hoc group called Homeless Helper and set up a Facebook page. She now has 13 active volunteers who cook meals, deliver food to people staying in motels, collect donations, and sit at the community fridge to hand out food and necessities. 

One of those volunteers, Constance Duncan, sat in her own car that February day alongside Inkpen to help collect donations. 

“There is a big need in Summerside. It’s kind of a hidden need. I don’t think people really realized how many people are having problems with shelter and food,” said Duncan. 

Four women wearing parkas stand outside in front of an SUV.
Volunteers with the Homeless Helper program: Priscilla Giroux, left, Inkpen, Susan Gower, and Duncan. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC)

Duncan has a personal connection to these issues — her son Jay used to be homeless in Charlottetown. Before witnessing his struggles, she said she wasn’t aware of the extent of the problem in P.E.I. 

“Especially here in Summerside, we thought we were a little bubble and we were doing so well, but the last couple of years, we are really starting to struggle,” Duncan said. 

“I think [most people] think of homelessness as living under a bridge or in a tent. It’s not always that. It’s people who are living under extreme circumstances without heat, without electricity, without food.” 

‘Homelessness is everywhere’

Her son, Jay Griffin, stopped by to see his mom that day in the parking lot. He said he was “ecstatic” when he heard his mother was volunteering with the Homeless Helper group. 

“It’s amazing to hear, finally, things moving towards the western side [of the Island]… because homelessness is everywhere,” said Griffin.

You can sweep it under any rug you want. It’s still there.— Jay Griffin

“You can sweep it under any rug you want. It’s still there.”

Griffin was homeless for about 18 months in Charlottetown, before seeking help for addiction and landing back on his feet. He’s now living in Sackville, N.B., and works as a lobster fisher on P.E.I. in the spring. 

“Once you’re in it, it is absolutely horrible to try to get out, and I know from personal experience because I clawed my way out,” said Griffin. 

He said the patience of the workers at places like Bedford MacDonald House, a men’s shelter in Charlottetown, was key to getting him off the streets. 

A young man stands in a doorway smiling at the camera.
Jay Griffin was homeless in Charlottetown for about 18 months, but got help with his addiction and is now living in Sackville, N.B. (Submitted by Jay Griffin)

He wants others to understand the difficulties those who end up homeless are going through. 

“You don’t wake up someday and go, ‘I’m going to go beg for money on the street. I’m going to do that.’ Nobody wakes up and decides that. You are pushed to that point because it is survival,” he said. 

“So to people who haven’t been there, they’re just people. We are just people. We’re just in a bad spot.”

‘Grew up not knowing this’

A common refrain from volunteers and those dropping off donations to Inkpen and her team is that they didn’t know the extent of homelessness in the Summerside area — and that’s what’s spurring them to act.

“Honestly, I couldn’t sleep at night. It worried me,” said Priscilla Giroux, another volunteer who showed up in her car to help hand out items. “I’ve lived here almost my whole life and it’s just, it’s getting very bad … it’s really hard to see when you’re from here and you grew up not knowing this.”

Giroux started out collecting donations of men’s boots, and now helps gather and hand out donations. 

“Honestly, I feel like I’m not helping enough. I feel like I wish there was more that I could do to help. But it’s very rewarding,” she said. 

Using the community fridge to get by

The people who stopped by to pick up donated items the morning CBC News visited are lucky enough to have roofs over their heads, but they’re struggling to afford basics like groceries.

Heather Campbell wheeled a shopping trolley and looked over the pantry shelves at the canned items. Her two-year-old grandson was visiting, and she wanted to get a few things for him, settling on a can of beans with pork and molasses, a can of soup, and an energy bar.

“This cupboard is — it’s amazing. It’s so amazing, like, what the girls and the community have done,” said Campbell. 

The two fridges on the other side of the small shed were nearly empty, but Judy Griffin was able to grab a carton of eggs to give to her boyfriend, who is on disability and sometimes struggles to make ends meet. 

“I do what I can for him because I’m on a fixed income. So then I can only do so much because I got to take care of myself too, right?” said Griffin. 

A woman in a silver parka and white hair holds a brown paper bag lunch. A label on front says Made with Love.
Gower holds one of her homemade lunches that she’ll deliver to people staying in motel rooms around Summerside. ‘I want other people to know that they matter. And there’s people out there willing to help,’ she says. (Isabelle Gallant/CBC)

Another volunteer, Susan Gower, cooks hot meals and delivers them to people living in motel rooms all around Summerside. 

Gower discovered the Homeless Helper volunteers by accident, when she was in a tough spot herself last fall and came by the fridge to pick up a few things. 

“Ivy was here with Constance and they asked me: ‘Would you like a lunch?’ And I said: ‘What?’ So this is how it all started,” said Gower. 

“We just started talking and she said: ‘You know, this is what we do.’ And I said: ‘Can I volunteer?’ And I’ve gone full tilt non-stop since.” 

Gower cooks and delivers between 30 and 100 homemade meals a week. 

“When I first started, you know, they wouldn’t even open the doors.… I’d leave the food on the doorstep until it was gone. Now they trust me that they’ll open the door,” she said. 

‘I want other people to know that they matter’

Gower said she helps out because she knows how easy it is for anyone to land on hard times.

“What if I needed it? I needed it that week. I needed somebody just to say I mattered. And I want other people to know that they matter. And there’s people out there willing to help.”

People in this community care about other people, and that’s what it takes to make the difference.— Ivy Inkpen

The provincial government is doing what it can, Inkpen said, planning to open a new men’s shelter in Summerside and helping people who call the shelter support line find a room for the night. 

But it’s just not happening fast enough, she said, and for now it’s up to the community to step up and fill the gap. 

“When you look in the back seat of my car, you can tell. ‘Cause this all came this morning. All this food and the sleeping bags and socks and blankets. People in this community care about other people, and that’s what it takes to make the difference.”

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