Homelessness can happen in many ways: job loss, injuries and accidents, mental health issues, and substance use. One of the keys to eliminating the stigma around this urgent issue is for people of all ages to understand it and work to remedy it.
In early 2021, a grade 6/7 class at Cumberland Community School did just that. “It was the height of the pandemic,” says their teacher, Christa Petch, recalling the strict cohort rules that prevented kids from intermingling during the course of the school day, even outside. She describes it as “the hardest year ever for education, and for people in general.”
And yet, as her students discussed the concept of “home” and the causes of homelessness, something remarkable happened. After learning about Coldest Night of the Year (CNOY), a nationwide event that raises funds to support “those who are hungry, hurting, and experiencing homelessness,” the kids decided to organize a CNOY-style walk for their entire school, from kindergarten through Grade 9.
For weeks before the event, the class worked together to learn more about homelessness and about the two organizations they were raising funds for: Comox Valley Transition Society (CVTS) and Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness Society. Then they devised a walking route through Cumberland suitable for all their fellow students, with rest stops where they could share age-appropriate presentations about what they’d learned.
The walk brought the whole school together during a tough time. More importantly, though, the kids learned they could have an impact in their community—the walk was a big success, raising over $5,000—and they helped demystify the issue of homelessness for their peers. “It was the best thing we did all year,” reminisces Petch. “It was so full of hope and beauty and compassion and empathy.”
That first year, the final rest stop was on the future home of the affordable housing development known as K’wax-dzi’dzas (pronounced Gwax Zee Dahs). Here, the kids learned about the vision for the project—and the sobering fact that on Vancouver Island, over 40 per cent of unhoused people are Indigenous. K’wax-dzi’dzas aims to reverse that ratio: the goal is for at least 40 per cent of residents in its 22 two-, three-, and four-bedroom housing units to be Indigenous.
Through its design, programming and landscape, K’wax-dzi’dzas will bring a visible Indigenous presence to Cumberland, which is in the historical territory of the Pentlatch people on the unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation.
Its name, which means “Tall Tree Place,” was given by Elder Mary Everson (née Frank), Uma’galis, who is of Kwakwaka’wakw, K’omoks, and Tlingit descent. Currently, Kwakwaka’wakw artists Junior Henderson and Karver Everson are working onsite on two totem poles representing home.
This year, when the students stop at this site to admire the carvings and other progress on the project, they can take pride in knowing that they’ve contributed to the process. K’wax-dzi’dzas is slated to open in fall 2024.
LEFT: PHOTO BY JOHN BONNER; RIGHT: PHOTOS BY JIM WHYTE
Providing a home is where change begins; this is a key focus for both Comox Valley Transition Society and Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness Society. CVTS currently operates 23 units of subsidized housing and administers rental supplements to make housing more affordable for women, children, and families. CVTS also operates Connect: Community Access Hub, a safe gathering place where individuals who are experiencing or at risk of becoming homeless can get out of the elements, use bathrooms, and access the internet. In spring 2023, the Transition Society will open Darry’s Place, 40 units of safe, affordable housing for women and children.
Through its residential housing subsidy program, Dawn to Dawn is currently housing more than 50 children, women, and men who were previously homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Clients are also assisted to access jobs or skills training and/or mental and physical health treatment. The society also offers year-round recreational programs for clients and other unhoused or precariously housed community members.
In creating their own meaningful contribution to these organizations, Cumberland’s students gained insight into why people need help—and an understanding of what it means to have a home.
The 8th annual Comox Valley Coldest Night of the Year takes place on February 25, 2023; register and/or donate at www.cnoy.org. The 5km walk will begin and end at the Native Sons Hall in Courtenay. You can also register yourself or a team to walk any time in February.