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‘Just because we’re homeless and in a bad situation doesn’t mean you have right to treat us like we’re going to jail’
A homeless man who hitchhiked to Cape Breton because he needed a bed at a local emergency shelter says people who stay there are treated like criminals.
Keith, who didn’t want his last name used, told the Cape Breton Post he’s been sleeping at the Community Homeless Shelter since Dec. 6. He spent the first few nights at the former Margaret Street location but said it’s been a much different experience since the shelter relocated to Townsend Street on Dec. 9.
Now he said people who come to the shelter are forced to empty their pockets and staff search their bags.
“They search you like they’re cops. That’s not the way to treat somebody that’s having a hard time,” said Keith, 50, a United States Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have rights. Just because we’re homeless and in a bad situation doesn’t mean you have the right to treat us like we’re going to jail.”
Keith, whose late mother was from Quebec and father was from Vermont, grew up in Virginia then moved to British Columbia in 2015 after his wife died. He was working throughout Canada as a licensed prospecto and most recently he was living in a friend’s cabin deep in the woods outside Monastery, Antigonish County, until the roof was destroyed in a storm.
“I came because this is the only homeless shelter in the area,” he said, describing how he used the last of his money to store his belongings in Port Hawkesbury before making his way to Cape Breton.
He said he’s waiting until his military pension cheque arrives later this month before deciding what his next move will be, adding that he would like to stay in Sydney if he can find a job and a room to rent.
“I have a house in Comox (B.C). I can go home, I just gotta get the money to get there. I’m not hitchhiking. I’ve got a lot of stuff — it’d be kinda hard to hitchhike. It cost me every penny of my pension cheque to get everything into a storage unit in Port Hawkesbury and then I had to hitchhike here.”
The shelter, which is owned and operated by Cape Breton Community Housing Association, essentially doubled in size when it moved to the second floor of a Townsend Street building, increasing its beds from 18 to 28. The co-ed facility has separate wings for men and women, each with seven rooms and 14 beds. Each wing has its own kitchen, living room and laundry facilities.
Keith said people staying there used to be able to use the kitchen until lights out at 12 a.m. He said the rules have now changed and when another homeless man arrived Tuesday night, he wasn’t allowed to make a meal.
“They change the rules every other minute. ‘Oh, no the kitchen’s closed at 10 o’clock.’ There’s people just coming in. They can’t have something to eat?” he said.
“They force you to sign a document and if you don’t sign the document, you don’t get a room. The document basically says, ‘We have the right to search you any time we want.’ If you don’t sign the document, you don’t have a place to stay. Right now, this time of the year, the weather’s not real good to sleep outside.”
The Post reached out to Cape Breton Community Housing Association executive director Fred Deveaux for comment but did not receive a response.