By Heather Menzies

Picking up garbage, clothing, cooking utensils and assorted camping gear from (illegal) encampments on the Gabriola Commons has evolved into a twice weekly patrol in recent months.

In the minus-10 cold of a recent Saturday morning (January 13),  I was returning from  one such patrol, and stopped next to one of two men  I encountered bundled under sleeping bags and blankets. I stood there, listening for signs of regular breathing. Then, after checking in with a third person, who assured me they were okay, I sent out a text to the people (fellow Commoners) most closely associated with this foot patrol. I knew they would take it from there, connecting with Gabriola Outreach, an informal Facebook network of people (coordinated by Sang and Margaret) who respond to immediate needs with immediate practical solutions.

As I got on with my day, I found myself remembering what Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chief Umeek (Dr. Richard Atleo) had said at a blanketing ceremony for some local Snuneymuxw youth a few days earlier:

“It’s hard work to be a community.”

Always, I thought, but especially now with the price of housing and food having gone up so much, and with long wait times for treatments for addition and mental illness making the crisis worse.

Brenda Fowler, executive director of People for a Healthy Community (PHC), which is housed on the Commons, plus Emily Carson-Apstein, who heads up PHC’s extensive food/grocery program, estimate that there are around 50 homeless people on Gabriola. This includes people who are living in their cars; they estimate that about 12 people are doing that, though sometimes having occasional access to someone’s kitchen to boil a dozen eggs or whatever.

“So we strategize around that,” Emily tells me. “We give them things that don’t require refrigeration. And we ask simple questions like ‘do you have a can opener?’”

Over the past year, there’s been a 30 percent increase in people using the grocery program, with people who used to come once a month now coming once a week. A quarter of these are children under 18. Another quarter of those now regularly needing groceries are seniors; people in their 70s and 80s, which is new and, they say, troubling.

PHC sources these groceries twice a week from Nesters (amounting to 50,000 pounds of produce a year through the Food Recovery Program) and from donations made to Foodbanks BC in Nanaimo. The Lions Club channels some proceeds from its annual Concert on the Green to buy two tons of protein annually – canned fish, peanut butter and eggs. PHC buys additional food as needed, using donations from the Auxiliary and the general public.

PHC can do what it can, in part, Brenda says, because it’s stable, and she credits that stability with being on the Commons, where “market” rents do not apply. “It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when an organization has roots, then it can begin to stabilize.”

The Commons, in turn, is rooted in the community. And perhaps this is why the crisis of access to affordable food and housing that’s playing out on the open, unfenced grounds of our community commons calls to mind what Umeek said at that blanketing ceremony. “To be a community” is an active verb. It’s an ongoing collective activity by all the people who share a particular place from generation to generation. The measure of the community’s well being lies in everyone sharing the ongoing responsibility for being a community in all that this involves, including in responding to emerging  and urgent needs.

PHC used to have 185 regular volunteers. Post Covid, those numbers are down to between 80 and 100. The board can have 11 members; now there are eight.

It’s a similar story with the Commons. There is barely a minimum number of trustees, seven. And in many of the teams that look after the grounds, the orchards, the buildings and generally make it possible for a host of cultural and social  events to happen in this shared community space, the numbers have dwindled to a desperate low.

It’s hard work to be a community, and always has been. But it’s not so hard if a broad majority of the community share the work and responsibility.

To join the Commons foot patrol, email the trustees:

To be part of the Commons being a Community Commons, come to the Saturday morning workbees (10-noon, followed by soup lunch), and/or join one of the many teams for stewarding green spaces, growing and processing food (Farm Team, Kitchen Stewards), and looking after buildings and the Commons as a whole.   more information

And check out what Sang and Margaret are posting/seeking on the Gabriola Outreach facebook page.