The Story Behind The Return of the O’Connells by Lorhainne Eckhart

10 Nov 2020

By Lorhainne Eckhart

There is a lot going on in the world right now. With that being said, I want to talk about a scene from The Return of the O’Connells about the people living in a homeless camp after the city council held an emergency meeting and sent in Marcus and his deputies to move them out. They were to clean it up and get rid of the undesirables. Did the council provide alternative housing or a solution for these people? No. They simply didn’t want them camping in a community park with families living nearby. So the deputies were ordered to move them. Out of sight, out of mind. Does this really happen? Yes, unfortunately, very much, and it seems it happens everywhere.

Just last week, I touched on this subject. Amid all the chaos happening, it seems everyone is holding elections right now, too. That’s the case in BC, where I live. I heard a statement by one of the leaders vying for power. When asked about driving past homeless people sleeping in their cars, his response was that instead of stopping to help and do something, he believes something has to be done to move the homeless out and establish peace and order in our society. He said many of the homeless are drug users and have mental health problems, and some may need rental subsidies for the short term until they can get back on their feet.

When I heard that comment, my only thought was “How out of touch are you with people and the reality of the situation here?” In The Return of the O’Connells, even Marcus was focused on only one family, who had to live in a tent after losing everything. Do you remember the husband and wife and their two children? He wanted to help them, believing he was doing his part. He also saw a single guy, the suspected drug dealer, as well as an old man and woman, but was there anything wrong with helping a family? Meanwhile, Owen came down to see the people and the dire situation, with so solutions being offered for those who were forced to move along, and do you remember who he chose to help?

It was a single woman who looked to be in her eighties but was in fact only forty-seven. Life on the streets is hard. Owen understood the reality for women on the streets, having been raised by a single mother and seen the struggles she faced. He pointed out to Marcus that the family would be okay, and even the single guys would find a way, but it was different for women. The woman he helped had been robbed on the streets, beat up, and raped. Would she have called the police for some type of justice or help, even to report it? No, because she was aware that help isn’t given to those with nothing, to those living on the streets, to minorities, to those without a voice.

And what would the police have done for her, anyway? When you talk to minorities, to indigenous families, you learn about all the missing indigenous women, women who have disappeared from the streets. Money has to be allocated to fund an investigation with the police, and I think, if you look in your area, you’ll find that funding doesn’t go toward helping the most vulnerable. Can you imagine what kind of nightmare that is, trying to figure out where to sleep at night, how to survive, how not to be robbed or raped or beaten up? And where do you think the most vulnerable are going to go?

In many places, and BC is one of them, there is a housing crisis. In some other cities and countries, panhandling is an issue because there are no jobs. And yes, mental health issues are present, as well, because help no longer exists for those with poor mental health, as funding was pulled decades ago. Then you add in the economy, with job losses at an all-time high. Here in BC, even before the pandemic hit, the issue was and still is a lack of affordable housing and an abundance of short-term overpriced rentals.

The situation has only gotten worse over the past fifteen years. I was watching a TED interview with a mayor in a US city about his initiative to get people off the streets and back to work. Kudos to him and his initiative, because he was doing something, but what many don’t realize is that here in BC, many people just can’t find a house—you know, a simple roof over one’s head? Many have a job but are forced to live in their cars or on the streets or wherever they can find a spot to put up a tent. I’ve already talked in other posts about the empty homes epidemic. Housing prices have continued to climb, and short-term and vacation rentals have exploded. (That is a subject for another blog, but those who have lived near a short-term rental or a vacation home understand what I mean. To me, it seemed a group of partiers rented that house every summer, and losing nights of sleep was not something I wanted. This kind of thing really is undesirable, because when did neighborhoods suddenly become hotels?)

Let’s get back to the new reality for this generation, for people who will never be able to scrape together enough to buy a house. That dream of owning a home and putting down roots has all but disappeared. Have I lived through this? Yes, I have. Fifteen years back, I was newly separated and still living in the house we had been renting, but the couple we had rented the house from wanted to rent only to a nice family—and “family” was the key word. They were very upset my first call after my separation hadn’t been to them, as they had no desire to rent to a single mother. It didn’t matter that I could still pay the rent. Yes, that really happens. It’s called profiling. What is it going to take to fix the problem when no one wants to really address it?

When I think about that time in my life, I remember writing in the early morning hours. I hadn’t been published yet. I’m also reminded of another couple who lived in the area, who were the opposite of the people I rented from. This couple did so much for the community, and one of the local papers actually wrote a special interest article about them that I remember to this day. The wife wanted to understand what it was like to be homeless and live on the streets, so she set out to do so for a few nights. If I recall from the article, she spoke not only of her exhaustion but her mental and emotional distress, just trying to survive the night. She had no money, no cell phone, no safety net, and no way to call for help. The only thing she knew was where her husband was going to be the next day, because her husband was part of a group that fed the homeless. They put word out on the street about where they would be during any given day to hand out food, so she knew where to go.

Living that nightmare, even for a short time, helped her understand the reality of the situation. The article was timely, but those kinds of articles are few and far between, and this was fifteen years ago. The housing crisis existed then, but today it’s that much worse. Leaders need to have a deep understanding of what’s at stake, and even though we are in a pandemic and this virus is bad, you may find that when you ask those who are facing possible eviction or homelessness, those who are currently sleeping in their cars, on park benches, or in tents wherever they can find a spot for the night, this virus ranks low on their list of priorities.

What if every leader was forced to live on the streets for one day and one night without any safety net? What do you think would happen? How can you fix a problem if you don’t truly understand the reality of the situation?

Did Marcus O’Connell really get it? According to Owen, his brother, who pointed out his short-sightedness, he didn’t.

Lorhainne Eckhart is the author of the new book The Return of the O’Connells.

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