COLUMN: Nelson sculptor: ‘Homelessness is not a career’

Ten years ago I planned to come to Nelson. My dream was to relocate to this city to continue pursuing my goals as an artist.

Charlie Sivell had big dreams when he moved to Nelson a decade ago. Unfortunately

Ten years ago I planned to come to Nelson, having seen it years before. My dream was to relocate to this city to continue pursuing my goals as an artist. I figured it would take about a year to establish a productive studio. I phoned the Chamber of Commerce beforehand to try to get a sense of housing. I said I was going to be looking for a studio. “You and everyone else” was the cryptic reply.

A lot of positive strides had been made with my career up until then. I sold works repeatedly to the late Kenneth Thomson on Thomson Newspapers. I have a piece of my work in city hall in Katano, Japan. I was interviewed by the late Bill Bramah of Global News. I won various awards, including Best of Show and the Peterson Award at the woodworking show at the Canadian National Exhibition.

My long-term plan was to establish a workspace to do limited edition castings in metal, based on my miniature carvings, which had been selling well. My vision included involving graduates from the metal casting course at Kootenay School of the Arts. It seemed a reasonable goal to come to Nelson, secure a space, and build the idea from there. It didn’t work out that way.

In the 10 years I have been in town I have had over 40 rental situations, none of them appropriate to do even modest carving of my own, yet I feel that I could have made a considerable contribution. Instead, what began as the erasure of personal goals and legitimate accomplishments became an obligation to social workers, housing agents, and programs such as Job Wave, job searches and retraining, and the GAP and TAP programs.

A sense of apathy and indifference to my career goals on the part of government agencies seemed to demonstrate that these were in conflict with “their” agenda for me. Considering the number of employment programs I have been exposed to and that did not result in employment, the estimate that it costs $100,000 to keep one person off the street for a year is not a conceptual stretch.

Trying to preserve a sense of self-worth and self-esteem during this prolonged process has been challenging, including being visible to the community and seen as apparently able-bodied yet unemployed. Had I been supported to do the work I had been successful at, things might have been very different.

I suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which is rare and life-threatening and has no available cure, which further complicates matters. My medical disability allows for $375 a month for housing when rentals are typically $600 to $1,500 a month. This has created an economic barrier leaving only housing options that are more like warehousing of livestock.

I have had functioning work spaces in the past where I was both happy and productive, and that were easy to obtain and maintain. Now, emergency shelters are the next step in this slow unraveling of self. I have gone from making $800 per miniature carving to ringing a buzzer for a subsistence meal. This alone is a psychological overture to suicide.

This has been compounded with the attitude I have experienced from professional agencies that homelessness is a “career.” This has led to my opinion, which I will express as follows.

People, especially contributors to social causes, see very little change despite their support. Millions of dollars are needed to help fight social problems. Despite my lack of housing I’ve been discouraged from leaving town and told “this is your home.” And yet, had a social worker at any point in this journey recognized the ways in which I, as an individual, might have positively contributed and supported that potential, I might have been part of that desired change.

Homelessness is not a career. It may be that it will take a local street person who tragically succumbs to the elements within the city’s jurisdiction to facilitate a renewed government and community interest in improving and individualizing existing programs. I hope that with the publication of this column and public awareness of my situation there could be grounds for a new consideration of how programs and supports are developed and offered.

We need public forums where people such as myself can speak freely about our experience and ideas and where we are respected and heard. We need to be welcomed to the table. We need the ideas brought forward to be used to make meaningful changes in our social system, and we need to be a part of making that change.

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