Held down by stigma

Jimmy Prentice stood on the side of a busy street at the north end of Vernon holding a sign that read, "tradesman looking for a job."

The heavy-duty industrial tradesman has not been able to find steady work for a year and a half. As a result, he is homeless.

Prentice says that simple sign lets people know that he's not looking for money for drugs and alcohol, he's looking for a job. 

"I had to have a sign with words up and a smile on my face for people to realize that maybe I'm different."
Prentice says the stigma around Vernon's street-entrenched population is holding him back from getting off the street.  

"I could have been off the street six months ago if that stigma wasn't affecting me. I have an excellent resume. I have 30-years experience as a heavy-duty industrial tradesman," he says. 

Without fail, when he applies for a job he is asked, 'where do you live?'

He's forced to mumble his answer. 

At that point, he says he knows the interview is over.

This is the first time he has publicly spoken about living on the street. 

Prentice, who in his fifties, was raised in the Okanagan. He has lived here for most of his life. He has two daughters and three grandchildren who live in other parts of the country. 

Right now, he sleeps in the doorway of a Vernon-area business at night. 

He doesn't like the shelters. He says there are too many people and some of the people who access the shelters are dirty and use drugs. 

He has set up tents out of the downtown, but they either get stolen or bylaw comes and tears them down.

"As soon as people see a tent now they stereotype it as a bad thing. All I want is shelter," he says.

During the day, Prentice walks around with his backpack looking for work. 

Despite being clean and well spoken, he says he still feels the homeless stigma hovering over him. 

"As soon as you carry a backpack you are labelled as a homeless person," he says, in a frustrated tone. "If you walk into any store wearing a backpack, people look at you funny." 

He walked into a thrift store to buy an alarm clock and was told he had to leave his backpack at the door. 

He says, he once asked three different hotels if he could have a drink of water, even offered to buy a bottle, but each hotel told him 'no' and shooed him away. 

He eventually drank from the outside tap of a nearby house. 

Prentice says he has even been told to leave Polson Park while walking through in the middle of the day. Security accused him of being a drug user.

He hears "the snickering" as he calls it, everywhere.

"People stare at you. They talk about you and they are not talking good things," he says.

He admits that there are people on the streets who are up to no good, and they are the reason why the stigmas and stereotypes exist.  

He says he's taken his granddaughters to a park and had to pick up needles. Before he was on the street, he had his truck broken into and his tools stolen.

Prentice says he gets the frustration.

However, he feels that society is painting all homeless with the same brush — If you are on the street you are either mentally un-well, a drug addict or a criminal. 

"It is starting to make me angry. Like it is hard to smile, and it'll turn to me snapping back at those people, and all of a sudden I become no better than the addict in the alley that is stealing."

Prentice says that of Vernon's street-entrenched population, about 25 per cent are like him, just trying to get back on their feet — actively looking for work.

"I know people who hadn't taken drugs until they ended up on the streets," he says. "It is because of depression and other things that are caused by being out there ... A lot of them are so beat down by people looking down on them that they just give up."

He says the angry ones are angry because everybody is angry with them. 

"It is hard to be optimistic when you are constantly being put down."

He compares it to a mother who tells her son he's never good enough. The boy will grow up thinking he isn't good enough. "And that is what is going on out there," he says.

"I want people to actually look at people for who they might be," says Prentice. "Those of us that are trying to get off the street, by stereotyping us you are just destroying our pride."

Prentice feels that he's losing out on opportunities because of the stigmas around the homeless. 

He says he is embarrassed by his situation.

This is the first time in his life he has had to turn to welfare. 

"I don't want to be on welfare," he says. 

"I'll help myself get back. I just need a job."

Prentice says, optimistically, he knows he'll find a job eventually. "I know I'll be off the street. I'm just not sure where or when." 

Until then, Prentice asks the question, "why are all homeless stereotyped as all bad?"

—  For any employer who might wish to interview Jimmy or offer him a job, Castanet has his resume at our office. 

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