“When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”
Yogi Berra said that. He was only telling a friend how to get to his house in New Jersey, but the Hall of Famer has a knack for wise words that fly way outside the ballpark.
Here in Smithers, for instance, Salvation Army director Rick Apperson seems to be have taken those directions to heart.
“When you look at jobs, pastor of a church and social service worker are two highly stressful jobs,” he says. “I do both.”
Raised in Tennessee, Apperson is also big baseball fan. He interviewed Berra for a fan site, and he quizzed Blue Jays’ outfielder Vernon Wells for his blog on Christian life.
“I just enjoy it,” he said about the interviews. “It’s a relaxing thing.”
Apperson has had plenty of reasons to want a little down time.
Four of his regular clients at the Salvation Army drop-in passed away this month. The thrift shop next door was badly short-staffed from January to August. And the number of Bulkley Valley residents who rely on the Salvation Army keeps on climbing.
“I’ve watched it get worse since 2006,” Apperson said. “Our services are accessed way more than they used to be.”
One of those services is a drop-in centre where people who are struggling to get by can come in for soup, a coffee and maybe make some plans.
The Salvation Army also runs the only food bank in Smithers—a monthly top-up that provides a family of four with enough food to last three or four days.
Last year, they gave out $39,000 in food between Smithers and Houston. Most of the packages go to low-income families.
“What breaks my heart is when I see a family of four or five sitting in here. The husband lost his job, the wife can’t find a job, and they’re asking, ‘What do we do? Where do we go? Can the kids stay here with a friend?’”
Apperson said he has a passion for the work he does partly because he’s been there himself.
When he was 15 and living in Tennessee, his dad’s plumbing suddenly folded.
“Within a short time we were behind on our rent and then boom-boom-boom, next thing you know we had no place to live.”
Although it’s common, Apperson’s experience doesn’t jibe with what most people see of homelessness—alcoholics and drug users who live on the street.
“There are addicts. It’s realistic. But it’s also a circumstantial issue for many people.”
In Apperson’s own experience, “circumstances” meant that his dad had to take a job sweeping parking lots at a strip mall before finding another job as a master plumber.
Everyone worked, kids included. At times they sold their furniture to buy groceries. With help from local churches, the family found a place to live and, slowly, they repaid their bills.
For years, Apperson kept quiet about what was happening at home.
“None of my friends knew—except for my best friends—that at one point I didn’t even have a place to lay my head,” he said.
Homelessness carries a strong social stigma. Apperson didn’t want to be identified by it, and he didn’t want people to assume his parents had drinking or drug problems.
Even in the small towns of the Bulkley Valley, homelessness is often like that— half-hidden.
“I’ve met people who are amazed that we have 200 to 300 couch surfers in town,” Apperson said. Most people only see the 30 or so people who actually sleep outside.
Luckily, Apperson said, Smithers is a very giving community. Between local churches and social service organizations, Smithers now has a shelter and a place to get at least one free meal every day of the week.
But the underlying problems will need bigger fixes.
“There is a huge lack of available, affordable housing in Smithers,” he said. “In Houston it’s pretty good, but there’s not a lot of services.”
Affordable rents in Smithers, a dedicated treatment centre in the north and assisted housing for the recently homeless—those are the three big things Apperson believes the Bulkley Valley needs to tackle the issue.
In the meantime, the Salvation Army also has a spiritual role to play.
“We tend to ask, ‘Can we pray for you?’ or ‘Would you like a Bible?’ while recognizing that’s not the only way out,” he said.
“I don’t personally care for the ‘You can get the food, but you have to hear the sermon to get it,’” Apperson said. But for people who welcome it, he said prayer can go a long way to improving mental health.
“We do see people helped by that—my own family was helped by that,” he said.
“It’s not going to make your situation better today, necessarily, but it may make you feel better on the inside to actually have someone else to rely on.”