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Early every morning, five days a week, JoAnne McKenzie loads a van with food, water, underwear and blankets and heads into Kelowna’s back alleys and abandoned parking lots.

McKenzie is an outreach worker with the Kelowna Gospel Mission, and it’s her job to check up on many of the homeless who sleep on the city’s streets.

She calls them her “peeps,” and every morning she checks to make sure they’re OK, gives them a little food and tries to get them to come to the mission for help.

It’s not an easy job.

Earlier this week, as she started her rounds, it had been about ten days since welfare checks were handed out, and McKenzie said the streets were still busier than the centre.

As welfare money runs dry more will filter to them for help, but for now many still had some money in their pockets, and they would be out spending it.

McKenzie said the “majority” of her clients are struggling with some form of addiction, and those addictions are a big factor in their homelessness.

But addiction is by no means the whole story.

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’Dirty back lane’

One of the first people she met on her round earlier this week was Lloyd Lane.

Lane has a round face and a scraggly white beard. Gesturing to the alley behind him he said his name “is like the dirty back lane I live in,” and his face squinted into a happy smile.

Less than two months ago Lane said he worked for a vineyard, but found himself suddenly jobless after they were bought out.

The sixty-seven-year-old qualifies for an old-age pension, but when he was working he never bothered applying. Now, he’s sleeping on the street as he waits for the paperwork to go through, a process he said is taking months.

He admitted life on the street is no picnic, but appeared to approach his situation with good humour.

“Actually the street people are pretty nice, most of them. There’s a few punkers around, just walking around looking for trouble, but most of the people you meet here, they'll sit and talk to you, give you a cigarette or whatever,” he said.

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‘A bunch of crack heads’

Sitting on the same stone wall as Lane was Doris Stevenson.

Stevenson is an older woman with thick glasses and short, grey hair. She spoke in quick, low, spurts as she surveyed the street around her.

She said she shares a place on Bernard Ave. with a roommate, but admitted she doesn’t like to spend too much time in the building.

“I’d like to get the hell out of there… it’s a bunch of crack heads,” she said.

She’s a senior now, and she’s trying to get into seniors housing where she will have access to reliable power, a phone and other luxuries.

As that process chugs along, Stevenson still comes into town every morning to get food and water from McKenzie, and check in with her friends on the street.

As she made her way to her next stop, McKenzie said she often turns to Stevenson when she needs to know where someone is, because the woman has a reputation for keeping an eye on other homeless in the city, and helping newcomers get adjusted.

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‘Happy drunks’

Idling along a back alley, McKenzie stopped the van near a group of people she called “the happy drunks,” who were camped out behind a professional building.

Cans of Okanagan Spring sat among the blankets and bags collected around them, and the group smile and tease McKenzie as she hops out of the van.

Cradling a can between her knees, Angie Fransen recounted last night’s saga. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she wore a wide smile. She said she has a place, but often sleeps on the streets “just to hang out with all my homeless friends.”

During the night a police officer had forced them to pick up and move. They left to a nearby ally, and not long after that a security guard came and chewed them out, throwing Alan Holmes’ cart across the road.

Holmes, whose intense eyes shone from behind a bushy grey beard and long hair, spoke with the slightest edge in his voice. He explained that he’s been on the street for five years.

“I lost both my sons in 21 days and I went nuts,” he said, staring steadily at the pavement in front of him.

He looked up.

“I went hard on the drugs: I lost my house, I lost my job, I lost my wife, and became homeless.”

The bender continued for years, but Holmes said he’s been clean for three years, and is “better now.”

He said he’s even got a girlfriend. She’s got a place of her own, but sometimes comes to sleep with him outside.

“I’m content,” he said. “But I would like to get a house.”

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‘I’ll build my own if I have to’

Later, McKenzie came across Alfred Leduc pushing his cart through an empty back lot. Leduc offered her a microwave oven and vacuum he recently picked up and repaired to take back to the mission.

He said he’s “recycled clear across this country,” including a nine-day march from Calgary to Golden, and has finally decided to call it quits in Kelowna.

“I’m going to try and find housing, one way or another, I’ll build my own if I have to,” he said.

McKenzie said her goal is always to find her clients the help they need, and eventually get them into some kind of housing.

She admitted that many, like Holmes, want to get off the streets, but are held there by their addictions.

It’s common for a client to tell her they want out, and for her to start the process, only to have it fall apart when they start missing important meetings.

“Once the liquor store opens at nine o’clock that’s all thrown out,” she said.

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‘Just waiting to beat somebody up’

Meanwhile, her clients on the street are often subject to abuse from security guards, cruel drunks and others.

Lane, who has only been on the street for a month or two, has had troubling runs-ins a couple of times already.

Not long ago, he said, he was sleeping in an alcove when a security guard kicked him violently awake, calling him a “dirty old man.”

Lane recalls waking up to the man looming over him, clad in leather gloves and “just waiting for an excuse to beat somebody up.”

”If I wasn’t in my sleeping bag I would have got up and gave him a shot,” he said with a good-humoured chuckle.

Holmes recently had a violent run-in as well. Lifting up his shirt he showed off a massive, purple scrape covering his left shoulder blade.

He said it happened after a drunk guy coming out of the bar smacked him in the head and knocked him down.

McKenzie pointed out the streets can be a dangerous place, which is why she works so hard to get people off of them.

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‘They’re still having a tough time’

She said the biggest issue contributing to homelessness in Kelowna is affordable housing, which she described as housing with subsidized rent that people on assistance or disability can afford.

“I know they’re building all the time, but it’s affordable [housing we need]: we need low income housing for our street people,” she said.

Most of her clients don’t want to move into a place where the majority of the money they get goes to rent, she said, so they choose to live on the street and keep more of their money.

“If there was low-income housing and they had to pay three, maybe four hundred dollars a month, that leaves them a couple hundred,” she explained.

Holmes, who lost his home after his sons died, says he’s frustrated with Mayor Colin Basran’s approach to homeless in the city.

“He’s got this committee to study the homeless problem, and it’s going to take four years. He’s only got two and a half years left - and meanwhile he’s done NOTHING.”

“They have houses all over the place: retrofit them, instead of spending money on freakin committees, and house the homeless people.”

Jerry Carter, a big man with long, dark hair and a goatee, agreed.

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After accepting a sandwich and water from McKenzie, he explained that he has trouble finding full-time work and good housing.

“More low-cost housing is needed. Even if people are working they're still having a tough time trying to find a place to live,” he said.

McKenzie said until more affordable housing becomes available she will continue her work.

‘If I’ve touched one person, I’ve touched 1000,” she said. ‘If I can even get to one out of all the people I see then I feel accomplished.”