“It is too damn easy to live on the streets in this town.”
John La Greca is brazen as he speaks about the homeless situation in Vernon.
Formerly homeless and now living in an apartment for the last two years, La Greca still skirts around the street-entrenched population in town.
“Most of the ones I meet are typical of what everybody expects: addicts, alcoholics, hookers, dealers, but there are a few others that are living in cars trying to make a better life in some ways,” said the 64-year-old.
Sporting his bushy beard, La Greca also speaks from his own personal experience. It is one that he shares boldly in his book of poetry, Homeless Memorial, which is up for a literary award. Homeless Memorial has made the George Ryga Prize longlist.
“I think I reflect the values that George Ryga wanted in his work,” said La Greca, whose book of poems is up for the $2,000 social awareness award, which will be presented in Vancouver in June.
Homelessness is an issue many communities are struggling with, especially Vernon.
“I think life on the streets is a pretty hot topic in B.C.,” said Harold Rhenisch, editor of Homeless Memorial. Rhenisch is a 2007 recipient of the George Ryga prize, which has roots in Vernon with local John Lent, who initiated the award along with BC BookWorld’s Alan Twigg.
Between shelter, food and general social support, La Greca says Vernon is attracting a homeless population from other areas.
“A lot of the people that are coming here now are here because the services elsewhere have been terminated or the police, the bylaw enforcement officers or other people in other communities are making it tough on those kinds of people to live the lifestyles they want,” said La Greca, adding that these individuals are creating a real impact on Vernon.
“They are very aggressive, anti-social and could not care less about fitting into the community. Not that the other ones do but the ones that are here, they make use of the common service. They like the community and they want to fit in as far as not making waves and not drawing attention to themselves because it would upset those that subsidize their lifestyle.”
But La Greca says many people in the community are far too tolerant and understanding.
While he is no longer homeless, La Greca still frequents various services, such as food at the Upper Room Mission when times are tough, and anywhere he can use a free computer.
“They (homeless) know about me but they’ll never invite me into their campfire…I’m different than the average street person out there.”
Often ridiculed for “talking like like a university professor,” La Greca is sometimes outcast in his own community.
“They’re more comfortable with other people that share their same background,” said La Greca, who spends a lot of his time reading, writing and walking around.
Periodically, he does get the odd street person who approaches him to say they enjoy his writing.
Meanwhile, the average person in the community sees La Greca, with his baggy clothes and beard, just sitting outdoors with his nose in a book and often make assumptions. He’s had people ask him where to get drugs or if he needs spare change to get a coffee.
“The thought that somebody would feel at peace outside of their apartment or their room reading a book is amazing to most people,” said La Greca, who is currently reading a book co-written by Dick Francis and his son about a suicide of a female jockey.
Speaking of horse racing, La Greca says there’s no room for a race track in Vernon anymore.
“Stuff like that takes up a lot of space that should be taken over for industry and housing.”