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Keepers Project: Safe storage for homeless

Homeless now have lockers for storage of personal items

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

The homeless in Oshawa now have a place to safely store their belongings, thanks to the collaborative efforts of two local organizations.

The Keepers Project saw 12 lockers installed Oshawa’s downtown core in the vicinity of Simcoe Street United Church.

Dave Thomas, who serves as secretary of Spirit Alive Outreach Ministry, says the idea came to him and his wife Sandra through their interactions with the homeless community.

“We’ve gotten to know the homeless people, and one of the problems they face is what to do with their stuff,” Thomas told The Oshawa Express.

Homeless people will often keep their belongings in a backpack, carrying bag or some other container.

However, according to Thomas, when they are attending a doctor’s appointment or job interview, they don’t want to take these items with them.

“It’s a stigma. Everybody is looking at you carrying this backpack and they say ‘yeah, that’s a homeless guy,” he says.

Individuals are forced to hide or store their belongings in less than convenient places, such as behind bushes or trash containers.

Seeing the issue, the Thomas’s started researching to see if there were any instances similar to the locker idea they had.

“We found places in North American cities where they had programs to provide storage for homeless people. However, those places had only day storage,” he says. “It just seemed to create a potential problem. They need a place that is accessible to them 24 hours a day.”

Thomas’ son, who is attending university in the Netherlands, informed him of a site in Portugal that has outdoor lockers that are accessible 24 hours a day.

“To some extent, we incorporated their features,” he notes.

However, unique aspects of the Oshawa project are the inclusion of solar panels that power USB ports suitable for cell-phone charging and mail slots.

Thomas admits he was surprised to learn many homeless people own cell phones.

“If they go to a doctor’s appointment, and need to get the results, they need a cell phone,” he says. “This is a necessary thing for them.”

Spirit Alive officials wanted “to make sure everyone was on board” before moving ahead, and had consultations with the City of Oshawa, Durham Region Police Service, Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Oshawa BIA.

Thomas says these organizations all showed tremendous “support and enthusiasm” for the project.

While Spirit Alive took care of having the lockers built and installed, they approached the Back Door Mission to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Keepers Project.

“We needed them to monitor it,” Thomas says.

The lockers were officially available as of mid-December, with an overall cost of $15,000.

All 12 lockers are currently being utilized and Thomas says a waiting list has now begun, something Derek Giberson of Back Door Mission calls “remarkable.”

“Them getting full that quickly speaks quite clearly that there need is there,” Giberson commented.

Yet to him, there is some bittersweetness to the success of the project.

“It’s an indication of the failures of our society to address the needs of those who are marginalized,” he says. “We are hoping this will be a measure of help in getting [homeless individuals] a certain amount of stability.”

The late-Don MacLeod deserves a great amount of credit for Back Door Mission’s role in the project, says Giberson, although he died before he could see the project completed.

With all the lockers currently occupied, Thomas thinks more could be in store down the road.

“If the waiting list gets a bit longer, we’ll definitely install another set somewhere else.

Despite the success of the program, he ensures Spirit Alive is “not in the business of solving the homeless problem”, but wanted to achieve something “practical and useful” for less fortunate residents.