Nancy MacCulloch knows she wears her heart on her sleeve.
But after 15 years of policing in Pictou County, she has seen plenty to care about.
She is currently a member of the Stellarton Police force but also volunteers with Viola’s Place Society, which is trying to raise enough money by the end of the month to purchase a former church so it can be transformed into a homeless shelter. But the society is short of the goal.
“The county hasn’t had a homeless shelter since November 2016. There are some options for youth ages 18-24 via Roots for Youth. There is some shelter for female victims of violence and their children at Tearmann House. The children would be cared for by the Children’s Aid Society. There is not a general shelter for everyone else.”
MacCulloch can fill an hour with examples of people she has run across in her job who are living on the streets of Pictou County or close to homeless because of a sudden change in their life or a bad choice on an already rocky road.
“It happens because of family and relationship breakdowns and there is no support. Sometimes people shun their family because they have severe mental issues and sometimes their families don’t want to deal with them.”
Many people just choose to turn a blind eye in hopes that it will go away, she said. But it does not.
“A couple of years ago, we had a fellow sleeping on the park bench on the trail so I know people saw him. It was a breakdown in his relationship and the relationship was based on drugs. The female in the party took off out west because she had a warrant out for her and she left him here. He had nothing. He is not from the area. He was starving and sick.”
She said people have begged her and fellow officers to let them spend the night in cells where they will be warm and safe.
“I’d love to, and maybe in the past some officers let that happen, but nowadays we have to think of liabilities, such as, what if something happens to that person health-wise while they’re there? What if they experience a medical emergency?”
There have also been frequent trips to the Aberdeen Hospital with people she knows are on the brink of a mental health breakdown or in crisis.
“One of the things affecting this is the lack of the mental health support. It is a cycle. People are sick and we send them to the hospital but they don’t keep them. I have had situations where people are in desperate need of mental health help and they were out the next day.”
There are times when people will just leave on their own as well because they aren’t willing to accept the help.
She believes the county has a huge prescription drug problem and her time in policing has let her witness what people are living with first hand.
“I was on the street crime unit a few years back and we had the largest seizure of bath salts in the country. For small town Pictou County, we have a lot of drug problems.”
MacCulloch said not everyone who is homeless is addicted to drugs but in her experience the majority are addicts and most times that starts as a way to cope with loneliness and mental health issues.
“It’s awful when people ask me for help, a warm place to sleep, and all I can offer them is the change in my pocket for coffee or some food to eat. This county needs a base for people to go.”
She said the generosity of local churches has been outstanding and the Municipality of Pictou County donated the largest municipal contribution of $8,000 toward Viola’s Place. Some businesses have hosted fundraisers and other donations have come in from across Canada, but more needs to be done to reach the purchase price goal by April 30.
With only a little over a week left, Viola’s Place Society is about $13,000 away from reaching that goal. If it does get the money to purchase the building, it will start working on an operating plan that will need more community contributions.
“These are people who think, feel, have hunger and get cold,” she said. “Once upon a time, they were sweet newborns that were adored and loved. When your flesh and blood feels that they have nowhere to go and they can’t go home tonight, do you want me to tell them, ‘Sorry, the county doesn’t feel that there’s a great enough need to set up a shelter? I can’t help you, you’re on your own.’ Wouldn’t it be great as a county to say, ‘Yes, homelessness happens and we have a strategy in place to address that.’”