These are the people in your neighbourhood: Darren Ortwine and living on the fringe

Allyson Kenning
By Allyson Kenning
March 30th, 2010

If you look closely enough at Darren Ortwine’s glasses, you’ll see they are held together with a safety pin.  If you ask him about that, he’ll readily tell you that the glasses were purchased for him by a friend from the thrift store, and it was completely coincidental that they somewhat improved his eyesight enough to remain functional.  Pursue this further, and Darren will very excitedly tell you that new glasses are on the way, ordered for him by his daughter and paid for with money he gave her from his mother’s estate.

Homelessness is so ubiquitous in places like Vancouver that it’s very easy for the regular passer-by to gloss over members of this fringe population and dismiss the homeless as parts of an urban landscape.  Here in a small town, one homeless man sticks out like a sore thumb because he is the only one amongst us. 

Having seen Darren around town for a couple of years now, hauling his belongings in a large backpack or in a makeshift cart (his current cart is named Margaret IV; there have been three previous carts named Margaret), and even encountering him more than once sleeping in the post office as I went to collect my mail, my curiosity was piqued.  Here, in a small community of otherwise housed and comparatively comfortable citizens, how does someone cope where there are few resources, and where it is as cold as hell for a decent chunk of the year?  Like a lot of people, I make assumptions; but I also like to challenge these assumptions once in a while, so the next opportunity I had, I made a point to talk to this guy.

My first opportunity for conversation with Darren happened during Winter Carnival, on Saturday, when I went to check my mail.  With the sound of the rail jam right outside, Darren was passed out in a corner.  I got my mail, and then I went to Clansey’s.  Returning with a hot chocolate and a muffin, I managed, with some difficulty, to rouse Darren and have a conversation with him as he ate and drank. 

He was quite forthcoming with details, even though I wasn’t standing over him asking him nosy questions, though I certainly had plenty of those on my mind.  I found out that Darren lives on a small CPP Disability income of $677 per month, and receives no provincial income assistance. 

In his own words, “you can’t rent a closet for that amount here,” he says of the housing situation.  Having recently home-hunted for a rental and moved myself, I know he’s not far off the mark. Darren has a circadian rhythm condition that causes irregular sleep patterns, and he has used the Rossland Food Bank about ten times.  In the winter, he sleeps wherever he can: sometimes at a friend’s house, and sometimes in doorways downtown.  He has not had frostbite but has come close. Sometimes, the city crew at the arena lets him shower there.

In a more recent conversation, Darren told me he had constructed himself a teepee on one of the rail beds last summer, but it burnt down.  He is considering building another teepee this summer.  During this conversation, just about everyone who passed us on the sidewalk said hi and seemed to know Darren, though he did tell me that he has experienced some mean-spiritedness from people who often tell him to go get a job.

At 40 years old, despite his scruffiness and thrift store glasses, held together with that bent safety pin that looks like it could be dangerous if he’s not careful, despite his homemade cart and his obvious eccentricity, despite mental health and addiction issues, Darren has made the fringe work for him.  He doesn’t beg or panhandle; he doesn’t seem to want anything from anyone, and I personally never heard him complain about his situation. 

Supplementing his income by recycling cans and bottles, he seems to be a person who takes very little and who relishes in the small victories that come his way.  Just ask him about the new glasses that are on their way, and he might do a little happy dance for you, as he did for me.

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