Richard's journey to the edges

By Leslie Campbell, April 2012

The dream of a therapeutic community at Woodwynn Farm still burns bright.

I DOUBT I'VE EVER MET anyone more persistent and committed than Richard LeBlanc, founder of the Creating Homefulness Society and Woodwynn Farm, the therapeutic community for homeless people. When I think of all the roadblocks the Woodwynn project has faced, it’s hard to believe that he just keeps on chugging and that he’s so good-natured and philosophical about it.

Right now, two big things are happening in his life. First, Woodwynn’s application to the Agricultural Land Commission to house more homeless people on the property is under active consideration. And second, Richard has been living on the streets for over a month. 

Let’s start with that. Richard had been musing about trying life on the streets when “Ed” showed up on the farm, escorted by the police. Ed had never been charged with anything, but complaints had been made about his living in a van in the Brentwood Bay area over the past two years. He’s neither an addict, nor mentally ill, merely the victim of a work accident that severely injured his feet so that he could no longer do his work as a tradesperson. His money quickly ran out and he was evicted. He took to his van—with a big old Lab and all his tools (he slept on his huge tool chest). 

Meeting Ed, who’s in his late 50s, helped Richard make his decision. By trading places with Ed, Richard could get a firsthand experience of homelessness that he could use to boost community awareness and funds for Woodwynn’s operations, while Ed could enjoy the comforts of a home and regain some strength and dignity.

Ed has mentored Richard, advising him on how to keep warm and where to park—there’s an art to being unobtrusive, which is essential given the bylaws around camping and parking. But he also made Richard promise to live by his rule: “Don’t ask for help,” though Richard could take help if offered. Ed accepts $320 monthly from Social Assistance. So that’s the budget Richard allows himself.

Richard is learning a lot, quickly. Mostly how to be incredibly frugal and how hard it is to keep warm. When we meet for lunch at Green Cuisine, he looks a bit frayed around the edges, certainly his hair is longer, and he’s bundled up warmly. Though I can’t really tell, he says he’s lost a half-dozen pounds.

It’s been a huge adjustment on many fronts. Probably the most difficult has been around losing the privacy and comforts of an accessible home bathroom. Especially late at night. Since many homeless people have a friend or agency (like Our Place) where they take a shower and launder clothes, Richard does allow himself a weekly trip to Woodwynn for those purposes. 

But the cold—will it never end?! (As I write on the first day of spring, it’s hailed, rained and snowed today.) He sleeps with his hat on. Some nights there’s been frost on the inside of the van’s windows. The ferocious winds of late cut right through him and rattle the van. He tells me he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep since he began this experiment. It takes hours in the morning to stop shivering. He can’t warm up through the night by starting the engine—he simply can’t afford the gas. But it’s not just the cold. He says, “I hear every footstep and car passing.” And then there are the security guards or police pounding on his door when he picks the wrong spot.

And by Day Three, Richard was noticing people didn’t treat him the same: “I already have had friends walk by me and not recognize me. Just a few days’ beard growth, different body language and grubby clothes apparently will do it,” he reported on his facebook diary.

Meanwhile, out at the farm, Ed has lost his greyish complexion and some of his frailty, and is working through a lengthy list of chores. Besides fixing door hinges and fences, he’s been a big help with the ducks and pigs.

Richard has committed to the trade with Ed for as long as it takes to raise the equivalent of 2012 people donating 99¢ a day for a year to Woodwynn. Even in these tight times, people are finding creative ways to donate, whether it’s $5 a month on their credit card or getting together with friends to make some sort of commitment. The Raymond James Foundation just donated $6000.

So Richard knows he can return home at some point. He shakes his head thinking of those homeless citizens who have no end in sight. On Day 30 in his diary, he wrote: “Really really feeling for people for whom homelessness is for a truly indefinite period of time. I sense from the folks I talk to that they just get tired of wondering how many more days/weeks/months...egad ... years, it will be. [They] Just live in the moment: “Try not to give up.” “Where do I sleep tonight?” “Try to pick myself up for one more day.” “Where do I eat?” “Try not to feel.” “How much money do I have left?” ‘Try not to notice the looks of disapproval on people’s faces all day long.” “How do I stay warm? Dry?”

Richard, unlike the “real” homeless, has been getting a lot of encouragement for his dreams. He keeps busy talking with school kids, church groups and service clubs. And trying to keep warm. That’s become an obsession.

 

On March 19, Richard got cleaned up and headed to Vancouver to make a presentation to the Agricultural Land Commission on Woodwynn’s request to be able to house worker/residents on the farm’s 193 acres (which would remain within the ALR). Afterwards, he says he feels hopeful but that it will be four to eight weeks before he gets an answer.

The plan is to build a dormitory to house up to 96 people. Richard worked with architect Alan Roy, who donated his services, to design a cluster of eight small dorm buildings (housing up to 15 each) and a communal dining room that will sit on 1.5 acres—less than one percent of Woodwynn’s 193 acres.

“We are aiming for 96 apprentices in order to successfully farm this large an acreage in a high-labour, non-mechanized fashion,” says Richard. Ninety-six people is also an optimal number for a therapeutic community program to function well, according to the research. 

Despite the Society’s commitment to farming, there are still people and politicians firmly opposed to Woodwynn. Central Saanich council has refused to amend bylaws to permit the on-site facilities necessary to house the labour force needed to grow more produce, and to expand a small sales area. The council did forward Woodwynn’s request to the ALR—albeit with a letter saying they weren’t in favour of it. Councillors have variously said they object to Woodwynn’s plans as too commercial/institutional/not “farm-first”/too large scale/too much of a tourist attraction/profit-oriented.

Profit oriented? Are they being penalized because they don’t want to rely on government funding, but be self-supporting like the San Patrignano therapeutic community in Italy?

Not farm-first? Richard notes that for the first time in 150 years, there is produce coming off Woodwynn’s acres—only five acres at this point but many more could be productive with more resident farmers. Their market over the summer was a great success.

In a municipality that approved a 57-home development on 32 acres of farmland (Vantreight’s), it’s crazy-making to see Woodwynn denied the right to house homeless folks to farm the land and regain a foothold on a decent life. Many wonder if the real reason Central Saanich council is opposed to the plan doesn’t have more to do with pressures from those fearful about property values decreasing with proximity to a farm employing (and training and counselling) homeless people. 

It’s important to remember that the majority in Central Saanich (according to Ipsos Reid polling) wants to see a therapeutic community for homeless people at Woodwynn; and that the farm has attracted an impressively talented and large crew of volunteers from all over the city, plus thousands of donors—individuals, businesses, service clubs, school groups, as well as the generous backers who bought the farm.

And like I said at the outset, Richard is persistent. He is not going to go away.

Leslie Campbell hopes the Agriculture Land Commission pleasantly surprises us. The Woodwynn plan and link to Richard’s “Journey to the Edges” facebook page is at www.woodwynnfarms.org.