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Christmas loses sparkle at the Salvation Army

Donald George had seizures. They happened often. So on Sunday night, when he "went down" at the Salvation Army shelter, his friends followed the usual routine.

Donald George had seizures.

They happened often.

So on Sunday night, when he “went down” at the Salvation Army shelter, his friends followed the usual routine.

They called 911.

All they had to say was, “Donald’s down.”

The paramedics knew him.

He was a “regular.”

But this seizure wasn’t routine.

And Donald didn’t recover.

Two days before Christmas, the mood at the Salvation Army’s day lounge was desolate.

“Donald died right in there,” said Bruce Weigh, standing outside in the cold, a couple sheets to the wind.

Weigh lives in tent down by “the Indian graveyard.”

He’s got a lot of blankets.

“But I still freeze up,” he said.

Inside, Carol Hall was getting people to sign a Christmas card using a Pizza Hut box.

Hall spent the summer in a tent.

Now, the 47-year-old has no place to go.

“I’m an alcoholic,” she said.

“So we struggle here.

“We hope every day that everybody’s OK and we try to take care of each other.”

The card Hall’s passing around is for Judy Lightening, the Salvation Army manager credited for opening the lounge on Christmas Eve one year ago.

It’s been open from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. ever since, offering clients a warm place to stay during the hours the shelter is shut.

The lounge sees about 40 clients daily.

Lounge worker Donna Smith writes down the names of everyone who walks through the door.

Some days have as many as 56 names scratched in the well-worn logbook.

“It’s sad here right now,” said Smith, mentioning Donald George.

“He came here daily,” she said.

“He was a really nice, harmless guy.”

George used to walk around picking up empties, then use the money to bring food and juice to the lounge to share with everyone, she said.

On Wednesday evening, there was fresh baking, pizza and boxes of chips.

It all comes in as donations, said Smith.

“They may be homeless, but they’re not starving.”

Robert Candiani had just gotten off the Greyhound from Abbotsford, BC.

“I’m an addict,” he said.

He was hooked on crack, until three days ago when his pastor bought him a bus ticket to Whitehorse.

“I came here to start a new life,” he said.

“I heard there was lots of work.”

Candiani, who’s been “three days clean,” was planning to stay at the shelter his first night.

He was also planning to come by on Christmas for the meal.

“Christmas will be hard,” he said.

Crystal, who didn’t want to give her last name, only had one Christmas wish.

“I want to have a warm place to stay,” she said.

Crystal is couch-surfing.

And she’s never sure where she’ll be staying each night.

“The homeless situation in this town is flippin’ ridiculous,” she said.

“They need to lower the cost of housing, because I can’t afford $1,500 a month.”

Garth Taylor used to have a house.

And a job.

He worked at an electronics company, then a fish farm and later as a scuba instructor.

He also had a wife and child.

But they died.

Lately, Taylor’s been thinking about death a lot.

He’s got a large growth on his pancreas that’s probably cancer.

“I can’t work because of my disease,” he said.

“And they can’t operate because the pancreas has too many enzymes.”

As Taylor eats his pasta mixed with ketchup, people across the room continue a loud, drunken debate.

“You have to put up with a lot of drunkenness here, and people being assholes,” he said.

“All people talk about is booze, and how to get more booze.”

Taylor would like to see the Yukon set up a system like England’s or Scandinavia’s, where the homeless are each given a small cubicle with a bed.

If they wake up every day at 7 a.m. to hunt for a job, then they move up to better housing, said Taylor.

“It’s a graduated scale, sort of like snakes and ladders.”

A man sitting on the adjacent couch interrupted.

“You can write down all this shit, but nothing’s going to change,” said Frank, who didn’t want to give his last name.

Frank understood that the story was for the Yukon News.

“And I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he said.

“But people just don’t give a shit.”

There are a lot of people here who want to straighten out, said Frank.

“But all Whitehorse has to offer is a 28-day program.”

The program’s good, he said.

“But what do you do after 28 days?”

There’s no after-care and people end up back on the street, he said.

During the day, Frank wanders around trying to stay warm.

He’s not sure what he’s going to do for Christmas.

“Thank God for places like this,” he said.

This fall, Dr. Jeff Turnbull came to Whitehorse to speak at the Yukon Medical Association’s annual general meeting.

He was supposed to talk about transformations in health care, but at the last minute local doctor and medical association president Rao Tadepalli convinced him to talk about his work with Ottawa’s homeless.

Turnbull, who’s head of the Canadian Medical Association, saw Ottawa’s homeless continue to rotate through the medical system’s revolving door.

On average, with hospital visits and intensive-care beds, he figured each of these regulars was costing the health-care system anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 a year.

It’s the same in Whitehorse, said Tadepalli, in a previous interview with the News.

So Turnbull took a giant leap outside the box.

He built homeless shelters in Ottawa that also run as clinics, with doctors, nurses, vets, psychologists and counsellors on staff.

And he gave the hardcore alcoholics booze.

Every hour they get five ounces of wine.

It’s less than the homeless usually drink, binging on cheap sherry and Listerine, and it helps to stabilize clients who have been lost in a haze of intoxication for years.

Turnbull’s shelters save lives.

They save Ottawa’s health-care system $3.5 million annually.

And they give people their dignity back.

At the Whitehorse Salvation Army shelter, the days run together, said Taylor.

“The only time that matters here is 10 a.m. when the liquor store opens and 8:30 p.m. when we go to bed,” he said.

“There’s not a lot to look forward to.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at