Nurse Doreen Littlejohn takes a longterm approach in her outreach work with homelessness in Parksville Qualicum Beach, but says more needs to be done now. (Auren Ruvinsky photo)

Nurse Doreen Littlejohn takes a longterm approach in her outreach work with homelessness in Parksville Qualicum Beach, but says more needs to be done now. (Auren Ruvinsky photo)

‘Women face a much different experience on the street’

Vancouver Island nurse says community needs to be part of solution to homelessness


“Women face a much different experience on the street,” says Doreen “Coco” Littlejohn, a Parksville Qualicum Beach nurse with two degrees and more than 30 years experience working on the front lines of homelessness, including more than 15 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

She said that while every story is unique and there’s no way to guess what led to any individual ending up on the street, “a lot of it involves severe mental health and/or drug addiction issues.”

And there are commonalities like young homeless people often being deep under mental health and/or addiction issues, while the growing number of homeless seniors often have complex physical health issues.

And once homeless, life becomes extra complicated, especially for women. Littlejohn said women are “often dealing with violence, having to move camping spots (sometimes daily), and spending their days finding their next meal and place to sleep.”

RELATED: Advocates for the homeless prepare for winter in a pandemic

RELATED: Documentary profiling Vancouver Islander aims to connect homeless with broader society

While she recognizes people’s decisions can play into where they end up, she doesn’t dwell on that. To her it’s about empathy and addressing the issue going forward – “there’s no use in going back and finding blame on how people got where they are, the point is they’re there – now what?”

Littlejohn said Vancouver in the 1990s was great time and place to be a nurse.

“We were all working together, we built clinics with services built in,” she said, marveling at the thought of “everything I was able to do there.”

“This pandemic feels a bit like that – we all have a common focus,” she said of a possible small silver lining in the COVID pandemic.

“The bittersweet part of Oceanside today is that we have such incredible resources, so much potential in the community, retired experts with experience from everywhere. This is a really educated community,” she said, “but I’m not seeing it come together.”

“We don’t have to figure out how to tackle this,” she said, not hiding frustration with the handwringing, “we know how, others are doing it well,” she said adding that the key is using a ‘systems approach,’ developing more capacity among the local expertise, along with addressing things on a community level, or higher.

She points to existing strengths in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area like HOST (the Homeless Outreach Support Team) and the landlords that work with HOST, Orca Place supportive housing, the winter shelter when there is one and OHEARTS.

OHEARTS (Oceanside Homelessness Ecumenical Advocacy Response Team Society) ran the emergency shelter last winter and currently runs a special COVID shelter for specific clients at pandemic risk. Littlejohn finds it disturbing that around half of the people in that shelter are over 60.

“Many of the people in distress locally have been here a long time, including some born and raised here and now in their ‘golden years’,” she said of locals being priced out of their homes.

To critics Littlejohn said, “in any community there is a population of vulnerable people so the community has to be part of the solution.”

She points to the lack of rehabilitation facilities in the area and that the difficulty people have accessing medical services here is extra hard for homeless people who may not have a phone, transportation, identification or even an alarm clock.

Despite the complications, Littlejohn is optimistic, having seen firsthand that “people’s lives can, and do change,” with the right support.

But Littlejohn’s outreach work is often a slow process.

“I just sit and chat and build trust – help connect them with something,” she said of working on a timeline of months or even years.

As an example she told a story of taking seven years of regular contact to gain the trust of one young lady in Vancouver who’d been “pimped out by her mother since she was eight.”

“I’ve seen that change, it will not happen overnight, but if the community gets involved, it will change.”

This longterm approach is key and makes the current system of makeshift temporary solutions ineffective, she said, highlighting the local scramble to establish an emergency shelter every winter.

“We need stable ongoing funding and projects,” she said pointing again to the success of Orca Place. And while she’s a fan of Orca, she adds that small independent subsidies are just as good – “we don’t need more new big BC Housing buildings – more community integrated models are an efficient use of funding.”

Littlejohn is a believer in the ‘housing first’ approach favoured by experts – get people inside, to a warm dry bed and shower, then work on related issues. People can’t properly address mental health or addiction issues alone, living under a bush.

“It’s hard to make good choices when you’re stuck down in that position,” she said. “There are many models that work – we just can’t duck our heads – we have an obligation as a society – we have to do something.

“Instead of ‘not in my backyard’ – it is already in our community, let’s address it. This is our community – how do we come together? What if this was your brother, mother, aunt, child in distress?”

Auren Ruvinsky is co-ordinator of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, a collaborative effort between local services addressing homelessness. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter 

HomelessnessParksvillequalicum beach

Just Posted

Coaches with the Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey association have had to get creative during their weekly practices to keep players interested and improving their skills without physical contact. (Damian Kowalewich photo)
Vancouver Island minor hockey coach shares what it’s like on the ice without parents, fans

Most practices consist of relay races, goalie shots and passing drills

3L Developments has stated it is pulling the plug on its plans to build a residential neighbourhood in the Stotan Falls area. The company has repeatedly offered to turn the Stotan Falls area into parkland, if the CVRD were to amend its Regional Growth Strategy to allow for a residential community to be built in the area. The CVRD has steadfastly turned down the development company. File photo.
Plugged pulled on decade-old Comox Valley development project

3L Developments say there will be no further development applications filed for Stotan Falls

The profitability of Victoria International Airport dropped by almost $17 million in 2020 because of COVID-19. (Black Press Media File)
Victoria International Airport revenues in a tailspin

While airport made $9.2 million in profits 2019, COVID-19 brought estimated losses of $7.5 million

Simpson: Training for snowball fights best done in socks

It’s odd the things our kids do to make us proud

Willow, a kitten belonging to a Victoria family, was rescued by firefighters on Thursday after she got stuck in a basement drain pipe. (City of Victoria/Twitter)
Victoria kitten stuck in basement drain pipe rescued by firefighters

Willow the cat on the mend, owner feeling ‘enormous gratitude’

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage addresses the attendees while Tom Olsen, Managing Director of the Canadian Energy Centre, looks on at a press conference at SAIT in Calgary on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Fulmes
‘Morally and ethically wrong:’ Court to hear challenge to Alberta coal policy removal

At least 9 interveners will seek to join a rancher’s request for a judicial review of Alberta’s decision

Jackie Hildering, whale researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, and Nanaimo Area Land Trust will present the Return of Giants, a webinar about the humpback whales’ return from the brink of extinction and how boaters can help protect them. (Jackie Hildering/MERS photo taken under Marine Mammal License MML-42)
‘Return of the Giants:’ B.C. getting a second chance to coexist with humpback whales

‘Marine Detective’ partners with Nanaimo stewardship group on webinar

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19: Provinces work on revised plans as Pfizer-BioNTech shipments to slow down

Anita Anand said she understands and shares Canadians’ concerns about the drug company’s decision

Tourists take photographs outside the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday August 26, 2011. A coalition of British Columbia tourism industry groups is urging the provincial government to not pursue plans to ban domestic travel to fight the spread of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. travel ban will harm struggling tourism sector, says industry coalition

B.C. government would have to show evidence a travel ban is necessary

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘Targeted’ shooting in Coquitlam leaves woman in hospital

The woman suffered non-life threatening injuries in what police believe to be a targeted shooting Saturday morning

The Gardens at Qualicum Beach is now owned by family-owned The Care Group. (
The Gardens at Qualicum Beach has new owners

Family has travelled to Qualicum Beach for more than a century

Jude Somers of Oak Bay won the 2020 People’s Choice Award for her creation The Santa Train, during Habitat for Humanity’s 12th annual Gingerbread Showcase. (Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity)
Winners of Victoria’s 12th annual Gingerbread Showcase announced

Habitat for Humanity raises over $35,000 with annual event

Snowshoeing is gaining popularity in the community. ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
Snowshoes a hot-ticket item in the Comox Valley

Pandemic has sparked demand for trudging through Vancouver Island snow

Most Read