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Editor’s Note: The Journal continues Stories from the Street II, a six-part series focusing on Sarnia’s homeless crisis, from journalist Cathy Dobson and photographer Glenn Ogilvie. Please join us each day this week to read about the unique circumstances of the men and women living rough in Sarnia.

Cathy Dobson

“My days?  They’re busy. It’s a lot to try to feed my addiction and find enough to eat.” 

-Steve Vokes Jr. (Pepper), age 55, former backhoe operator.  

It’s like he hasn’t eaten all day. 

Steve Vokes Jr., whose street name is Pepper, barely stops eating his sandwich to answer a question about what life has been like since he started sleeping rough a couple of months ago.

“It’s busy,” he says going for another bite. 

Pepper is feeling pretty good seated at a downtown lunch counter on this particular day.

“I had somewhere to go last night,” he said. “I stayed with a friend and got a shower.” 

He is slim, clean-shaven and his clothes look like they may have been laundered recently.

“My days? They’re busy,” said Pepper. “It’s a lot to try to feed my addiction and find enough to eat.

“It would seem like I wouldn’t have anything to do but it’s a busy day doing nothing. I might have to go and try to find cigarettes or find somewhere where I can go to get a buzz on.

“There’s no screwing around. It takes a lot to find enough to eat when you live like this.”

“Pepper” Steve Vokes Jr. at Wicks eatery downtown Sarnia. (Glenn Ogilvie photo)

Pepper looks directly into my eyes when he speaks.  He’s edgy and hesitates when asked why he was kicked out of a room he rented a few months earlier.

“I had to leave my two cats behind and all my junk,” he said. “I was paying my rent. I’m on ODSP. But the (land)lady was a little unbalanced, mentally abusive and it was a toxic place to live. We had a lot of disagreements.”

He admits his alcohol and drug abuse played a part in losing his room.

“I’d rather be on the street than live at that place,” he said. Finding a new room is tough. The $1,300 a month he collects from the Ontario Disability Support Program used to cover rent and some expenses. Now he says it won’t even get him a room.

“All kinds of people in Sarnia are getting kicked out by greedy landlords. They say they are doing renovations or that they have family moving in. That’s a loophole. Then people have to leave,” said Pepper. “And they end up on the street all the time.”

A bachelor apartment can triple in cost once it’s been renovated, he said. Housing officials agree that’s common.

“Now I have no references and it’s hard to rent a place. To get on a waiting list for (social housing), you need a phone. That’s a problem,” said Pepper.

He is addicted to alcohol, weed and meth. There was a time in his 20s when he operated a backhoe and made a living.

But he lost his driver’s licence multiple times at age 21, 24 and 31 for driving under the influence and has been to rehab in Toronto four times.

“I’ll do any drug but Fentanyl and that makes me a rarity. Everyone I know is on Fentanyl.”

He hasn’t done an honest day’s work in a long time, he said.  But he does work to support his habit.  He says he sells “bits of dope” for beer.

Pepper falls silent when asked how he gets the money for the dope or how he paid for the mountain bike he insisted on bringing into the sandwich shop with him.

“I do what I do,” is all he’ll say.

Stories from the Street II continues Thursday with Part 4.

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