After you receive surgery to remove a cancerous tumour — an operation that required the removal of one of the lobes of your lung — you need a safe, sterile environment where you can recover.
But what happens when you don’t have a home to go back to?
It’s a challenge that Cloverdale’s Douglas Willoughan, known locally as “Irish,” has been facing in recent weeks.
If it hadn’t been for tireless advocating from a group of Cloverdale women, Irish would have been discharged from Surrey Memorial Hospital straight onto the streets.
Irish is a nickname that a couple of friends gave him, for the “Irish temper that comes out sometimes,” he joked.
When this reporter visited him last Friday, Irish held a spark in his eyes and a strength in him despite his recent surgery. There was a kindness in his disposition, but no temper, despite what must have been an extremely frustrating situation.
Irish is 60, and has lived in Cloverdale for half of his life. He worked until he could no longer do so due to medical reasons. And then, he explained in a soft voice, he found himself on the streets.
“Alcohol had a lot to do with it,” he said. “One of my roommates moved out and I couldn’t afford the rent of the place. So I was on the street.”
He has since lived on the street for about three years, and has found time and time again that it comes with dangers.
“I got beaten up a couple times,” he said. About a year ago, he was hospitalized with a concussion after a severe beating. “I thought my back was broken,” he said. “They did a number on me.”
Shortly after he returned from Langley Memorial Hospital, bruised and sore, to panhandling in front of Cloverdale’s No Frills, he caught the attention of the Cloverdale community.
Members of local Facebook groups might recognize him, as various Cloverdale residents have documented meeting Irish over the past year.
Linda Wing is one of those people. When she met Irish as he panhandled in front of No Frills, she already knew him from social media posts.
“I tend to ignore people, generally, in that situation,” she admitted. “But that day, I was compelled to go talk to him. I went over, and the rest is history.”
Since that first meeting, when Wing bought Irish a sandwich and asked him about his story, she has become one of his advocates as he navigates the housing and health systems in B.C.
When Wing met Irish in spring of 2018, he had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer.
While in the hospital after a bad fall, Irish received several scans. “The doctor told me there was a spot on my lung that has to be looked at.”
He has since had medical appointments throughout the Lower Mainland, which Wing and others have helped drive him to.
Irish finally had surgery on March 12. A lesion was tested and determined to be cancerous, and so surgeons removed a lobe of his lung.
That’s when Irish and his supporters — who jokingly call themselves “Team Irish” — came across the next hurdle. He had nowhere to go to safely recover.
Leading up to the surgery, Irish had found a place to stay with a friend, and had been there for a few months.
Although “it beat sleeping out in the rain,” Irish said that it was a “very unhealthy” environment. Smoke from cigarettes and marijuana, and general uncleanliness, made it extremely unsuitable for a patient recovering from a major lung surgery. Irish knew he couldn’t return there following his stay at the hospital.
“When he was in the hospital, I was getting different feedback from different social workers” about possible housing options, said Wing.
But what it came down to was this: because he’d been staying at a friend’s place — no matter how unsuitable for living — it meant he had an address and didn’t have priority placement in local shelters.
Wing and Team Irish contacted as many resources as they could find, including BC Housing, local non-profit housing shelters and several social workers. What they found was, although each person who answered their call wanted to help, a lack of resources prevented them from doing so.
“It’s not that they don’t want to help, they can’t,” said Wing. “There aren’t enough shelter beds, there isn’t enough subsidized housing. And that problem is only going to keep growing.”
Earlier in March — just days before Irish had his surgery — Surrey Memorial made headlines after Chilliwack mayor Ken Popove alleged hospital staff were discharging homeless patients who still required care, and taxiing them to Chiliwack shelters.
At the time, Surrey councillor Brenda Locke said Surrey Memorial “often” releases homeless patients, but that the hospital and the health authority do “try very hard to work with the service agencies.”
The real challenge, Locke said is the lack of social infrastructure in Surrey.
“It’s tough. We have a deficit, that’s the biggest problem,” she said. “We have a huge deficit of social housing and especially transitional housing. it’s one of those things that… the hospital is kind of between a rock and a hard place in some ways, but on the other hand, they are people and we have to find places for them to go.”
To bridge the gap between being discharged from Surrey Memorial Hospital and securing a bed at a local shelter, Team Irish started a GoFundMe fundraiser to pay for a temporary stay at a Surrey-Langley area motel.
Cloverdale came together and raised just over $1,000 (as of Tuesday morning). Those funds ensured that Irish had a safe, clean place to recover in the weeks following his mid-March surgery. When the Reporter spoke to him on Friday (March 29), his future was still unclear. Despite calling local shelters twice a day, every day, he still hadn’t been able to find a spot.
But later that very day, a turn of good luck. Irish secured a spot at a local 24/7 shelter, where he will be able to stay for 30 days. During that time he will be resting, recovering and trying to find a permanent place to live. The shelter has support services that will help him find a place, and provide him counselling.
The leftover money from the GoFundMe will be used to purchase furnishings for a new home.
Now that the threat of homelessness has temporarily abated, Irish will be travelling to appointments to find out his prognosis following the surgery, and to come up with a treatment plan with his medical team.
“He’s not out of the woods yet. This is temporary,” Wing said in a Monday phone call. Still, she said, for now they were “over the moon happy.”
—with files from Amy Reid