Brian Combes moved into a brand-new home on Skwah First Nation recently after experiencing homelessness for more than two decades.
“Most of the time I was just fighting to survive,” Combes told The Progress. “Now I’ll get to just live, and live the way everyone else gets to live.”
Singing and drumming a welcome song as Combes stepped over the threshold into his newly constructed two-storey house were Skwah band councillors, Stephen Williams, and John Williams.
“I think this is a long time coming,” Stephen Williams told Combes. “I am really happy to see you moving in.”
He told Combes his sisters were finally going to be able to rest easier knowing he would be safe, housed and warm at last.
The main funding source for the project was the federal government’s Reaching Home program to address chronic homelessness, said Raylene Mumford, wellness coordinator for Skwah First Nation.
There was also huge support and encouragement from within the community, from building contractor CEJ Mussell, and Filene Mussell, as well as from Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove and the city-administered Reaching Home grants.
“Skwah is a really strong community whose members have rallied together to support Brian, his family and this process,” Mumford said.
They went ahead and applied for the funds and brought community elements together with the goal of creating housing, even though she’d technically never built a house before.
“Many great things were done with this funding,” Mumford said. “I’m proud watching folks collaborate and get excited.”
Brian had shared with her his painful and difficult stories over many months.
“One day, I saw him lying behind the office,” Mumford recalled. Combes seemed upset that day, silently staring into the trees near the band office.
“He was so quiet and I just sat there with him. After listening to the silence and thinking about the history he had shared I said to him, ‘I’ve never built a house, but I’m going to.’
She made Brian that ambitious promise right there and then.
“He just looked at me from under his long hair and said, ‘I believe you.’
Now his house is the first new home to be built on the Skwah reserve in years.
But that’s not all. A community washroom and shower has been installed at the rear of Combes’ house for homeless community members to use.
Combes said he sees it as a sign of good, positive things coming for the Skwah community, and he wanted his house to contain the public washroom facility.
As one of the last residential school survivors to walk out of St. Mary’s in Mission, he said he struggled mightily to come back from a series of blows life delivered. But now he has shelter and that will make his life less stressful, and he can work on improving his health.
As Combes looked around his bright, beautiful new space, he was asked if he was getting used to the idea yet.
“I hope I don’t wake up to hear, ‘You’re dreaming!’”
What is he looking forward to once he gets settled in?
“Being able to use all the knowledge I gained,” he said.
He’s talking about college and university studies he pursued with the goal of becoming a lawyer, before bad decisions and other barriers got in the way. He might resume some studies once he regains some strength back.
For Mumford, the best part is the fierce hope now burning through the darkness.
“I hope this helps,” she said. “I hope this symbolizes change, and I hope Brian feels loved.“
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