The look on Scruffy’s face is unmistakable — he’s going for a walk.
Mouth open, tongue hanging out and his ears flopping as he bobs up and down, the eight-year-old shih tzu-Yorkshire terrier cross jogs ahead of his best friend, 58-year-old Terry Theroux, as they step out of their home.
For most dogs, and their humans, leaving home-sweet-home for a daily walk together is something that can be taken for granted. But for the two friends, it’s a pleasure they were unable to enjoy for a few months after more than 20 low-income renters were evicted from the Highland Motel, a displacement made all the more dramatic when the building caught fire.
As the anniversary of the Highland Motel fire approaches — June 30, which also happened be eviction day — Theroux is expressing gratitude for the various service providers that helped him carry on.
“A lot of people, organizations like that, go out of their way to try to make the best of a horrible situation,” he said.
To make that “horrible situation” worse, while the former Highland residents were held up in the emergency shelter, they were eventually able to return for some of their effects, but were unpleasantly surprised when they arrived.
“The place got looted big time while we were held up at the community centre,” Theroux said.
The living conditions at the Highland were far from desirable — an environmental study of the building following the fire was scathing, remarking on mould, rodent feces, lead and asbestos, and Theroux noted faulty wiring and broken pipes.
But the motel was also somewhat stable living for some of Penticton’s most vulnerable citizens.
“It’s tough, the housing problem,” Theroux said, adding that the city’s housing crisis is all the more challenging for those with dogs.
Speaking last July, South Okanagan Similkameen Brain Injury Society executive director Linda Sankey told the Western News that even for service providers, with their connections and tools, finding housing for people coming from the Highland was a challenge.
“A lot of landlords were going ‘oh, if you’ve come from the Highland. Well, we don’t even want to even entertain a conversation with you.’ People were hanging up on them,” Sankey said.
However, as local service providers set up in the emergency shelter, Theroux was able to find some help to keep a roof over his head, even if not an entirely stable one at first.
He landed in the Salvation Army’s Compass House shelter for three months, from July to October, where he was able to stay until he found something more permanent. But shelters came with a price: rules, little if any privacy and a curfew.
“You’re with a bunch of people that have got a bunch of problems,” Theroux said.
All of his belongings, as well, had to be kept in a locker or container during the day, meaning he was always in a state of being packed up.
But while he was at Compass House and the emergency shelter, and in the months following, the Penticton and Area Access Centre was able to step in and help Theroux with some bureaucratic matters. He is now on income assistance, and they’re looking to get him onto persons with disabilities assistance.
“But he has to go through ropes of tests, tests from the doctors and all that,” Access Centre advocate Kay Byrne said. “I try to help co-ordinate with other stuff with Terry. Getting to see a doctor, because Terry didn’t have a doctor. It’s very difficult getting a doctor here.”
But there was another challenge in staying at Compass House: Scruffy couldn’t stay, making it the first time the two spent any considerable time apart.
In the Access Centre office, Scruffy and Theroux hold eye contact, and the love between the man and his dog, like dad and son, is palpable in the room. Scruffy stayed at the SPCA during Theroux’s stay at Compass House, and the two got occasional visits, which Theroux cherished.
After those three months at Compass House, apart from Scruffy and in a challenging environment, Theroux was able to get into the Mayfair Motel with help from SOSBIS.
“So excited,” Theroux said of moving into the motel, adding Scruffy appeared to have felt the same. “It was like he didn’t believe it.”
Now, the pair only part ways when necessary — when he needs to take the bus, for instance.
SPCA donated a dog bed, some toys and other supplies for Scruffy, and Theroux soon made a home out of the new digs.
“Salvation Army, they gave me a voucher for some furniture and got that moved in, start feeling like home again. Having Scruffy back and being together, it’s been real nice. … Everything got back to normal.”
With the recent sale of the Mayfair Motel, along with two other neighbouring motels, fears have risen that another slew of low-rent motel rooms, around 60 rooms combined, will be gentrified, turned into high-end developments.
Byrne said there are some concerns about that potential redevelopment, with the land already upzoned for greater density, but service providers are working on a housing plan.
For Theroux, he said he will take that issue as it goes. Much like the Highland fire and evictions, he said he doesn’t let what’s out of his control get him down. For now, he’s just enjoying his time at the Mayfair.
“It’s felt like home for quite a while, now.”