The History of Howard House in Vernon BC
One of Vernon’s greatest success stories is Howard House and Howard Industries. This is a special story, for its success is due to the tremendous community support given throughout the existence of the project. It reflects the citizens’ concerns and cares for Vernon’s needy transients and it displays the community spirit and pride which made Howard House and its Industries a reality.
A John Howard Society social worker, W.F. Hesketh, was the first to propose the answer, which would solve Vernon’s growing need for a hostel. Area Officials recognized this need and decided the bulk of the responsibility would go to the most appropriate ad best prepared group, in this case, the John Howard Society. Numerous organizations and individuals pledged their support and participation in the project. It would be this support that would decide the future of the hostel and so the decisions rested within the community. Many clergymen, ranchers, businessmen, loggers, policemen, social workers, bankers and individual club representatives of Vernon gathered to decide when and where the home for the destitute men would open. It was decided that, after a six month period, the board of directors (a group of Vernon people chosen from various organizations to direct the hostel) would evaluate the project. Vernon presented their case to the provincial government and they replied by promising financial support. The word was “Go”.
The official opening took place on January 1st, 1968, but Howard House actually opened prior to Christmas of 1967. Donations began to flow into the house, and eventually volunteers were needed to control the aid, revealing the overwhelming support of the Vernon community. Rooms were furnished and decorated, appliances were given, food was donated, helpers gave their time, and the list goes on. The “house on the hill” became Howard House, 3505 – 34th Ave., a haven for indigent transients and a focus of municipal pride.
During the six month trial, Howard House would see some 346 men go through its doors.1 Fifty of those men found permanent or temporary employment in Vernon and others were able to help in other community projects. By the end of June, 1968, it was clear that Howard House was quickly becoming something of a necessity. The Improvement in taking needy people off the streets and thereby creating fewer nuisances to the community was immediately noticed, particularly by the R.C.M.P. There was less need for petty theft to secure the means for food and lodging. The Board of Directors, along with the City Council, gave Howard House the “Green Light”.
However, this residence for the destitute men began to experience financial problems that would continually hinder progress. A large scale appeal was made in search of new sources of income. Despite all of the hostel’s success, the City Council, a major financial source, questioned their support and threatened a withdrawal of aid. Howard House floundered but made a comeback with more aid and a counter-proposal to the City Council. The time was crucial for the operations of the men’s residence, since their project was young and now faced fatal situations. It was their persistence and the community’s whole-hearted concern that pulled Howard House through the conflict.
Since the establishment of the hostel, the number of transients had steadily grown to over 1,000 men.2 Along with this number and the increasing number of men per day, Howard House Manager William Hesketh, Supervisor Nick Relkov and John Howard Society’s North Okanagan President George Forscutt, began to search for a new and larger residence. Burying old hatchets, the Vernon City Council and the Vernon Jubilee Hospital Board awarded Howard House with much sought-after army nurse’s residence, (from World War II), but under the condition that they would remove it from its original site east of the Jubilee Hospital. Despite neighborhood resistance, the John Howard Society received a land grant near the present day sewage plant to accommodate the new building.
Plans were made to employ as many transients and Vernon men as possible in the relocation of the old nurse’s residence. The move involved a series of developments which attracted district-wide attention. But what really made the operation speed up was the tragic fire at the old Howard House, claiming one life and virtually destroying the home. Upon completion, the community once again flooded the new Howard House with donations. This helped relieve the staff, which were facing the problem of relocating the inhabitants.
A common occurrence at Howard House was the decorating and furnishing of a room by various Vernon groups such as the Salvation Army and Trinity United Church Women. Within days, the transients were able to live within the renovated home and a lot of credit goes to the concerned organizations within the community. The difference in size between the two homes was to become a great advantage in the near future. The average number of men accommodated daily in early 1970 was six to eight men, while in 1979, Howard House accommodated one hundred and three men in one night!3
The expansion of the transient program was not limited to the hostel, for progress was to be made in employment opportunities such as a logging camp near Revelstoke and one near Lumby. The agricultural aspect of the expansion was very important, for it not only served as a source of capital and employment but also food (some 48,000 meals were provided in the year 1977).4 In 1975, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Thorlakson deeded three acres of land to the John Howards Society and the Board of Directors for the purpose of opening a farm.5 The success of these programs was invaluable, but it was eventually discovered that they could never pay for themselves. Provincial Welfare, which had by now assumed most of the financial aid through grants, pledged their conditional and limited support. By saying conditional and limited, the author means the government, quite justly wasn’t and still isn’t prepared to blindly send money of any amount continuously.
Howard House began to tackle more community-centered problems, like alcohol and drug abuse. Numerous rehabilitation sessions were held within the residence, and qualified volunteers instructed these courses. The John Howard Society opened the old recycling depot and for a couple of years solely ran the project as another source of income and employment.
Today, Howard House faces the same problems as it did only yesterday. The Federal, Provincial, and Municipal governments have been co-operative, but to meet the needs of hostel projects requires never-ending commitments of financial aid. What the community has to decide is whether or not their support is needed or worthwhile.
Up to this point the author has elaborated on the various programs of the John Howard Society. But what have these programs done for the thousands of men who have stayed at Howard House? To analyze this more closely, let’s look at the purpose of these projects as described by Howard house Manager, William Hesketh: “To give them (the indigent transients) another chance to change their life-style. It is difficult for some of us (as settled Vernonites) to realize how hard it is for them to change their lives. Many of them are unable to relate with things that we, a community, take for granted.”
Keeping this in mind, would a resident receive this chance through the program offered? Of course the answers would vary. Certainly, a transient would benefit from the projects if he cared to take advantage of them. The choice is his. No one can force anyone to change his life-style. For those who do take the chance provided, the values they would learn in maintaining a job and accepting responsibility for their life would have a positive effect on their future. A man could easily gain valuable working experience(s), possibly giving him new goals in life. The thought that people still care for them will stay with many residents.
As to the future of Howard House, the author remains optimistic. Financial Aid will remain a continual problem, but the purpose of the John Howard Society will never be defeated. Expansion may be limited if economic conditions get worse, but the number of needy males will no doubt grow. Let’s hope the community never stops its over-whelming support of their project. Man’s humanity towards man is perhaps a good measure of any community.
1. Supervisor’s Report, June 1968 (made at the end of the six month trial)
2. Vernon Daily News, Summer, 1968
3. Received from the Manager of Howard House, W.F. Hesketh
4. Penticton Herald, July 1976; Vernon Daily News; Victoria Gazette (All three papers printed stories on the progress of the progress of Howard Industries' farm operation)
5. Vernon Daily News, Summer/Fall 1977
AUTHOR UNKNOWN – 1980