Wendell Smitheram and Christopher Billy were buying groceries at FreshCo on Monday when they noticed their van was on fire.
The two men left everything at the store and ran out the door but were too late: their van and all their possessions were gone.
“We had all our gear, everything, in there. We had all our blankets, all our cooking gear, we had our own groceries, all of our goods,” Billy, 58, of Quesnel, said. “Now we’re homeless and living out of a bag.”
The men had stopped in 100 Mile House, hoping to make some cash, on their way to Kamloops where they planned to spend the summer picking mushrooms. They left their van at the South Cariboo Visitor Centre just before 6:30 p.m. Monday after collecting recyclables and went to buy groceries.
About 15 minutes later, as they were at the checkout, Billy said customers started talking about smoke coming from the visitor’s centre and he left to investigate. When he heard it was a car fire, Smitheram followed, worried about his van as it was the only one in the lot when they had left.
The men fled, leaving the groceries behind.
“I came back to the visitor centre and watched it burn,” said Smitheram, who had previously lived in Anahim Lake and was the registered owner of the van. “It was home, everything we had was in it. Now we’re down to one mountain bike and not much else.”
Smitheram had been living in the van throughout the winter and lost most of his worldly possessions, including his computer and his driver’s license. Billy lost his clothes, his guitar and his mountain bike.
A woman known to police was arrested in connection with the fire. Her name has not been released as she has not yet been formally charged. Smitheram said he and Billy knew the suspect and had invited her to go mushroom picking with them.
The Canadian Mental Health Association put the men up at a local motel and provided them with donations from the community, including money and gift cards. Smitheram has also been collecting bottles to earn some money to help support them.
“We’re thankful for the people that have helped us here but it’s tough. We’re so used to just cooking on our own and doing our own thing,” Billy said. “It’s hard to reach out when you haven’t really reached out before. It’s hard to ask for help but we are short of money.”
The two men left 100 Mile House Thursday on a bus bound for Kamloops. Billy said they plan to regroup, get Smitheram a new driver’s license and hopefully be able to start mushroom picking. They’re hopeful Smitheram’s insurance money will allow them to buy a new van.
Melonie Eva, who works at the CMHA and helped the two men, said this time of year CMHA’s Homeless Outreach program is in need of tents, sleeping bags and non-perishable food items. These items can make a difference for those who suddenly find themselves homeless, like Billy and Smitheram. Donations are accepted at CMHA’s office at 555 B South Cedar Avenue.
“Every little bit helps,” Smitheram said. “Anything I can’t use I’m sure I’m going to run into someone that can the way things have been going these past few years.”