Monday, September 17, 2007

Add one more homeless man to Victoria streets
Sept. 14, 2007

For more than a year now, I’ve watched Roland Lapierre cobbling together at least some semblance of a normal life aboard his tidy little raft on the Gorge.
Once homeless on Victoria’s streets, Lapierre had found a way out. I’d see him sitting in the sunshine on his patchwork raft –reading the paper sometimes, or having a nap – and would send good thoughts his way for having the creative mettle to come up with his own solution.
I wondered how long he’d get away with it. The answer came this week. The City of Victoria has ordered Lapierre to leave the little bay where he anchors, off Banfield Park near the Selkirk Trestle.
In a city that knows no end to people living homeless on its streets, add one more.
The city is within its rights, of course, and I can already hear the “slippery slope” arguments taking shape in defence of rousting Lapierre. We can’t have people thinking they can just pull up a raft somewhere on the Gorge and live for free.
But the city’s action does beg the question: What now?
As pleasant as it may have looked from a distance, life couldn’t have been easy for Lapierre in his teeny-weeny waterfront home. It would have been cold out there a lot of the time, and there wasn’t much room on board to do anything other than sit very still or lie down.
But I loved seeing him on his raft as I made my way through the park. I have great admiration for people who are able to figure their way out of problems, and Lapierre had managed his way out from under a really big one.
One of my favourite travel destinations is Mexico, where there’s no shortage of desperately poor people coming up with innovative ways to survive. I wish for a better social safety net for all of them, but in the meantime appreciate the relative freedom they’re given by Mexican authorities to scratch together a life.
Homeless people have to live somewhere, after all. So while it isn’t pleasant to realize there’s an old, sick woman selling one-peso packs of gum out of the bus shelter where she lives on the road into your holiday resort, at least it’s honest.
The Capital Region, on the other hand, continues to pretend there is no poverty - just insufficient motivation. The street issues get more and more visible and we keep telling ourselves it’s just because there are too many lazy bums out there.
They gather in Cridge Park, and we roust them as vagrants. They find some crappy apartment building that no one else will live in, and we send in the health squad to shut the place down.
We tear down their makeshift tents on a daily basis in Beacon Hill Park. We throw out the sleeping bags they leave behind in our downtown doorways. We fence off another alley in another part of town. We send more police into the streets to move people along.
To where? Wake up, people. Ousting Roland Lapierre isn’t going to make or break the homeless issue in the region, but it’s one more perfect example of how we got here in the first place.
We can’t have it all ways. We can’t cut social supports and then be surprised that our problems are growing. We can’t abandon social-housing efforts and then insist that people get off our streets. We can’t slash mental-health care and then wonder where all the crazy people came from.
Lapierre didn’t choose to live on a raft because he wanted to get one over on the city. He did it because it was a vast improvement over camping out in some cold, dirty gap between buildings, where anybody and everybody is free to give you a hard time, rough you up, and steal your stuff.
Lapierre’s story could have had a happy ending - one where he gets the bad news about having to pack up his raft, but at the same time gets as much help as he needs in finding a more suitable place to live.
That approach would also work for tenants of buildings condemned as unfit, like the apartments on Carleton Terrace that were shut down this summer. But like Lapierre, those people have been left to their own devices as well. The streets await.
In Lapierre’s case, the city tried to be nice about it, offering him a job and even a more distant anchor. But for someone with chronic and severe mental illness - and who I suspect swims back and forth to his raft - neither are workable alternatives.
The city acted after fielding complaints from 15 people. I hope they also complained about the much larger boat anchored next to Lapierre’s raft for several weeks this summer. I hope the concern about “third party” use of the foreshore extends to the rich as well as the poor.
“I thought I had found a way,” Lapierre told the Times-Colonist this week. But his eviction was the final blow. He won’t be “fighting anymore.”
Watch for him looking sufficiently brought down to Earth in a doorway near you. Some victory.

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