Monday, December 10, 2007

Enough talk on homelessness - time to act
Dec. 7, 2007

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like five weeks of hanging around on the front lines of street issues to leave a person feeling sick at heart.
I hope I managed to convey that to readers in the Times-Colonist series I finished up last Sunday. I hope you’re alarmed, aghast and scared for the future. Because I surely am.
Going into the series, I figured my intense education running PEERS Victoria for three years had given me insight enough into the issues that lead people to the streets and the scope of the problem. I thought I knew all there was to know about the difficulties people face in trying to access mental health and addiction services.
I now realize I was a babe in the woods. Things are so much worse than I ever imagined. The people living on our streets have grown large enough to populate a small town, and they’re leading lawless, generally miserable lives in our streets and parks in conditions that border on feral.
These are people we once cared for. Not always well, mind you; I have a friend who won’t soon forget the straitjackets and dehumanizing aspects of the old-style psychiatric institutions, and another who lived through B.C.’s failed experiment in mandatory addiction treatment in the 1970s. But it was care nonetheless, something of which very little remains anymore.
There are many paths to homelessness, and we need to be taking action on all fronts if we’re to dry up the flow of lost souls to our streets.
But certainly the current crisis can be traced to the phasing out of our big mental hospitals starting in the late 1980s, with problems growing exponentially over the next 20 years as we cut even deeper into mental-health and addiction services; eliminated support programs and specialized housing for people with brain injuries and mild developmental disabilities; churned kids through the foster system until they lost their way; and stopped building subsidized housing.
On top of that, we made it much harder to qualify for a welfare cheque even while slashing job-support programs that helped people with challenges succeed at work. Add in the widespread availability of street drugs to ease the pain of the people who are out there, and it’s no surprise how we got to this point.
People wrote to me throughout the series asking what they could do to help. They cared, but didn’t know how to act on it. My first suggestion would be to get informed, then find an avenue for direct involvement - whether on behalf of the homeless, the business community, the police or the service providers. Make a personal commitment to do something. Give money, and time.
Then commit to writing a letter a week for the next year to the provincial government, and another to the federal government. Once a month, write a letter to your mayor, too, requesting a list of city council actions that month related to resolving street issues.
Teachers, get your students involved. Employers and union leaders, take it on as a project. A thousand people can generate 44,000 letters a month - in a year, more than half a million. We don’t just have to sit here and take it.
Provincially, alternate letters between the ministers of Health, Income Assistance, and Housing. Copy every letter to Premier Gordon Campbell and your local MLA. Federally, send letters to the ministers of Health Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, copying Prime Minister Stephen Harper and your local MP. (Websites for finding contact information are listed at the bottom of this column.)
Demand that they address the breakdown in services that has led to people living on our streets. Demand that 350 people be relocated into well-supported housing in our region by the end of 2008, and each year after that until the street problems are gone.
Keep letters short and respectful, but unwavering and relentless. Don’t let them distract you with stories of $40 million here and $10 million there, or of federal-provincial agreements that are “laying the groundwork for future negotiations.” Demand that the problems be fixed right here, right now, in your home town. Period.
My other request: Bear witness. Go to where the problems are and see them first-hand. That’s essential if we’re to understand the challenges that lie ahead, and the immensity of the tragedy.
Bearing witness is especially important if you still think addiction and untreated mental illness are about choice in any real sense of the word. But it’s equally important for the tender-hearted who think the business community just needs to lighten up a little. Believe me, businesses and downtown residents have good reason to be fed up.
And what will I do? I’ll keep telling the stories from the streets that I hope will start you writing letters to government. I’ll join like-minded people in the community and on the streets, and we’ll put our shoulders to the wheel to make things happen.
If not us, who? In the words of the revolutionary Thomas Paine: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Find your federal MP at For MLAs: Municipalities: BC cabinet ministers and the Premier:

No comments: