Monday, December 31, 2007

Wishing for a better life for Chantal
Dec. 28, 2007

She used to make me cry when she’d go missing for days at a time, back when I was new at this whole tragic business of life on the streets.
Now I know just to wait. Chantal will call when her “run” is done, and the next thing you know she’ll be bugging me for $3 for poutine at that little place in Market Square as if nothing had happened.
I’ve known her for more than three years now. She can be as endearing and charming as she can be loud and ornery. Those who end up loving her, and there are a number of us, have usually seen enough of the sweet version to counter the times when she’s awful.
She’s 23 and has lived on the streets for a hard six years now. Her story is what happens when you give up on kids - most notably, ones with permanent disabilities. Chantal’s brain was damaged long before she was ever born by her mother’s drinking during pregnancy, and the impact on her life has been profound.
She was taken into foster care at age nine here in Victoria, having already survived some very tough times with her birth family. As is the lot of many a foster child’s life, she bounced through several placements, then was cut loose at age 16 to go on “independent living,” which basically amounts to a welfare cheque and not much else.
Everyone charged with caring for her at that time must have known what a disaster it would be. She’d had behaviour problems for years, and started drinking at 13. By 14, she was using cocaine, and by 15 was pregnant. She’d had several encounters with the police. But they still walked her straight out of care with nothing more than a handful of cash and the clothes on her back.
And that’s pretty much how life has stayed for her. She’s been housed for brief periods, but most times she can’t manage even a few days on her own, or tolerate the loneliness. She logged an impressive two months this year in a small, peer-supported house for women in recovery, but then she disappeared on a cocaine run for a couple weeks and they evicted her.
The kind of housing Chantal needs - a boarding house, really, with an experienced and realistic house mother who understands Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder - doesn’t exist here. If there’s such a place anywhere in B.C., I haven’t been able to find it. She lives on the streets because it’s the only place that accepts her without question.
It’s what makes me roll my eyes when I hear people talking about street issues as if they’re hopeless “big city” problems that we just have to get used to. The sad truth of it is that we’ve barely even tried.
A regular at Streetlink and a familiar figure to police, Chantal is what you might call larger than life. You don’t want to be out in public with her when her unflinching honesty manifests as a cruel insult to a passing stranger. But she has also broken my heart more times than I can count with her sweetness.
Welfare Wednesdays are the worst for her. The last one was just over a week ago, and we formulated a detailed plan to get her through it relatively unscathed. I was taking her for a visit at the ministry office with the baby she had five months ago, but first I picked her up at Streetlink and we made our way to an old furniture store to stand in line for the Santas Anonymous hamper pickup . Chantal wanted to have a Christmas present for when she saw the baby.
She was trying to prove to a friend that she could stay clean long enough to buy him a meal with her welfare money, and was desperate to avoid cocaine that day so she’d have the money. The plan was to visit the baby; pick up Chantal’s cheque at the welfare office; cash it at the bank; give me half the money to hold; and find her friend for lunch. I was wary about taking the money, but she vowed not to hound me relentlessly on the phone for it like she had the last time.
We settled on $50 to be returned to her this past Saturday, and the remaining $100 sometime after Christmas. (“Midnight?” she asked mischievously.) Then we picked up her friend and went to a Chinese buffet to heap our plates, and Chantal paid. For a few hours anyway, her dreams came true.
In the U.S., one in four children taken into state care eventually ends up on the streets. I imagine the same is true in Canada, because so many of the stories I hear on Victoria’s streets are essentially tales of hard-luck and hurting kids left to grow into lost and struggling souls.
So here’s to free turkey dinners and warm coats at Christmas for people on the streets, because kind gestures matter. But my dear friend Chantal needs so much more than that. A new year is coming, and I can only hope for real change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I knew Chantel just before she was pregnant with her son at 15 and she was given the opportunity of living out her life with a family who understands disabilities and drugs use and they truly cared about her. Those people are now raising her son in a loving home. Chantel was allowed to stay if she'd only follow rules and stay in treatment. I now see she has another child who is probably being raised by another family and will do just fine - as long as her environment is without Chantel's drama. I was a foster child for 19 years and born from a mother who drank and I was racially discriminated against being part black and told I wouldn't think past the age of 5 Yrs because of my mother's life (1966). If we believe that then all is lost. Thanks to my loving foster family (who I adopted at age 20 as a courtesy for them because they fought to keep me in their home and not shuffle me around as is the social services way) I am an itelligent, independant woman with ONE child that I can manage as a single parent after walking away with nothing from an amicable divorce. My point is Chantel will either be strong enough to survive this world by getting clean as on drugs she's not in control of her life and no-one can save the drug addict - they must help themselves. We can only support them without enabling them. Chantel was not that brain damaged from her birth (drugs yes)as she is an expert at working the system and she needs more than behavioral alteration and drug treatment. The sad thing is she keeps getting pregnant and if she decides to get clean there is no guarantee that she won't get Toxic Leukoencephalopathy (now there's a story for you). I will continue to think of Chantel and I believe that if her second child is doing as well as her first with loving foster parents then all is fine as only Chantel can change her life.