Saturday, February 09, 2008
Wrong thinking on addiction stops us from solving street problems
Feb. 8, 2008
If you read my column with any regularity, you might be starting to see a theme emerging these past couple of months. As my mother has noted more than once, “All you ever write about is homelessness!”
That pretty much sums it up. With the indulgence of the good folks at the Times-Colonist, I hope to use my weekly platform to write about street issues almost exclusively for the next while.
Homelessness is one of the great tragedies of modern times. To tackle it successfully requires understanding where it comes from. I think I can play a small role in setting things right by telling the stories of the people out there.
I like to think the stories are having an effect. One woman saw her own daughter in the sad tale of my young friend Chantal. Another fellow read the story of Blaine and felt sufficiently moved to buy him a bus pass for the next three months (which, let me tell you, cheered Blaine up immensely).
But what I’m picking up in some of the reader feedback is confusion about what I’m trying to accomplish with the pieces. So allow me to set the record straight, particularly around any assumptions that my focus will be solely on “good” homeless people who don’t deserve to be on the streets.
In my opinion, nobody deserves to be on the streets. So I’m not about to sort people into “good” and “bad” categories of homelessness before deciding whether to write about them. The last thing I want to do is be yet another person sitting in judgment of people who have been judged quite enough.
The big sticking point for readers tends to be drug use. People with severe addiction are seen as “choosing” homelessness because they chose to use drugs. Living on the streets is their punishment (and ours as well in the end, although we sure have a hard time getting that).
So when I write about somebody like Blaine, he elicits sympathy because he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. Readers liked Chantal, too, because she had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder caused by her mother drinking during pregnancy, and could therefore be deemed blameless for her many problems.
But writing about Guy Grolway and his addiction to crack cocaine brought me several admonishments from readers not to be “taken in” by his kind - that is, people who chose to use drugs and therefore deserve whatever happens to them.
Moving beyond that simplistic view of addiction is absolutely essential if we’re ever going to get a handle on what’s happening on our streets. If there’s one fundamental thing that has to change in solving the problems of homelessness, it’s the way we think about addiction.
I haven’t met an addict yet who wanted to be addicted. That others believe these poor, sick souls are choosing to remain addicted adds insult to injury, particularly given that such uninformed thinking too often governs the way we provide care for people with addictions.
You may not share my opinion on that. But here’s the thing: It’s not just my opinion. With more than a half-century of research and study under our belts, we know full well that addiction is what happens when you mix genetic predisposition, childhood circumstance, loss, pain, and readily available drugs. So why do we spare any time for the argument that it’s a moral failing?
We’re going to have to let this “choice” business go if we’re to tackle the issues of the street, because it’s tripping us up at every turn. The reason we’ve got 1,500 people on our streets in the first place is because we judged them unworthy of our help the first time round due to their “bad choices.” Just about the worst thing we can do is repeat that colossal mistake.
Getting out from under an addiction is the struggle of a lifetime. The people trying to make that tough journey need prompt and sustained help, not another pointless guilt trip about bad choices and just desserts. That kind of thinking was exactly what got us into this mess.
And what a Pyrrhic victory we’ve won. Sure, a hard lesson has been taught to all those “bad” drug users denied help, but the cost to us has been streets filled with broken people, petty crime, garbage and despair. Add up the health-care and policing costs, the crime, the mess and the lost potential of 1,500 people, and we’re throwing away $75 million a year just to maintain the disaster on our streets.
I hope you’ll keep reading my stories, but please let the judgment go. The only way to fix a problem is to see it for what it is.