Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Early-morning street tour speaks volumes for what hasn't changed

Giant box of day-old doughnuts: Check. Three big jugs of coffee and a whole lot of sugar and cream: Check. Final essential item: Two packs of cigarettes, enough for one smoke each for the first 40 people Rev. Al Tysick sees on his regular morning rounds.
He goes out every weekday morning at 5:45 a.m. to wake up people sleeping on Victoria’s streets. He started doing it seven months ago, after funding changes at the rebuilt Our Place street drop-in resulted in shorter opening hours. He buys the cigarettes with his own money, because getting a free smoke in the morning means a lot to people.
“It’s like taking a bottle of wine to a friend’s house,” says Tysick as he parks the Our Place van at our first top on 800-block Fort Street. “That’s what we’re doing this morning: We’re going to their house.”
Tysick’ wake-up call is a kinder, gentler version of the one that people will get an hour later, when police do their own morning rounds to flush the homeless from the downtown alcoves and hidey-holes where they sleep. It’s a doomed exercise: No shelter or drop-in is open anywhere in the city at 7 a.m., so there’s no place for people to go.
I’ve offered to be Tysick’ assistant on this particular morning, which entails keeping the coffee flowing and the doughnut box replenished. His rounds barely stretch over three square blocks, but he knows he’ll see at least 40 people even so. He knows, because the cigarettes always run out.
It used to be he could find a lot of people on Cormorant Street, but nobody goes there anymore after the heat came on this spring and the needle exchange was ordered out. Now, they go half a block further east, to the steps of the Ministry of Housing and Social Development building - the “Ministry of Love,” as it’s wryly referred to on the streets.
A year ago, I spent several weeks looking into street issues for the Times Colonist, and came out of it hoping against hope that what I’d seen was one of those “darkest before the dawn” periods. There was nowhere to go but up, I figured.
But in the morning dark outside the welfare ministry this week, handing out coffee to a growing line of people emerging from the shadows, I saw it wasn’t so. Yes, some positive things have happened this past year - more mats on the floor, more support and outreach, even a little bit of housing. But you’d never know it by the way things look on the street.
I’ve met many good people through my involvement with the Mayor’s Task Force and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Some very smart, caring minds are hard at work right now unravelling the issues tangling up people on the street. One day down the line, the efforts of the coalition are going to bring about real change in terms of how we manage street issues.
But what’s to be done until then? Even if we could start 20 new housing projects tomorrow, they’re years away, and the current downturn in the economy certainly won’t speed that process. What’s the plan for the short term?
If there was an earthquake this week and 1,500 people were left homeless, you know how our community would respond. We’d blow right through whatever policy, zoning bylaw or jurisdictional issue was in our way, and get every one of those people indoors by nightfall. Done.
We need that same kind of response around homelessness. We need an emergency plan in place at the provincial level that puts people indoors immediately. We need something like a refugee camp, where people can live indoors and be connected with support services until something better can be worked out.
Not more shelter beds, but a place where people can live indefinitely until something more permanent is available. A place where the police aren’t always gunning for you, and there’s room to store your stuff. To get out of the weather. To stay out of harm’s way.
Admittedly, any place where several hundred distinctly different people had to co-exist under one roof would almost certainly be chaotic and challenging. In any kind of sane world, no one would consider the temporary warehousing of masses of complex and impoverished people.
But this isn’t a sane world. And a refugee camp for those on the street isn’t nearly as crazy an idea as just leaving them out there. One early morning outside the Ministry of Love is all it takes to remind me of that.

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