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.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gorge boatman looks to small houses to solve homelessness
Dec. 21, 2007

The turnout isn’t as good as he’d hoped - four people. He’d been counting on 15. But so it goes, and Roland Lapierre isn’t the kind of guy to let a thing like poor attendance get him down for long.
We’re gathered in an upstairs board room at Our Place, where Lapierre is holding forth passionately to a small knot of bemused people from the streets. He’s trying to put together an organizing committee, and so far has three signatures. “It’s dinner hour at Streetlink right now, so that could be why there isn’t more people here,” he tells me.
Briefly famous for the graceful one-man raft he built and lived on for a year in the Gorge; Lapierre is back on land now after being rousted from the water by the City of Victoria. He’s found a room at the Fairfield Hotel on Cormorant Street, but hasn’t given up on his dream of a life far from the streets. “I’m just the kind of person who’d rather live in a forest,” says Lapierre, 56.
He’d called the meeting to gauge interest in his latest plan: little 64-square-feet cabins big enough to house one person. His concept is to have people on the streets build the one-room cabins using donated material, and then to find willing property owners willing to let the cabins be set up on their land in exchange for a tax break.
“You could have a dog. You could have a cat. You could have a house instead of a doorway,” he tells the group. “Some of the houses could be set up in a park, and the people who lived in them could help with park maintenance. It’d be a lot better than living on the street.”
Lapierre has brought a book along - A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses - so that people can get a look at what he’s talking about. His favourite is the Cube House, a tiny, perfect cabin complete with bed, miniature kitchen, chemical toilet, and teeny-weeny balcony.
“This has been in Popular Science magazine,” he tells one sceptical fellow leafing through the book. “Popular Science doesn’t publish dangerous things.”
Lapierre has a detailed plan for the project. First, people from the streets will participate in building them, thereby disproving the notion that they “aren’t willing to do anything to help themselves.” Then the little houses will be loaded onto half-ton trucks and taken to whatever properties are available.
“But you’re going to need a social contract with whoever owns the land saying that you’ll be respectful and clean up after yourself and all that,” Lapierre cautions the group. “Don’t bring the cops home.”
The savings begin almost immediately, says Lapierre. The provincial government, for instance, would no longer have to pay the shelter portion of people’s welfare cheques, and could instead invest those savings in building more of the little cabins. Fewer people living on the streets would mean less crime, less garbage, less conflict with frustrated business owners.
In an interview after the meeting, I tell Lapierre I want to play the devil’s advocate, and ask him what he’d say to the doubters out there would likely respond to his idea with a cranky admonition to get a job and pay for his own damn cabin in the woods.
“When I could work, I worked,” says Lapierre. “Back when we were greasing the wheels of industry, who do you think was greasing them? But have an accident and see how long that $50,000 from ICBC lasts. Lose your job, or your marriage. It’s all circumstances beyond our control that puts us out here.
“It’s not our fault that we’re ill. It’s not our fault that the jobs all went somewhere else. I can’t even type with two fingers, so where do I fit in anymore? We’ve left some people out of the formula.”
Lapierre says his cabin concept is his “last kick at the can” before he gives up and retreats to a 40-hectare placer-mine stake north of Sooke, which he registered after scratching together the required $2 a hectare. He isn’t legally able to live there, but does have the right to occupy the land.
As for his fine year afloat in a little bay near the Selkirk Trestle, Lapierre will not soon forget any of it.
“I had breakfast with swans, and lunch with the geese,” Lapierre recalls. “I saw a lot of beautiful sunsets. I met great people. I had quiet waters and peaceful living for a whole year, and that was a wonderful gift.”
But the eviction hasn’t been all bad, he says.
“The boat was like one of those sand mandalas for me - a beautiful thing swept away. I had to say, ‘Well, what good will come from this?’” says Lapierre.
“But when it was over, people - strangers, just walking past me on the street - started coming up to me to say how sorry they were about how it turned out. They’d be passing by and say, ‘Hey! You’re that guy from the boat!’ People showed me that they cared. I’ve never had people care for me like that.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Street memories fresh, and he's not going back
Dec. 14, 2007

His name is Brad, and we’ll leave it at that. He told me he doesn’t care about having his full name out there, but I don’t know whether his sisters and teenage children would feel the same way.
His is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, one that Brad hopes he’s finally got a grip on. The 47-year-old has been clean and sober for nine months now, and off the streets after a harrowing year and a half at the bottom of the world.
“I know what it’s like to be there. I don’t want to go back,” says the former IKEA store manager. “But trying to get back to where I once was is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Brad was on the streets briefly as a teenager while making his way out of a tough childhood, but that didn’t last long. He was soon on his way to the life he’d always envisaged for himself - good job, wife and kids, friends coming by every Friday for a barbecue and a few drinks.
But that was then. Brad still marvels at how far from that ideal he ended up, and at how much effort it’s taking to try to get back.
People on the streets often talk of a series of unfortunate events - bad things happening in a bad sequence - as setting the stage for their fall. In Brad’s case, his marriage broke up, and the bitter dispute over custody and support that followed took a terrible toll financially and emotionally.
“I started to use drugs more, because I was falling apart. I’m not trying to use that as an excuse, but that’s what happened,” he says. “People talk about ‘losing everything’ on their way down - well, I didn’t lose it, I gave it away. I sold it. And finally, I made it to the streets.”
People with addictions often talk about having to hit “bottom.” For Brad, that point came in March.
By then, he was a skinny, desperately sick guy living homeless and hopeless in the downtown. He’d been calling the region’s only detox facility every day for two months, as is the requirement for anyone hoping to get access to one of the facility’s seven beds. “You’re on the list!” they’d cheerily tell him.
By early March he’d grown so sick that his alarmed doctor footed the bill for a cab to the hospital emergency department. A few hours later, the hospital refused him as well, and sent Brad stumbling away in slippers into a cold and rainy night long after the shelters had closed.
“That was it for me. The next day, I called my sister. I was just sobbing,” Brad recalled over coffee, at a downtown cafe that he notes would likely have barred him entry not too many months ago. “She called detox the next day, and I finally got a bed.”
Anyone who recovers from addiction has had to vanquish a mighty foe, not to mention survive a fragmented and inadequate system of care. The only thing that kept Brad from returning to the streets after his week in detox was his refusal to leave the place. They finally found him a bed for six weeks in a Nanaimo recovery house.
“That was the turning point,” he says.
He won’t soon forget anything about his time on the street. One morning, he woke up on the ground near Swan’s Hotel to find a rat on his chest.
“And the worst of it was that I didn’t even care,” he adds. “I should show you the video that Shaw Cable got of me from that time - 40 pounds lighter, missing teeth, beer in my hand, wearing this big coat with my crack pipe in one pocket and heroin in the other. I’m keeping that coat just to remind myself.
“It rips you apart out there. I lost my integrity. I even sold ecstasy to a 16-year-old. Hell, I wouldn’t have even given a kid that age a cigarette a year before.”
Brad is living with one of his sisters now, and grateful for the stability and support. But regular contact with his drug counsellor is equally important, because she’s there for him when his baffled and beleaguered family just can’t take it anymore.
The strongest of families can snap under the stress of trying to support someone through an addiction, and Brad is working hard to win back his family’s trust. But it’s not easy. The relapse that sent him to the streets came after a year of clean time, so “everybody’s looking at me sideways now.”
With his own life circumstances improving, Brad wants to play some part in helping others still out there.
“There’s a way to make it work. Whether it’ll cost $7 million or $7 billion, I don’t know, but I do know that we can make it happen,” he says.
“Everyone’s doing the best they can, sure, but the truth is they’re busting their hearts out to not succeed. We need to get with the program that’s going to work.”

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:

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Noon on Dec. 2, in a driving rain:

I'm just coming out of a five-week stretch of looking at street issues in Victoria's downtown for the Times-Colonist, and am filled with thoughts of the people and the problems I encountered along the way. It's immensely discouraging - as bad as I thought the situation was, which was pretty damn bad, it's actually so much worse. I fear for the future if things don't start to change, and can't bear the thought of where it will all end up by the time my grandchildren grow into adults in another 15 years.

Somehow in our misguided attempt at charitable action, we've ended up providing people with just enough of the basics to maintain them in their misery. They have to work so hard to try to get out, and we make it as hard as possible by adding to the difficulty at every step of the way.

Consider methadone, for instance, particularly on this rainy and miserable day in December. Methadone is a prescription drug that is used as a replacement for heroin. You don't need to inject it, one dose lasts 24 hours, and the people who respond well to it are essentially able to just get on with a regular life.

But methadone is also a narcotic, and thousands of people who take the prescription drug are considered too unstable in their addiction to be given their methadone to take home. What that means is that every day, they have to go to the drug store - and only certain stores, because most pharmacies don't sell methadone - to take their daily dose in the presence of the pharmacist.

On a day like to day, anyone who's on methadone but not allowed "carries" had to head out into the driving rain for their morning "juice." Unless they are on disability and successful in scrounging up the $45 for an annual bus pass, they'll need to have bus fare of $5 in correct change in their pockets. They'll need to ride the bus for however long it takes to get there, then do it all over again to get home.

Every day. Every single day, as if forced to prove to all of us that they are worthy of recovery, that they want it badly enough. If anything goes wrong and they can't make it to the drug store, they will be very, very sick in short order.

Or they can call up a heroin dealer and have the drug delivered to their door in minutes.

What would you do?