Friday, March 21, 2008

Family devastated by late-life addiction
March 21, 2008

We pull up kitchen chairs in her little bachelor suite, and she apologizes for not being able to offer a more comfortable seat. It’s a tight fit for two in the tiny seniors’ apartment.
She’ll soon be 77, and up until a couple years ago believed that she’d reached a point in her life where things had more or less settled out. With her seven kids grown up with lives of their own, she was looking forward to an uneventful old age.
Her first sense that she might be wrong about that was at the family’s annual campout in 2005. Her 46-year-old son, always a bit of a hothead, flew into a fit of temper of grand proportions. Another son told her the problem was cocaine.
She didn’t believe it at first. But then relatives came from Australia to visit that same year, and her son showed up looking sick in a way that really alarmed her. “That’s when I started to wonder,” she acknowledges now.
As it turned out, her son had developed a severe addiction to crack cocaine. She doesn’t know when or why he started using the drug, but by that summer his problems were frighteningly obvious.
It’s been a hard ride down ever since. In short order, the man lost his wife, his four kids, and his job. He lost his house - sold off as part of the divorce - then blew every cent of his share of the proceeds on crack.
He hasn’t yet fallen to the streets. But that’s only because one of his sisters simply won’t let that happen, even if it means going down to Centennial Square herself time and again to bring her exhausted, sick brother home to her house.
Desperate to help him, the family scrounged up $37,000 for a month of treatment at a private addiction facility. He was a “star” participant while in the program, says his mom, but relapsed shortly after getting out.
She knows there has to be an explanation for how her otherwise straight-arrow son fell headlong into the abyss. He was working too hard, she suspects. He’s got some ghosts from childhood that she only recently found out about.
Still, she admits she didn’t see any of it coming.
“Of all of us, he’s always been the one who drinks the least,” she says. “I can’t understand why he ever would have tried crack - he doesn’t even smoke.”
“All his life, he’s held down a job, and sometimes another small job on the side, too. He’s a bright, intelligent man - even now, we’ll meet for lunch and I can’t believe how quick and bright he is. And he’s a wonderful father.”
She’s heard conflicting advice from friends and family about how to handle her son’s addiction. Some have told her that she’s “enabling” him by giving him money and rescuing him from the streets. Their theory is that addicts need to hit bottom before they get well, and that she’s preventing her son from doing that.
But she can’t imagine withdrawing her support. “You remember that old saying from the ‘70s about how if you loved someone, you’d set them free?” she asks. “I think for addicts, if you love them, you never set them free.”
Her other children are sharply divided over how much support their brother deserves, and upset at the chaos and stress his addiction has caused within the family. The annual family campout hasn’t happened since that fateful summer when her son lost his temper.
“Nobody can possibly understand how addiction impacts a family until it’s them,” says the woman, who has dipped heavily into her retirement savings in an attempt to help her son.
“You can’t imagine the sleepless nights I have. I’ll lie in bed thinking of all the things that could be happening to him. To know he’s out there, where bad things are happening all the time - I just don’t know what to do.”
So she holds on, hoping against hope that a mother’s full-on love will be enough.
She tells a story of her daughter going down to the streets one morning to rescue her brother yet again, and of how long it took to rouse him from his deep, dark sleep. The people he was with - all in the grips of their own addictions - watched in silence as his sister repeatedly called his name.
“Nobody said anything,” the mother recalls, “but my daughter was struck by the feeling that all of them wished they had somebody to come for them, too. All these men out there, so lost.”
Lessons from Mexico on homelessness
March 14, 2008

Mexico has had my heart for the better part of 10 years now, so I’m no longer surprised at a feeling of coming “home” any time I holiday there.
But given my current fascination with all things homeless, my most recent holiday down south also brought to my attention the dramatic differences in the way our two countries handle poverty issues.
Mexico is on its way up economically, but it’s got a long way to go before its citizens have it as good as a typical Canadian. While the babies aren’t dying as often and people are living much longer, Mexico remains a country with considerable problems.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from Mexico around managing homelessness. When a region as privileged as ours has more visible evidence of poverty than a developing nation like Mexico, that’s a sign that something’s seriously amiss.
Life is no holiday for a lot of Mexicans, so I want to be careful not to come across as a Pollyanna type waxing on about a “poor but happy” nation that cares deeply about its people.
The gross national income is a meagre $7,310 a year in Mexico, for instance, compared to $32,600 in Canada. Infant mortality rates are much improved over the last three decades, but Mexican children are still more than four times as likely to die before their fifth birthday as are Canadian children.
Child labour is common. I’ve seen kids as young as three trailing their moms along a hot tourist beach hawking jewellery to holidayers. In fact, UNICEF estimates that 16 per cent of Mexican kids age five to 14 are in the workforce.
The water supply is unstable, and often undrinkable. The roads are beautiful wherever the tourists and rich people are, and rough and unpredictable everywhere else. Poverty is so widespread that it’s essentially the rule rather than the exception; five per cent of Mexicans live on less than $1 a day.
And yet you can still walk down the street - any street - without seeing a single person sleeping in a doorway. Panhandlers are scarce, and their ranks generally limited to the most disabled. In terms of drugs and alcohol, it’s tourists rather than locals who you’re most likely to see intoxicated on the street.
There’d be any number of reasons for all of that, so I’ll avoid romanticizing on that front as well. But to me the primary difference is that in Mexico, poor people are at least given the freedom to figure their own way out of homelessness.
In Mexico, people living in the most extreme poverty can always find some wreck of a shed somewhere to squat in. If they can scratch up enough money for a few concrete blocks and a piece of tin for the roof, there’s always someplace in town where they’re able to set it up.
If they can figure out a way to make a few pesos, they’re free to do so. Some end up selling gum and bobble-headed toy turtles to tourists. Others hawk homemade tamales on local buses, with little fear of being turned in for a FoodSafe violation.
Here in Greater Victoria, we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve flushed everyone onto the streets where we can see them and left them to be beggars.
With the best of intentions, we’ve rid the city of disreputable rooming houses and slum motels. We’ve cracked down on shacks under the bridge and makeshift camps in our parks. We’ve torn down tired old apartments and replaced them with million-dollar condos.
We’ve rousted people from every cubbyhole. Shut down the beach campers. Gentrified the neighbourhoods. Torn apart every cardboard shack. Nobody in Victoria would ever get away with trying to make a few bucks selling sandwiches out of their sports bag; even the squeegee guy trying to clean a few car windows for change soon finds himself arrested.
The result: Our social failings have been laid bare for all to see, and street-level enterprise extinguished. Mexico is the truly poorer nation, but it’s our sparkling little city by the sea that wears its poverty most openly.
The court case over camping in our public parks speaks to the heart of the issue. Do we have the legal right to deny people a home in our parks when we aren’t offering them any alternatives? I’ve never seen people camping in Mexican parks, but I suspect that’s because they don’t have to.
I’m counting on our community to end homelessness in coming years. But for the time being we need strategies for living with it, cardboard shacks and all.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Temporary" food bank sees no end in sight
March 7, 2008

Noon is approaching, and the lineups have slowed to a trickle. The little food bank at St. John the Divine Church closes at noon, so the regulars know to come early.
Anne Henderson is one of several St. John congregation members who volunteer at the church’s food bank every Tuesday and Friday. A 10-year veteran of the work, Henderson admits to feeling increasingly discouraged.
“Seeing the young people is hard,” says Henderson. “They come in looking like relatively nice kids, but they’ve obviously got pain in their lives. They can’t get any income assistance because they have no work history.
“Pretty soon, they’re into the drugs because of their pain. Six months later, you see them in here looking so lost.”
The food bank was intended as a temporary measure in a time of crisis when it first started. But 15 years on, the need has only grown. “We’ve all gotten a little older, a little more tired, and a little shorter of money,” says Henderson, whose church runs the program on donations.
Today has been slower than usual. Henderson suspects that’s because of a recent visit to the office of Employment and Income Assistance Minister Claude Richmond.
Church members were there to make a point about impossibly low welfare rates by bringing it to Richmond’s attention that his own ministry was handing out information sheets directing clients to go get food at the church. But all that did was prompt the ministry to quit telling people about the food bank.
People can come to the food bank once a month to pick 10 or 12 items from an eclectic list of 60 or so household goods the church keeps in stock.
Today’s list runs the gamut: green beans; dog food; coconut milk; toilet paper; artichoke hearts.
“We really try to respect choices, and to let people choose the food they want. They can let us know if they’re on a special diet and we’ll try to work with that,” says Henderson.
Henderson has met all kinds at the food bank. One client was a former government employee who couldn’t get her feet back under her after losing her job in the “purge” after the 2001 election.
“She was on Employment Insurance for a while, but that ran out and she ended up on welfare. In the end, she couldn’t afford to keep her apartment,” recalls Henderson. “She told me she never in her life imagined she’d get to this point.”
At the table where people check in, a 52-year-old window installer tells us of breaking his wrist helping a friend put up Christmas lights. He’s scratching by for now on “medical EI,” but wondering what will happen if his year of support comes to an end and his wrist still isn’t strong enough to go back to his old line of work.
I recognize another client from my time last fall gathering information on street issues for a Times-Colonist series. I have a haunting photo of him from that period, packing up his stuff in the dark of early morning after the police arrived to move him along from a Fort Street doorway.
He has since found a place to live, thanks to a stranger who spotted him a couple months ago at the Upper Room soup kitchen and offered help with getting on disability and finding an apartment.
“I’d been on the streets 10 years,” he tells me. “I’ve got a mental thing going on, and find it hard to deal with people. But this time I feel like I’ve got somebody backing me. The doctor put me on medication to settle my mind down, and that’s helped a lot, too.”
Henderson polled her fellow food-bank volunteers in anticipation of my visit, and hands me a sheet of their written comments.
One expressed surprise that the people who attend aren’t angrier at their desperate situations. Another recalled a grateful client who found a way to burn a few CDs of Christmas music to sell on the street as a way of raising money for the food bank. “I am touched by the support they offer each other,” noted another.
“We all know that people on social assistance can’t buy a nutritionally adequate diet,” one of the writers summed up.
“It is sad indeed to see pale, haggard faces and bad teeth, and know that we are only able to offer food for a day or two - and to know that these people will only get sicker.”

Recovery sparks drive to do more for others
Feb. 29, 2008

By the time Thea dragged herself into the health authority’s drug and alcohol centre on Quadra Street in November, she was drinking so heavily that death was looking like a terrifying possibility.
The 35-year-old was knocking back a bottle of vodka, two bottles of wine, a six-pack of coolers and a bottle of Baby Duck every day by that point. “And using heroin and crack on top of that,” Thea recalls. “If that’s not a cry for help, what is?”
What she needed was a detox bed. What she got was an appointment for two months down the road to see a drug counsellor, who would then decide whether to refer her to one of the region’s scarce detox placements.
“I told the guy I didn’t have two months - hell, I didn’t have two hours,” says Thea. “But it didn’t change anything. I remember crying on the phone to my friend, telling her, ‘They can’t help me.’”
That night, Thea called her sister in Chilliwack and begged to use her address in order to fake her way into a detox bed at the Chilliwack hospital for a week. Four days later, she got one.
She’s been mostly clean and sober for a shaky eight weeks now, and is back in Victoria living with a friend. And she’s got a pressing new cause: More treatment services for people with addictions.
“Yes, we’ve made a choice to do dope. But shouldn’t we have the choice to get help?” she asks. “We don’t have that choice, so we end up choosing to keep doing dope. Choosing to vandalize to be able to pay for it. Choosing to work the streets.”
Addicted for 10 years and “hard core” for the past two, Thea has paid for her habit through sex work and petty crime. Recently sentenced to do community hours at Our Place street drop-in, she discovered that the work was igniting a passion in her to help people with addictions get treatment.
“I love it there, but I’m seeing so many people wasting away. It’s sad to see - all these young guys, early 20s, and they already look like shit,” says Thea. “I can’t imagine what they’re going to look like at my age.
“One day I started asking everyone I saw in there whether they’d go to residential treatment if it was available. Only one person said no. The reality is that there’s nowhere to get help. Nowhere. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
The streets have become significantly meaner in the last couple of years, says Thea. She worked a corner on the Rock Bay stroll during much of her time on the streets, but says she wouldn’t do it anymore now that the drug dealers have moved in.
“They took out the pay phones down there because they didn’t want people calling their dealers. But the girls aren’t going to walk five blocks to find another pay phone, so the dealers are now coming to the girls,” she says.
“That means that crime’s going up down there and the cops are around all the time, which jeopardizes everything for the girls. You’ve got guys on bikes selling $5 rocks (of crack cocaine). The johns think the dealers are pimps, so they’re not happy, either. And now I’m hearing of guys from Vancouver coming over to try to run things.”
Like many people with addictions, Thea ended up disconnected from her family during her ride to the bottom. She’s working hard to turn things around, but notes that it took her father being in a serious motor-vehicle accident in Vancouver to bring her back in touch with her family, including her 14-year-old daughter.
“I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to lose contact with my daughter again,” says Thea. “I did my rock-bottom. I’m not totally cured, but I’m OK, and I want to make a difference.”
Her immediate plans are for a petition calling for residential treatment and more detox beds. She’s also getting involved with the Greater Victoria Commission on Homelessness, which has a working group of people with personal experience on the streets.
“I used to be so proud of Victoria. But when I think of it at night now, I don’t think of those 3,333 lights on the parliament building, I think of drugs and crime,” says Thea.
“It’s like a lifestyle is starting to happen out there. It reminds me of Hastings Street. We’ve really got to do something to help people get out of this.”

Respite from the streets
Feb. 22, 2008

We’re an unusual group of travellers assembling on this rainy morning outside Our Place street drop-in, and we’re bound for an unlikely destination: A nun’s retreat in East Sooke.
We load into the rental van with our morning faces on, some of us just waking up and others so worn out from being up all night that they’re practically asleep in their seats before the van even gets moving.
In the driver’s seat: Margaret O’Donnell, the good-hearted woman who is leading us on this adventure. O’Donnell worked with Our Place to launch the monthly retreats to Glenairley last April, moved to action by findings of a regional spiritual-health survey that identified spirituality as the missing piece in the recovery process for people living on or near the streets.
Beside her sits Lynn, a newcomer who is clearly anxious about being there. Margaret pats her hand and keeps her close. Fred and Ginette cuddle up in the next row of seats, having become a couple since the last time I ran into them at November’s retreat.
Then there’s me and Dave, and Kenny and Annie behind us. Annie’s a newcomer, too, and for a while gets on a few people’s nerves with her random and somewhat relentless conversational style. But her stories - one moment about the actress Fran Drexler, the next about her dream of a world where the ice cream never stops - are too humorous to resist for long, and she soon has us laughing.
Tyson and Marco sit in the far back. They’re the youngsters in the crowd - Tyson is just 22. He was breaking horses at a girlfriend’s family ranch in Alberta not too long ago, and Marco was making a good buck driving trucks. But things change fast once addiction takes hold.
The drive takes the better part of an hour. Conversation bounces from RV parks to lottery wins to favourite radio stations, and then to epic tales of hitchhiking across the country. Marco says he made it from St. John’s, Nfld. to Port Hardy in just four days.
Annie, 62, talks of trying to survive the next three years so she can start collecting a pension and maybe afford a place to live. “There’s no place for old women,” she says.
Fifteen of us eventually converge on Glenairley, a 24-hectare jewel of a property owned by the Sisters of St. Ann. Aging nuns used to retire to the big house on the Glenairley site, but these days the property is leased by the Centre for Earth and Spirituality, which has kindly provided access to O’Donnell since the retreats began.
Group leaders Karl and Tim greet us at the door as we arrive. Inside, the fire is already crackling, and the smells of breakfast are in the air. Later, we’ll tuck into a mountain of sweet-and-sour meatballs and homemade fruit pies for lunch, prepared the day before by two hard-working volunteers who are friends of O’Donnell.
How the day unfolds for people is ultimately up to them. Some head outside, to walk the trails or marvel at the little brook bustling through the forest behind the house. Others look for a warm chair to curl up in and get some badly needed sleep, or someone to play a round of crib with.
The loose structure of the day lets people find their own way through the quiet to a spiritual place. But O’Donnell does have a couple requirements of the group.
Chores, for one. Everyone attending the retreat is assigned two chores, whether to hustle food to the table, wash the kitchen floor after a meal, or whatever else might be needed to ensure the beautiful old house is restored to spotlessness by day’s end at 3 p.m. O’Donnell also asks people to gather in the dining room in mid- morning and again in the afternoon, to share and reflect on what the day has brought them.
Today, conversation turns to whether a CBC reporter should be allowed to come to the March retreat. Yes, the group decides. United Way funding for the retreats runs out in April, and media attention might attract other funders. The dream is for an overnight retreat: “This is a wonderful place to be,” says Kenny, “but the time’s too short.”
As the day winds down, we gather one last time on the front porch before the drive back into the city. Annie asks for a hymn, and we sing Amazing Grace. I’m still humming it as the van pulls up downtown and its passengers disperse to the streets.