Monday, April 21, 2008

Redirect bottles and cans to binners
April 18, 2008

We tend to look for big solutions to big problems. We all want that “magic bullet” that’s going to fix everything in one single, brilliant stroke.
But of course, there isn’t one. Whatever the issue at hand - global famine, rising obesity rates, a relentless rise in poverty in our communities - the truth is that every big problem is in fact just a dense thicket of small ones, all needing to be solved one by one.
So no magic bullet, then. No sexy instant cures. No one-fell-swoop solutions. Just the hard work of tackling a host of small problems one at a time.
Ignore that important fact, and nothing gets resolved. Here in B.C., alarm grows on all fronts that more than 15,000 British Columbians are now living on our streets yet the years pass and nothing seems to change.
Woodwyn Farm proponent Richard LeBlanc calls it “stuckness” (more on that next week). I suspect it’s about waiting for that magic bullet, when in fact the actual magic is in seeing that the key to dealing with any Big Problem is to address the myriad small problems at its core.
What can one person do to make a difference? I’m asked that all the time. As a member of the co-ordinating committee of the Greater Victoria Commission to End Homelessness, I can tell you that what’s being talked about there is the need for a Web site where people in our region can connect with like minds and innovative projects, and learn more about what has proven effective in other cities.
The Web site Our Way Home is a good start (, but is not yet the interactive hub for ideas that people are looking for. So for today let’s consider just one simple and small thing that we could all start doing immediately: Change our recycling habits.
If you’re like me, you buy a lot of beverage containers without getting around to returning them for a refund of your deposit. Recycling them in your blue box diverts the containers from the waste stream, but that deposit you paid never does get returned. Deposits on beverage containers picked up in our blue-box program go unredeemed.
The accumulated deposits on all those unreturned cans and bottles in B.C. added up to almost $18 million in 2006. In fact, unredeemed deposits are the single biggest source of revenue for Encorp Pacific, the non-profit started by government in the mid-1990s to manage B.C.’s bottle returns. Something as minor as bagging your refundable cans and bottles separately from the rest of your recycling would put that money into the hands of what are probably thousands of street-level recyclers in B.C.
I’m sure Encorp would be unhappy to lose the revenue stream, but that’s hardly the point. You and I paid for those bottle deposits fair and square when we bought our beverages, and I certainly feel no qualms about exercising choice around who gets the refund that I’m choosing to forfeit.
In Vancouver, the highly successful business United We Can proves what can happen just by shifting our thinking on this one small front. Drive past the Downtown Eastside social enterprise on any given day and you’ll find a lineup of homeless people pushing shopping carts stacked high with empty containers into the UWC bottle depot. The program puts a few bucks into their pockets on a steady basis, and diverts a significant volume of cans and bottles that would otherwise be headed for the trash.
The 13-year-old business has grown to the point that it now employs 24 full-time workers, most of whom came from the streets. In 2006, it launched a new project that paired “binners” - people on the street who dig through garbage bins - with restaurants and other businesses that generated large volumes of returnable bottles. The binners were trained, matched with a business, and provided with one of 50 specially built collection carts known as UBUs (Urban Binning Units).
Will any of it solve homelessness? No, but it all counts. We’re not going to buy our way out of more than 25 years of flawed public policy just by handing over our bottles and cans to people on the street, but it’s one small step in the right direction. And with $18 million in unredeemed deposits up for grabs province-wide, it’s not even such a small step.
One word of caution before you begin: In our region, it’s illegal for anyone but you or the Capital Regional District to go through the contents of your blue box. To get around that, I sort my refundable containers into a separate bag and hope that will suffice in protecting the enterprising recyclers in my neighbourhood from being charged with theft.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Problems are fixed when people have a place to live
April 11, 2008

They call him Ishmael, and he’s OK with that. “Ishmael, the unwanted child,” he explains, pulling a Bible from his backpack as he tells the story of Abraham’s outcast son.
He picked up the nickname while living in Toronto’s infamous Tent City a few years ago. He liked that people found it easier to pronounce than his given name, and that they weren’t always asking him how to spell it. So “Ishmael” it was.
He built his house in Tent City for the grand total of $200, scrounging most of the materials out of other people’s garbage. As we chat in the coffee shop at the University of Victoria library, he brings out his laptop to show me photos of his little dream house from that period - a tidy, tiny structure complete with granite and marble floors, a woodstove, an outhouse, and a rosemary bush thriving in the front garden (photo above).
The media were reporting hundreds of people living in Tent City back in those days, but Ishmael figures it was actually about 80. The campers lived on the Toronto lakefront for three years on vacant property owned by Home Depot before being evicted in 2002.
Ishmael had moved in after finding himself out of rent money and in between jobs, and stayed for a year and a half. For him, it was the perfect situation, and in his opinion far more cost-effective than the “current idiocy” of spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the name of homelessness without ever solving the problems.
“When I was in Toronto, it cost $80 a night to keep me at the Salvation Army for two and a half years. That’s 1,000 nights - $80,000 in all - yet I was still as homeless on the day I left as when I arrived,” he says. “Here in Victoria, they’ve got a van that goes around at night handing out soup and sandwiches. But it costs [taxpayers] $12 a head for that soup and sandwich. I could buy the same thing at Quizno’s for half the price.”
These days, Ishmael spends virtually all of his daytime hours at the UVic library. He’s found a place to sleep in the Western Communities, but needs to keep a low profile so the property owner doesn’t spot him. So every day he hops a bus to the university and spends long hours browsing the library stacks.
“I don’t smoke, don’t do dope, don’t drink. You’ve got to occupy yourself somehow, so I’m doing this. And I am a bookworm, so it suits me,” says Ishmael, whose favourite writer is Thomas Jefferson. “I’ve got quite a book collection that I drag around with me, including some rare and hard-to-find volumes.”
He’s not sure why he lives like he does, but recognized years ago that he could no longer count on holding down a job long enough to pay his rent.
It wasn’t always that way. After immigrating to Canada from Germany in 1983, he landed a job quickly and was able to buy himself a house within a couple of years.
“But in 1990, I just kind of died,” he says. “They tell me I’m somebody who fell between the cracks. There’s a reason for every one of us to be on the street. A lot of us are really 12-year-old children in adult bodies.”
Ishmael jokes that he was a drifter throughout the 1990s, “then a new century started and I became a vagrant.” But he works when he can, and is currently making do on savings from the $7,000 he earned last year doing odd jobs. He refuses to go on welfare; socialism is “the philosophy of the parasite,” he tells me emphatically.
He’s 51 now, and no longer sure that his 2005 move to B.C. was a good idea. He’d ridden his bicycle from Toronto to Vancouver - a 44-day sojourn - after seeing televised images of the city and finding himself drawn to it.
But things haven’t worked out as planned. He built another tiny house in the woods of Metchosin, but that’s lost to him now. He swapped farm labour for a small wage and a place to live on the Peninsula for a time, but then he and the owner got into an argument and that was that. He’s thinking he might end up back in Toronto if he can find the bus fare, and get a room again at the Salvation Army.
I ask him what he’d suggest for readers wanting to know what part they can play in ending homelessness. Hire people, he says. (Call Cool Aid’s Community Casual Labour Pool at 388-9296 for more information.)
And if you’ve got a little bit of land where a wanderer might settle for a while, he’s all ears.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Thanks for the great feedback on homeless issues!
April 4, 2008

Many thanks to everyone who responded to my column last week speculating whether my stories from Victoria’s streets were wearing thin on readers. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and I can’t tell you how nice it was to read so many inspiring and heartfelt stories about people’s own thoughts and experiences around homelessness.
All told, I got 226 e-mails, seven letters and a couple of phone calls. That’s easily 20 times the response I’d normally get even for a column that really struck a chord with readers, so the abundance of feedback alone was immensely heartening.
Only nine readers wanted me to give up the issue altogether, and I classified another nine as “not sure.” So that leaves 218 who urged me to carry on, all of whom were obviously very passionate about the issue themselves. (Of course, let’s acknowledge the inherent flaws of a poll asking whether people are still reading, in which only those who still are would even know to take part!)
It was wonderful to hear what people in our community are already doing to bring an end to this heap of problems we call homelessness.
They’re organizing study groups. Launching church initiatives. Volunteering at street-serving agencies. Giving money. Writing letters to government. Renting their suites to somebody who really needs it, even if the new tenant is a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes. Reading up on the issues, and raising the consciousness of friends and family.
They passed along terrific suggestions on ways for me to keep writing about the issues without turning readers off. Here are a few key ones, all of which I’ll be heeding:
Keep up the stories, but give us some successes once in a while. I hadn’t intended to be a downer every week, but somehow it happened. I’ve always been a bit of a gloomy thing in terms of what attracts me as a writer, and that has understandably turned out to be a bit of a bummer for readers.
So I’m going to work harder at including more columns on what’s working out there, as opposed to what’s not.
Don’t expect typical success stories - ones in which the person finds a great place to live, recovers fully from an addiction, stabilizes in his mental illness, gets a job, reconnects with his family and lives happily ever after. But at the very least I’ll bring you more happy-for-now stories.
I also want to be more attentive to all sides of the issue, and include the stories of people like the frustrated downtown merchant who’s replacing her store’s plate-glass window for the third time in four months.
Mix it up a little. People encouraged me to keep a focus on street issues, but to write about other things from time to time - maybe even something light-hearted once in a while. Great advice. More variety in my topics will keep things fresh, both for readers and me.
One reader suggested I’d gotten too close to the issue to maintain journalistic objectivity. Could be, as the issues dominate my volunteer life as well and I sometimes feel like all I ever talk about is homelessness, addiction and the sex trade. It’s probably not healthy.
Dump the “homeless” label. Readers rightly noted that “homelessness” is in fact just one characteristic of a wide variety of problems, the vast majority of which are much more complex than the mere need to house people (although that would certainly be a heck of a good start).
The streets are Ground Zero for problems as diverse as mental health, cognitive ability, criminal behaviour, physical injury, work injury, trauma, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, hippie-kid syndrome, and bad luck. Solutions need to fit the problems, and that requires knowing exactly what those problems are.
Tell us how to help. This was hands-down the most common request. There’s clearly a lot of energy and urgency in our community for making things happen, but people need help in figuring out how to connect to the issue.
I’ll put some serious thought into that in the next while. And if you’ve already found a meaningful way to make a difference, please feel free to pass along what you’re doing so I can share those ideas with other readers. But do remember that while individual effort is a powerful thing, we still need to keep the pressure on all levels of government to restore public health, civil order and human dignity in our communities.
I was particularly touched by readers’ concern for me, and whether I was losing heart. One elderly woman unfamiliar with e-mail got her daughter in Vancouver to send me a message on her behalf to cheer me up.
Believe me, I’m cheered. Thanks so much for your kind words and big hearts.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Banging my head on the homeless wall
March 28, 2008

For the 12 years I’ve been a columnist, I’ve worked at trying to keep my topics diverse. I put a lot of importance on variety, having always figured readers tire quickly of a one-trick pony.
So it hasn’t been an easy choice to settle exclusively on homelessness these past five months. I’m still not sure what I hoped to accomplish by doing it, or whether anything will change as a result. That last part is probably what worries me the most.
What I hoped would happen was that the stories I told would somehow play a part in moving things along around street issues - that people would read them and come to understand how 1,500 people have ended up living on our streets, and how little of it has to do with them being too lazy to get a job.
But are people reading? Are the unconvinced being swayed? Has anything changed? Such are the questions that keep a columnist up at night.
Those who share my passion for the issue would presumably agree with my current column focus. But if you’re writing about an issue as an activist, the real challenge is to convince the unconvinced. That hinges on getting people to read what you have to say - no small feat when you’re writing regularly about something they didn’t want to hear about in the first place.
I figured I’d try to write about homelessness for a year, starting with the series I did for the Times-Colonist last November. But I’ve already heard from some readers that I’ve become “boring.” Feedback is dwindling, and so are the hits to my blog. If readers are shutting down around me, what is that telling me?
And yet I really am completely on fire about the issues. I continue to believe that in Victoria and any number of other B.C. communities grappling with the same issues, we’re dangerously close to losing the fight. I’m heartened by the work coming out of the mayor’s task force on homelessness, but by God, these are disturbing times.
If you saw disaster coming, wouldn’t you want to get the word out? As someone blessed with the privilege of a high-profile weekly platform in the daily paper, shouldn’t I be doing what I can do to keep homelessness in the public eye?
But it all comes back to whether anyone’s listening. If they’re not, then it’s all just words into the wind.
A journalist friend of mine tells a haunting light-bulb joke that plays into one of my great fears:
Q. How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None. Journalists have never changed anything.
Ouch. It’s not really true, of course: I’ve seen any number of stories featured in the media that brought about positive change. And when the media decide to focus their intense gaze on an issue, the impact can be dramatic. Just look at what CanWest Global Communications’ national focus on literacy these past six years has done to raise awareness and funds for that issue.
But can you sustain change around less appealing social causes just by keeping them in the news? With many years invested to trying to effect change through the media, I’d obviously like to think it’s possible.
But then a hot potato surfaces - the relocation of the needle exchange being a recent example - and it’s all out the window. And it gets me wondering what’s gained by years of sophisticated discussions around the importance of, say, needle exchanges, if we still fall apart the moment we try to figure out where to put one.
So here I sit, betwixt and between on whether writing about homelessness every week is actually enlightening readers and advancing the cause, or just pushing me and my pet issue into the land of the never-read.
I even got into a big argument with a homeless guy a while ago over this issue. He stopped me on the street and told me I was just another cog in the “big machine” making money off the homeless without doing anything to actually change things.
I was wounded, and asked what he thought would happen if everybody just quit writing about homelessness. “Nothing ,” he said, “which is exactly what’s happening anyway.” Point taken.
My passion for the issue will keep me active behind the scenes no matter what, but I’d like to have a better sense of whether my writing about it every week is helping or hurting the cause. I’d love to hear from you either way - send me an e-mail at

Setting the record straight: I made a mistake in my column last week about a family grappling with addiction. The cost for a month of addiction treatment at a private facility here on the Island was $10,000, not $37,000. My apologies - I misheard the number.