Wednesday, December 21, 2022

When a rock meets a hard place

Francesco Villi was an angry man who settled his differences violently. The fights he got into with his Toronto strata council were obviously like fire to the powder keg for a man like him. 

And then last Sunday he just knocked on their condo doors and shot three of them dead, along with two of their spouses. What an awful, crazy thing. 

Whenever these kinds of unthinkable events happen, it seems a natural instinct to question what could have been done differently. 

Why wasn't something done about Villi back when he was an abusive husband and father? Shouldn't somebody have done something about his mental health? Shouldn't somebody have stopped him from getting a gun? Could anything have been done to divert the rage he felt toward the strata council?

Valid questions. Unfortunately, the shoulda/woulda/coulda questions don't mean much once the horrible deed is done and five innocent people are dead. 

Short of a government initiative to attach a good Samaritan to watch over each of us for all of our lives in case we start to go off the rails, we'll rarely know until it's too late that somebody in our midst was on track to explode. 

Media reports in coming days will doubtlessly carry news about the many warning signs from Villi's life. But who exactly do we expect should have even been adding up those warning signs, let alone acting on them? 

The question of whether anything could have been done about Villi's escalating battles with his strata council, however - that one's got potential for reflection. In the event of a rock meeting a hard place, are there measures that could come into play before one or the other is smashed to bits?

Quasi-judicial system are exactly the kind of structures that attract, trap and ignite a person like Villi. I don't know how to characterize his kind of mental unwellness, but I saw so much of it in my journalism years related to courts, child custody, divorce, property disputes and bylaw breaches. 

There is a type of Angry Man who absolutely loses his mind when caught up in disputes like that. The outcome can be horrific.

There is no excuse for Villi's actions. But in the interest of not having any more strata council volunteers gunned down by raging residents, this might be a good time to scrutinize the history of the fight between Villa and his strata council. Was there a point where it became excruciatingly clear that this was shaping up to be a battle to the death?

The people who sought me out as a journalist - the ones who turned to media as part of their escalation - had not yet reached the point of murder. But I could always hear the dangerous obsession in their voice as they related their stories. 

They believed themselves to have been gravely wronged and repeatedly ignored (and in many cases, there were elements of that along the way). And now, they were pretty much on fire. 

Our quasi-judicial systems don't do well with grey. They're designed to create winners and losers, and to shut people out entirely once they have run through the processes available to them. For a particular type of Angry Man, that point seems to mark where the escalation really begins. 

Systems have to be fair, of course. Millions of Canadians co-exist peacefully with their strata councils. But any system in which one group's wishes dominates another runs the risk of a dispute moving into dangerous new territory. Having a red-alert clause and an alternative strategy before things get even uglier just seem like useful concepts.

Fathers killing their children; students killing their teachers; employees killing their bosses; tenants killing their landlords - virtually all of those terrible events generally have long back-stories of things going wrong between an increasingly angry person and systems where nobody ever steps back. They're often characterized as random acts of violence, but are rarely as random as they look.

Villi was clearly a disturbed man. He locked horns with systems that don't see their role as having to differentiate between the regular angry people and the seriously disturbed ones, and five people died. A person looking for a war met a system built to resist, and a terrible thing happened.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The crisis is now

The perfect is the enemy of the good, as Voltaire noted back in the 18th century. His wise words came to mind when I saw the Vancouver Sun's piece last week on the province's plan to fast-track 90 more modular homes in Vancouver for people living homeless.

The article quotes Danya Fast, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, cautioning that while it's urgent to act fast to create more housing, modular housing complexes can “actually deepen a sense of uncertainty in young people’s lives, especially when they’re temporary.”

Point taken, as are Liberal housing critic Karin Kirkpatrick's comments that the construction of temporary and permanent housing have to go hand in hand or you're really just warehousing people.

But for anyone toughing it out at a packed and noisy Downtown Eastside shelter or trying to survive in a tent on the street, a little warehousing through the worst of winter and beyond might sound pretty good right now.

I still remember one fellow's painfully insightful comments 13 or so years back when the City of Victoria was putting on one of its first big pushes for tackling homelessness.

We were all congratulating ourselves for a newly announced strategy that would see a certain number of units brought on each year with a focus on the hardest to house - until one of the people with lived experience who had been part of the work noted that he'd be on the street for at least another four years under the plan, if he ever qualified at all.

That stuck with me. Easy for us in our comfortable, warm homes to insist that good things take time and it's important to do things right, but what about all the people who need help tonight?

Homelessness is a crisis. We have become frightenly comfortable with the sight of people living homeless in our communities because it's been like a time-release crisis, growing and intensifying slowly over many years. But at this point, it's a full-blown, in your face crisis for virtually every BC community.

We talk about it all the time, but we also hate talking about it. We make plans to do something, but then we forget, or the government changes, or somebody says wait, I think we need to talk about this more so we don't make a mistake.

Compare those kinds of reactions to the one we'd have if 500 or 1,000 people suddenly materialized homeless and sick in our downtowns tomorrow. 

If the homelessness on our streets right now was from a natural disaster - hurricane, earthquake, big fire - we'd have jumped to it like community keeners to ensure everybody was indoors within 24 hours. 

We'd have done our best to not make mistakes but forgiven ourselves when we did, because this was an emergency and the most important thing was to get people to shelter. We'd have been creative and innovative, with stops in the system temporarily lifted so that we could get things done in a hurry.

And then we'd move to Stage 2, where we would carefully do things right. (That includes stopping the endless flow of people into first-time homelessness, which is the elephant in the room that will wipe out even the most brilliant housing strategy if we continue to ignore it.) 

After that would come Stage 3, 4, 5 or however many stages it will take to fix this daunting, multi-layered disaster of people with insecure or non-existent housing that bad policy decisions, changing times, complex societal factors and stigma have helped to create.

But for the purposes of this metaphor, we're at Stage 1 right now. We're imagining that we've just had an earthquake and it has left thousands of people all over BC needing housing tonight and for the foreseeable future. The fact that the housing won't be perfect right off is not something we'd be worrying about at this moment.

None of which is to criticize the UBC researcher for her comments. It makes total sense that feeling like you've got permanent housing is a major factor in anyone's well-being. But 90 modular homes in short order is way better news right now for the people who end up living in them than would be 90 permanent homes ready two years from now.

This is a crisis. We must act like first responders and address the most immediate problem: No place for people to live. Though just as an ambulance doesn't provide life-saving first aid only to dump a person at the roadside, we certainly can't stop there. 

Postscript: Voltaire apparently said "the best is the enemy of the good," and cited an old Italian proverb as his source. But a long-ago translation changed best into perfect in its common use.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Haters gonna hate - so don't give them the microphone

If Pierre Poilievre was just some random dude with a Twitter account and an uninformed opinion, we could just leave him to it and shrug off his ridiculous view that providing safe consumption sites and non-poisoned drugs for people "will only lead to their ultimate deaths."

Alas, he's not some random dude, he's a man who could actually end up being Canada's prime minister someday. 

So even when he tweets something stupid and wrong, the media pick it up and send it across the country. And the fact of that pickup gives his foolish musings weight among those who already hate any sensible conversation around drugs.

That particular group of people have controlled the illicit drug conversation for almost 70 years, if we want to start the clock at BC's landmark 1956 study of heroin use that largely concluded that harm reduction made a lot more sense than criminalizing users. At what point do the rest of us get to say hey, shuddup already?

BC's poisoned drug supply has killed 10,000 people in the last seven years. That's almost three times the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents, homicides, suicides and fatal prescription drug overdoses combined. 

Meanwhile, years of careful record-keeping at Canada's safer-consumption sites give us all the proof needed to conclude that such sites save lives and connect people to services. Between 2017-20, some 2.2 million people used the sites and nobody died. 

As for whether a safer drug supply would save lives, of course it would. People are not dying by the thousands because they use drugs, they're dying because the drugs they use are poisoned. 

So why should Poilievre get even a millisecond of media attention for his completely ludicrous assertion that safer-consumption sites and a safer drug supply lead only to people's "ultimate deaths"? Why do the media allow him to "reignite the debate around safe supply," as the Global TV story puts it, by giving his tweet public profile as if he was actually saying something of substance?

Granted, the media did find people to refute Poilievre as they covered the "story" of his disparaging tweet. But the damage is done when you give the guy the top third of a story to spout his harmful nonsense.

Once upon a time, I would have imagined that right-minded people would see through Poilievre's tweet in an instant and that it would have as much impact as the guy sounding off behind me in the grocery store lineup about how COVID-19 is a government conspiracy. 

But in this post-Trump era, I know otherwise. Today's idiot statement can easily end up tomorrow's political policy, because now we are "populist" and prone to taking a shine to people who are as ill-prepared as any of us when it comes to effectively running a city, province or country. We like The Everyman, even when he's a dangerous liar from the privileged class playing the long con.

I relish some day in the distant future when Poilievre's words are seen as the hate speech that they really are, and when media reporting in garden-variety fashion on such blatant untruths is viewed as complicit in the spreading of that hate. 

Many more people will die because the tweet of a man given status as a future political leader will dampen political and public enthusiasm even more for taking action on what is surely one of the most outrageous, preventable tragedies of our times. It doesn't get more hateful than that.