Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jan. 25, 2008
Now's time to push door wide open on homelessness

They say that the darkest hours are just before the dawn. Boy, I hope so.
I’m essentially an optimist. But 26 years in journalism has also immersed me in the real world, where happy endings are far from a given. I now consider myself a pessimistic optimist - still hopeful, but all too aware of this world’s frailties.
In terms of homelessness, I admit to having wondered in the last couple of years just how dark things would have to get before something finally happened. Pretty damn dark, as it turns out.
But is that a sliver of light I see on the horizon? This week, for instance, the province announced new money to house and shelter 170 people living on or near the streets in Victoria. I’m also hearing good things about BC Housing - that the Crown corporation is working hard to get some action going around new housing.
Not that it’s the dawn of a new day or anything quite so dramatic as that. But I do get the feeling we’re starting to notice we’ve got a full-blown provincial emergency on our hands, and that maybe it’s time to start treating homelessness like the disaster that it is.
News of more housing is a welcome development. So is word that the Vancouver Island Health Authority has created specialized outreach teams, which have proven their worth several times over in cities that have launched them.
Money from the business sector is flowing into a number of important social initiatives in the downtown. Other municipalities in the region are joining the struggle, an acknowledgement that the crisis simply can’t be borne by the City of Victoria alone. I’m hearing talk of a few more detox beds.
Still, without raining on anyone’s parade, it’s vital to recognize that we’ve barely begun.
This week’s housing announcement provides roughly a tenth of what’s actually needed to put a roof over the heads of all 1,500 people on our streets. It does nothing to stem the flow of a couple hundred or more new adults and children to the streets every year, because what fixes that is more help and support for people long before they make that final fall to the street.
Some have tried to frame homelessness as a political issue, but in fact B.C.’s problems exemplify that homelessness can happen under any party’s watch. Here in B.C., it took root under the Socreds, gained ground under the New Democrats, and blossomed like a bad weed under the Liberals.
So we needn’t waste any more time pointing fingers, and we certainly shouldn’t be waiting for an election to solve anything. What we need to do now is get on with it.
Hospitals were closed. Cheap housing was no longer built. Welfare benefits were slashed to the bone. Children with a lifetime of problems were pushed out into the world with no support. Governments got out of the business of helping citizens without even considering the long-term impact of withdrawing care from those who needed it.
In short, the country got leaner and meaner, and the gaps got wider for people who weren’t able to keep up. Now, we’re in a very bad way. We’re going to have to act boldly - like we would if 1,500 people in our community suddenly ended up homeless.
If an earthquake were to put that many people out of their homes, we’d be opening up the schools and filling up the empty buildings in a heartbeat. Why aren’t we? How is it we can contemplate a string of Atco trailers as temporary housing for Whistler employees during the Olympics, yet be unwilling to do the same just as readily for people living on our streets?
Announcements like the one this week would have to be happening weekly for the next two months just to house the people who are currently living on our streets. So we also need to go big. Our actions need to match the size of the problem - and it’s significant.
The time is now. We’ve got a city mayor on his way out who will want to leave a legacy. We’ve got a buzz coming out of the ongoing efforts of the Mayor’s Task Force, and a lot of smart business types moving in on the scene.
The provincial government wants things to be nice for the Olympics. The feds are way overdue to do something great for B.C. In short, the stars have aligned.
Push, people. I’ve put together contact information on this issue for all levels of government that makes for easy letter-writing - you can find it here on my blog in the post just below this one.
Jan. 27, 2008 - Contact information for government officials

Want to get something happening around homelessness? Here's a whole lot of contact information that will direct you to the right government officials to receive a letter at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Letters still count for a lot in the world of politics, and we're sure to get noticed if lots of people write lots of letters on this issue. '

All info in the list is current as of today's date, but keep in mind that cabinet shuffles and elections can change things in the months to come.

Write on!


You’ll want to target your letters about homelessness - if the issue you are pressing in a particular letter is housing, write to the housing minister; if mental illness and addiction, write to the health minister; if welfare, to Employment and Income Assistance, etc.
You can also write letters directly to the premier and his deputy minister. But even when your letters are directed to a different minister, be sure to CC the premier and his DM every time. This will ensure that the premier’s office sees every letter on the subject, while allowing you to direct them to other ministers at the same time.
Keep letters short - I’d suggest one page maximum - and respectful, but relentless. Use facts whenever you can find them - the mayor’s report has a ton and is on-line at, under “What’s New.” Hard copies are also available at City Hall. Let’s do it!
Victoria BC

Jessica McDonald, Deputy Minister to the Premier (assistant’s e-mail)
Victoria BC

** If Murray Coell or Ida Chong is the MLA for your riding, write letters directly to them as a constituent and CC them on all letters. They are cabinet ministers in the current government:

Murray Coell
PO Box 9059, Stn Prov Govt,
Victoria BC

Ida Chong
Victoria BC


Minister of Housing - Rich Coleman

P.O. Box 9049
Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC

Deputy Minister Doug Konkin (Housing is in the Forests portfolio)

BC Housing (Crown Corporation)
Vancouver Island Region
Regional Director Roger Butcher
Suite 301 - 3440 Douglas Street
Victoria BC V8Z 3L5



Minister of Employment and Income Assistance- Claude Richmond
PO Box 9058 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC

Deputy Minister Cairine MacDonald (no e-mail available)
PO Box 9934 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC


Minister of Children and Family Development - Tom Christiansen
PO Box 9057 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC

Deputy Minister Lesley Du Toit (pronounced dew-toy)

Minister of State for Child Care - Linda Reid
PO Box 9062 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC

Issues of law and order (e.g. safe streets, policing)

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General - John Les
P.O. Box 9053, Stn Prov Govt

Deputy Minister David Morhart (no e-mail available)

PO Box 9290


Write frequently to the mayor and council of the municipality you live in to ask them to report to you specific actions they’ve undertaken that month to reduce homelessness and related issues in our region - affordable and subsidized housing, addiction, mental health support, family well-being. If they tell you that x will be done within y time frame, monitor and hold them to it.

Find your municipal contacts here:


When writing federally, you are writing as a constituent, so first find out which of the following three MPs represent your riding and then direct letters to that one:

Gary Lunn
9843 Second Street
Sidney, British Columbia
V8L 3C7

Keith Martin or
666 Granderson Road
Victoria, British Columbia
V9B 2R8

Denise Savoie:
970 Blanshard Street
Victoria, British Columbia
V8W 2H3

CC all federal letters to the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hard fall to streets after lifetime of working
Jan. 18, 2008

Not even 18 months ago, all of this would have been unimaginable. He’d been 10 years at the same job, and 10 years in the same apartment. He’d never had problems finding work.
But then came the fateful day in October 2006, when Blaine got into a heated discussion with his boss over whether he deserved a raise. It turned into a fight, and Blaine got fired.
It took him a scant six months to blow through what little savings he had. Six months to wear out the patience of his long-time landlord. Six months to discover that nobody wanted to hire him anymore, and to end up homeless for the first time in his life.
It’s been a humiliating and hard ride down. He’s found a little work here and there, but a 52-year-old guy with health problems just isn’t the first pick for the kind of jobs he’s experienced in: truck-driving for the most part, and jobs with moving companies. He recently found out he’s got diabetes and vascular problems, which are causing so many problems with his legs that he can barely walk a block.
“Who’s going to hire me when they see me come in limping?” asks Blaine. “They take one look at me and say, ‘HOW old are you?’ Ninety per cent of the time, that’s what happens. It’s discrimination, but what can I do about it?”
Add in a home address at the Salvation Army shelter, and things go from bad to worse. “People see 525 Johnson St. on your application, and they immediately figure there must be something wrong with you.”
Blaine fought hard to collect unemployment insurance after he got fired, but lost that battle. So he spent what savings he had and got himself on income assistance. His monthly cheque is $610, with $550 of it paid to the Salvation Army for room and board.
That leaves him $60 for the month. That won’t even buy a bus pass, so Blaine doesn’t roam too far afield anymore, especially with his poor circulation. I come across him standing on the sidewalk outside the Salvation Army, and he later tells me that’s where he passes most of his time.
“I wander back and forth in front of the place, maybe lie down in my room for a while. There ain’t much else I can do, because the farther I walk the more my leg aches,” says Blaine. “I don’t really want to be here, but I’ve got no choice.”
He’s grateful for his room at the Salvation Army, but it’s not exactly home. If he stretches out both arms, he can almost reach from one side of his room to the other, and the length of it can’t be much more than five metres. There’s no room for any of his stuff - stashed at a friend’s house and in danger of being tossed if he can’t find somewhere else for it soon.
Still, it’s a roof over his head, and beats the dorm rooms with 20 other guys where he first found shelter after losing his apartment. Those early days were rough for Blaine: “It was hard to adjust. You’re so scared that you don’t know what to think, and in those dorm rooms you’re pretty much on your own to work things out with whoever else is in there.”
He learned to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. Things have been better since he got his own room, but he feels guilty knowing that the reason that happened so quickly is because the man who used to have his room got kicked out for using drugs. “I know the guy, and things aren’t going good for him.”
Every now and then Blaine lands some work, but even that just seems to complicate things. For instance, he earned $60 a few months back, so now his welfare cheque is being cut by $20 for the next three months. It’s killing him.
His goal at the moment is to get himself on disability, which would at least let him earn up to $500 a month without any government clawbacks. It would also qualify him for subsidized housing, or at least a place on the wait list.
I ask him about his family, and he says he has two grown sons living in Alberta. They come to the Island once in a while to snowboard, but don’t visit him often. “I’m proud of both of them, but I don’t see them much,” he says.
When I ask about his efforts to find work, he starts to cry. He says the staff at Spectrum Job Search Centre know him as the guy who’s “always coming in” to see what jobs are available.
But the work he gets never seems to last for long, and the phone doesn’t ring very often. And so he logs another day on the sidewalk outside the Salvation Army, watching the world go by.
“It’s real weird to find myself in this situation, real weird,” says Blaine. “But I can’t do nothing about it except try to move on. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why won't we help sex workers before they're dead?
Jan. 11, 2008

We spent $20 million to gather enough evidence to charge Willy Pickton with murder. We spent another $46 million to convict him.
And I guess we’ll just have to take Attorney General Wally Oppal’s word that we may need to spend many millions more to try Pickton all over again - for zero gain, seeing as the mass murderer has already been handed the maximum sentence for his crimes against B.C. women.
But what a difference the smallest fraction of all that money could have made in changing the lives of the broken women Pickton preyed upon. Why is it we have money for the desperate women working our streets only after they’re dead?
With the prison gates barely closed on Pickton, another serial killer has already emerged in the Lower Mainland. In Edmonton, where 20 survival sex workers have been murdered in the past two decades, police have begun collecting DNA samples from other street workers to make it easier to identify them should they, too, turn up dead.
While Pickton was on trial this summer and media were feasting on the sad stories of his victims, two of the three non-profits that help Vancouver’s survival sex workers nearly went under due to a lack of funding.
During the 10 years it took us to decide whether we should even worry about scores of missing women on our streets, and on through three years of investigations and court proceedings, countless women working B.C.’s rough streets continued to be beaten, raped and killed.
With all due respect to the families of Pickton’s victims, what has been gained? One man is behind bars for the rest of his life, but virtually nothing has changed for hundreds - maybe thousands - of survival sex workers in B.C. And the best our attorney general can come up with is a plan to retry the same guy.
“Will the Pickton case change things for sex workers?” I lost track of the number of times media asked me that last year when the trial was on, and I was executive director of Victoria’s Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society.
A few asked if I thought women would “be more careful” now, perhaps even quit working the streets. That they could even ask that underlined for me how little they understood about why those women were out there.
It should be no mystery by now, not after all these years of talk, talk and more talk about the dangerous lives of street-level sex workers.
The bottom line is that they need money, and it’s available on the streets. In Victoria alone, 300 or so different women and children will work our streets in a typical year; on any given night, as many as 30 women work the strolls along Rock Bay and Government streets. They wouldn’t be out there if no one was buying them.
That was one of the most gut-wrenching realizations I had in my time at PEERS: that there’s so much demand for paid sex that no level of disability, poor health or tragic circumstance is enough to render a woman unfit for the sex trade from the buyer’s point of view.
What might be done to bring about real change? In the grand scheme of things, not much - which is what makes the whole matter that much more tragic.
For the women out there right now: supported housing; addiction treatment; care that meets their needs; a safer place to work. I can’t fathom why we deny them that.
For the women and children still to come: loving, healthy families; help with life’s challenges; educational support. The child at risk of becoming a survival sex worker - or one of the twisted men who prey on them - needs only what anyone needs to grow into a happy, healthy adult.
To stop men from buying sex outdoors on the streets - and it does need to stop - the answer will ultimately be increased police enforcement.
But all the other details must be attended to first. Enforcement alone will never get to the root of the problem, and in fact can make things considerably worse for outdoor sex workers by forcing them into ever-more isolated neighbourhoods.
PEERS Vancouver - the agency that lost eight of its 11 staff members in the summer after Ottawa pulled the plug on two of its key programs - is seeing that scenario play out right now on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. A police crackdown on the street trade is pushing sex workers even deeper into the shadows, where they’re that much more vulnerable to men like Willy Pickton.
Obviously we need to continue to chase down killers, even at great cost. But surely we should first and foremost be trying to help women while they’re still alive. The families of Pickton’s victims would undoubtedly trade retribution in a heartbeat for the services and support that might have saved their loved ones in the first place.
In the grim little news segment this week about the two Abbotsford murders, the news anchor commented that “advocates are hoping their deaths will spur change.” Unfortunately, hope alone just won’t cut it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Life can be lonely for people with mental illness
Jan. 4, 2008

I have a layman’s understanding at best about mental illness as a medical condition, but years of experience in how it plays out in real life.
You meet a lot of people living with mental illness when you work in the media. Those in the throes of an acute stage of illness often think their only hope is to get their story out there. So I’ve had many conversations with people carrying that label, and made a lot of shifts in my thinking as a result.
The more I’ve seen of mental illness, the less certain I am of what it is. But I do know it’s a damn difficult thing to live with, particularly in a world with little time for anyone who can’t keep up. It can also mean a life of terrible loneliness.
I’ve had a dear friend for about six years now who has been a remarkable tutor for me, including waiting patiently for probably the first two years of our acquaintanceship while I worked my way clear of defining her only by her illness.
With five decades of personal experience with the local mental-health system, she’s also a fount of knowledge, having lived through the gamut - from the locked-up, drugged-up days through to the group hugs of the 1970s, then on into the lean, mean 1990s and beyond. Her stories captivate me.
You’ll hear people tossing around that line about how we’re all one paycheque away from homelessness, but that really is true for people with major mental illness. However much effort they put into being well, it’s never going to be easy, and many will struggle for a lifetime to find the love and friendships that sustain the rest of us.
Worse still, anyone with serious and chronic illness has no choice but to rely on governmen to help keep their head above water. That’s a risky proposition at the best of times, but especially challenging in a period when governments are eager to shirk the responsibilities of caring for people.
Well over half of the people living on Victoria’s streets are mentally ill, and thousands more are living so close to the streets that one more bad break is all it’s going to take. My friend was in that latter group once and still would be were it not for all the hard-won things in her life that keep her well - good housing, good care, good friends.
But it’s a tough life just the same. Just ask Sharon Johnston, another woman with bipolar disorder who recently vented to me over a cup of coffee.
Like my friend, Johnston has an affordable place to live thanks to a mental-health rent subsidy. But the subsidy is slowly being whittled down - from $270 a month once upon a time to $225 now, and soon to $200. Those are big changes for someone on a disability cheque, and she’s scared and angry about them.
On and off a laundry list of medications through her 20-plus years of mental illness, she’s frustrated at not being able to afford the nutritional supplements she’d rather be taking. She’s worn out from counting every dime.
But Johnston’s real complaint on this day is not so much about shrinking subsidies and medical merry-go-rounds, but about a community that just won’t let her in. She feels it most poignantly at times like Christmas, when her acquaintances retreat into the comfort of their own families and she’s reminded of how very alone she really is.
“I may be warm and comfortable in a restaurant right now, but in society I’ve been homeless and out in the cold just the same,” says Johnston, 45.
We all need to feel connected, and for people with mental illness I think that is often the critical difference between who falls to the streets and who doesn’t. But a sense of self-worth - of purpose - is also vital.
For my friend, it comes through art, which has helped her through some of the most chaotic periods of her life. It feeds her soul even when everything else is going sideways.
Johnston uses music to manage, having played trombone for many years and studied music at university. “At this time of year, I always make sure I’ve got my guitar and trombone close at hand,” she says.
On this particular day, Johnston is angry at the world, but acknowledges that’s part of her illness. She knows her intensity tends to scare people away, which in turn just leaves her feeling even more isolated and angry.
She’s working on a gentler persona. “I’m telling myself that the trombone doesn’t always have to play double forte,” she jokes. “It can also play quietly and sensitively.”
She’s grateful for the Friends of Music, a non-profit that brings together people with mental illness to make music, and for friends at church. One of them gave her a necklace of tiny Christmas lights, which she shows me with pride. But she desperately wants friendships that extend beyond “a quick hi-bye” at the Sunday morning service.
“I do have some good people in my life, but they go away. I need people who could take me out for coffee now and then, or just pass some time,” says Johnston. “I feel like I always have to be working so hard just to stay happy.”