Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's a hard, lonely life when you're different
Feb. 15, 2008

He lives like a recluse, holed up with his snakes and lizards in his mother’s basement. Besides his brother and an outreach worker who knew him as a kid, nobody ever comes by, and that’s just fine with him: “No one can hurt me if I don’t know anyone.”
His name is Brandon and he’s 21, but that’s just a number. He’s lived way more life than that.
His story is achingly familiar to anyone working with youth on the streets. Abusive and violent childhood. Lots of problems in school. Bumped around from place to place while growing up, then handed a welfare cheque and thrust into the world at the age of 16.
He managed to hold onto an apartment for three years in spite of it all - until the landlord evicted the whole floor he lived on. Brandon couldn’t get a grip after that, and spent a miserable year on Victoria’s streets when he was 19.
He’d do just about anything not to go back - like living in his mother’s basement until he can find the money for a place where he’d maybe stand a chance of being happy. After two months of nothing, he’s at least back on disability, but it won’t be easy finding a place even so.
“There’s a lot of discrimination in rental situations,” says Brandon. “No one wants to rent to anyone under 25 if they have any options.”
He doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, but gets in fights sometimes. Outreach worker and friend Gerry Karagiannis recalls first meeting Brandon after a vicious fight between Brandon and his younger brother landed him in court.
“I developed something of a pre-emptive way of dealing with problems,” explains Brandon. “I wouldn’t be hurt if I hurt people first. It never really gets any easier not to get angry with people, so now I just don’t align myself with people anymore.”
There’s something else about Brandon that’s less tangible than his troubled childhood. Lately the doctors have taken to calling it a “non-verbal learning disorder,” but before that they used to tell Brandon he was mentally ill. A less descriptive era might have called him “different” and left it at that.
Whatever the label, it adds a whole other layer of complexity to his life - and rarely a positive one.
Take his work life, for instance. Hopelessly slow on the job, he’s got “a bit of an obsessive-compulsive thing” that often gets in his way - like the time he got bogged down at a fast-food job trying to get the lettuce exactly in the centre of each burger. “For some reason, I can’t turn a blind eye to that.”
He speaks articulately and intelligently, but can barely read. He struggles to make eye contact, and says it’s only been in the past year that he’s been able to do it at all.
The longest he’s ever held a job is three months.
“It’s discouraging to lose so many jobs consecutively. It’s hard to get up the initiative to get another one that I know I won’t keep,” says Brandon. “It’s humiliating, really.”
His dream is to own a pet store. I ask if he’d settle for working in one, but he says he tried that already, and got fired. “I’d like my own place so I could go at things in my own way.”
He’s got two pet snakes and a five-foot iguana, and there are days when they’re the only thing that keeps Brandon going: “I tell you, people won’t give THEM the time of day, either.”
Brandon appreciates that his pets never judge him. “My python is a bit of a bitter type, and I feel good that even though he’s a difficult animal to please, he likes me.”
Karagiannis works for the Child and Family Counselling Association, and officially quit working with Brandon when he turned 19. But he stayed in the young man’s life anyway. Brandon is certain he wouldn’t have gotten on disability this month without his help.
Life is not yet coming up roses, but at least it’s not quite as bad as it was. “A year ago, I was out of my mind with grief - on the street, suicidal, thinking of getting into crime for money,” Brandon notes. He’s even letting himself dream again about finding a job that lasts.
“Sometimes it’s tempting to just give up on it all and not bother, but I haven’t done that yet,” he says. “There’s got to be something I’m good at.”

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Wrong thinking on addiction stops us from solving street problems
Feb. 8, 2008

If you read my column with any regularity, you might be starting to see a theme emerging these past couple of months. As my mother has noted more than once, “All you ever write about is homelessness!”
That pretty much sums it up. With the indulgence of the good folks at the Times-Colonist, I hope to use my weekly platform to write about street issues almost exclusively for the next while.
Homelessness is one of the great tragedies of modern times. To tackle it successfully requires understanding where it comes from. I think I can play a small role in setting things right by telling the stories of the people out there.
I like to think the stories are having an effect. One woman saw her own daughter in the sad tale of my young friend Chantal. Another fellow read the story of Blaine and felt sufficiently moved to buy him a bus pass for the next three months (which, let me tell you, cheered Blaine up immensely).
But what I’m picking up in some of the reader feedback is confusion about what I’m trying to accomplish with the pieces. So allow me to set the record straight, particularly around any assumptions that my focus will be solely on “good” homeless people who don’t deserve to be on the streets.
In my opinion, nobody deserves to be on the streets. So I’m not about to sort people into “good” and “bad” categories of homelessness before deciding whether to write about them. The last thing I want to do is be yet another person sitting in judgment of people who have been judged quite enough.
The big sticking point for readers tends to be drug use. People with severe addiction are seen as “choosing” homelessness because they chose to use drugs. Living on the streets is their punishment (and ours as well in the end, although we sure have a hard time getting that).
So when I write about somebody like Blaine, he elicits sympathy because he doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. Readers liked Chantal, too, because she had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder caused by her mother drinking during pregnancy, and could therefore be deemed blameless for her many problems.
But writing about Guy Grolway and his addiction to crack cocaine brought me several admonishments from readers not to be “taken in” by his kind - that is, people who chose to use drugs and therefore deserve whatever happens to them.
Moving beyond that simplistic view of addiction is absolutely essential if we’re ever going to get a handle on what’s happening on our streets. If there’s one fundamental thing that has to change in solving the problems of homelessness, it’s the way we think about addiction.
I haven’t met an addict yet who wanted to be addicted. That others believe these poor, sick souls are choosing to remain addicted adds insult to injury, particularly given that such uninformed thinking too often governs the way we provide care for people with addictions.

You may not share my opinion on that. But here’s the thing: It’s not just my opinion. With more than a half-century of research and study under our belts, we know full well that addiction is what happens when you mix genetic predisposition, childhood circumstance, loss, pain, and readily available drugs. So why do we spare any time for the argument that it’s a moral failing?
We’re going to have to let this “choice” business go if we’re to tackle the issues of the street, because it’s tripping us up at every turn. The reason we’ve got 1,500 people on our streets in the first place is because we judged them unworthy of our help the first time round due to their “bad choices.” Just about the worst thing we can do is repeat that colossal mistake.
Getting out from under an addiction is the struggle of a lifetime. The people trying to make that tough journey need prompt and sustained help, not another pointless guilt trip about bad choices and just desserts. That kind of thinking was exactly what got us into this mess.
And what a Pyrrhic victory we’ve won. Sure, a hard lesson has been taught to all those “bad” drug users denied help, but the cost to us has been streets filled with broken people, petty crime, garbage and despair. Add up the health-care and policing costs, the crime, the mess and the lost potential of 1,500 people, and we’re throwing away $75 million a year just to maintain the disaster on our streets.
I hope you’ll keep reading my stories, but please let the judgment go. The only way to fix a problem is to see it for what it is.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Response to Janet Bagnall on prostitution

This piece of mine ran Monday, Feb. 4/08 in the Montreal Gazette. I wrote it in response to a piece by Janet Bagnall that had appeared in the Gazette the previous week. I've posted Bagnall's piece here as well, right after mine:

There was a time when I wouldn’t have questioned columnist Janet Bagnall’s recent declaration that 90 per cent of prostitutes have been forced into the work.
That’s more or less what I’d been told over the years by those who considered themselves expert in such matters. I, too, presumed most sex workers were victimized and exploited women manipulated by pimps, bad boyfriends and shady customers. Back then, news of a Vancouver sex worker’s campaign to build brothels for the Olympics likely would have incensed me as much as it did Ms. Bagnall last week.
But then I got out of the newsroom and met a few sex workers - maybe a couple of hundred all told. And I realized I had it all wrong. That 90-per-cent claim is neither true nor supported by any research.
I wrapped up a three-year stint this past summer as executive director of the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society, a grassroots non-profit in Victoria, B.C. Of the many insights I gained while running PEERS, the most powerful was that sex workers were making their own choices.
Most of the women who come to PEERS are survival sex workers, and work outdoors. Their life stories were often heartbreaking and their ongoing challenges considerable, but none would have categorized themselves as broken victims forced into the trade. Their problems tended to be the problems of any disadvantaged woman; the sex trade was simply how they paid the bills.
Why do women work as prostitutes? For the money. It’s a job, and a legal one in Canada, employing tens of thousands nationwide. But our prudish inability to come to grips with that reality is exactly what has made some aspects of the industry so dangerous.
We like to paint the sex trade as a place of violence and despair. Certainly at the street level, the nightly litany of assaults, rapes, robberies and murders noted on “bad date sheets” shared among outdoor workers in Canada’s urban centres is grim affirmation of the risks under today’s conditions.
But it’s our laws and attitudes that have created those working conditions. Women are dying and suffering out there because we’ve chased them into the shadows with our anti-solicitation laws, criminalized their incomes, and denied them a legal indoor workplace.
We categorize them as victims, but treat them like lepers. Pushed into places where we don’t have to look at them, the shunned women who end up working Canada’s outdoor strolls end up as easy pickings for predators.
Like all free markets, the sex industry exists because of demand. In Canada, our mediocre efforts to stop prostitution have focused on trying to prevent girls from entering the sex trade, but in fact we’d need to channel all our energies toward stopping the buyers if we genuinely hoped to eliminate the industry.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen little evidence of that. A street-level “shame the john” campaign surfaces now and again, but generally serves only to move the trade out of a particular neighbourhood to somewhere even more dangerous for the workers.
Most people don’t buy sex on the outdoor strolls anyway. With 80 per cent or more of prostitution in Canada taking place indoors in brothels, bars, massage parlours and dance clubs, an occasional bust on the street has little effect on anything.
Ms. Bagnall contends that “prostitution is not a job like any other.” Perhaps, but what does that have to do with a sex worker’s right to a safe workplace?
You don’t have to like the industry to see the need to make things better for those who work in it. I wish we didn’t have a weapons industry, but I’d never deny a decent workplace to people working in the munitions factories. Surely we don’t want the provision of safe, regulated workplaces for all Canadians to hinge on our opinion of their line of work.
Parts of the sex industry are truly horrendous, and must be eliminated. Trafficking, pimping, coercion, the sexual exploitation of youth - none have any place in a civil society. Those who want out of the trade should be given whatever support they need to do that.
But for the adults who choose to work in the industry, what could possibly be valid rationale for continuing to deny them a proper workplace? Like it or not, sex sells, and the real crime is that we’d rather leave women to be beaten and murdered on the streets than acknowledge that.

Jody Paterson is a columnist and communications strategist working with Victoria sex workers to develop a brothel that funds social programs for disadvantaged women in the trade.

And here's the piece that sparked my response, written by Janet Bagnall, a regular columnist with The Montreal Gazette
Published: Jan. 30, 2008

Preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics are well in hand: The Canadian Security Intelligence Service is getting ready for violence. The province of British Columbia is keeping to its tight construction schedule. And Vancouver's mayor is preparing to meet the sexual needs of tourists attending the Games.
Sam Sullivan, the mayor, has said he is keeping an open mind to a proposal by Vancouver prostitutes who want to set up several co-operative brothels in time for the Olympics. Susan Davis, a prostitute, argued last fall that the city, provincial and federal government should provide a safe working environment for prostitutes in 2010 when, she is quoted as saying, tens of thousands of visitors to the Games will be looking for sex.
This bizarre notion that laws on prostitution should be altered, even temporarily, to accommodate the sexual desires of fans at large sporting events is not unique to British Columbia.
In South Africa, the former national police commissioner proposed liberalizing the country's prostitution laws for the World Cup 2010, soccer's biggest event. The commissioner is reported to have said he wanted to follow Germany's successful -- to his mind, at least -- path.
Germany, host of the 2006 World Cup, campaigned against "forced" prostitution, based on trafficked women and children, and the head of FIFA, soccer's world body, urged soccer fans to use only prostitutes who were "voluntarily" in the business. But voluntary was hardly the order of the day, with reports that as many as 40,000 women and children were trafficked into Germany to service the tens of thousands of fans at the soccer championship.
Already in South Africa, anti-trafficking activists say there are reports of street children being gathered up in readiness for the World Cup.
Sports events like Formula 1 racing, soccer championships or the Olympic Games are a magnet for human traffickers and their customers, writes University of Ottawa sociologist Richard Poulin.
In an essay this year, Poulin criticized proposals to relax prostitution laws for sports events, whether in South Africa or Canada. (In Canada, paying for sex between consenting adults is legal, although other activities such as soliciting in a public place, being in a bawdy house or forcing a person to prostitute herself are not.)
Poulin argued that simply removing prostitution from the streets, as Vancouver's Susan Davis suggests, does not turn prostitution, the business of selling one's body to strangers, into a safe activity. In Quebec, Poulin pointed out in his essay, at least five of 14 prostitutes killed in the past decade were "call girls," working in the presumed safety of a known, private environment.
And if it's true that prostitutes are a target for serial killers, Poulin wrote, it's also true for other marginalized groups such as young gay men. Representatives of one of the most vulnerable of all groups in Vancouver, native women, are adamantly against legalizing prostitution. The Aboriginal Women's Action Network in B.C. has said that legalizing brothels will only increase the number of prostitutes.
With an estimated 90 per cent of prostitutes having been forced into the sex trade, increasing the number of prostitutes is not a good idea. Research shows that the vast majority of prostitutes have been trafficked or been sexually victimized in their homes or suffer from drug addiction.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Daisy Kler, a social worker with Vancouver Rape Relief, said the proposal for a network of legal brothels "entrenches prostitution as legitimate, and therefore legitimatizes pimps and traffickers." Kler added, "I do not believe the public would agree that this is a good idea, to have some disposable women available for the Olympics."
Prostitution is not a job like any other. It can't possibly be: One person pays to use another's body for his own gratification.
Allowing, never mind endorsing, this activity poses, as Poulin writes, "serious ethical questions in a country that pretends to encourage equality between men and women."
That country should be ours.

Janet Bagnall writes for the Montreal Gazette.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Crack cocaine a fast ride down
Feb. 1, 2008

Guy Grolway and I came across each other at a bus stop near City Hall one morning a couple weeks ago - me looking for someone out there who felt like talking, him taking in the morning before another day on the streets set in.
He’s 57, and up until a couple years ago was making good money as a heavy-equipment operator in Fort McMurray. But then he met a woman - and soon after, crack cocaine. And wouldn’t you know it, crack cocaine was the one that stuck around.
“I came to this city from the Ottawa valley 35 years ago with nothing, and two years ago found myself like I started,” says Grolway. “There’s a lesson to be taught from all of this: Never get involved in crack.”
Grolway has been a drug user all his life. Marijuana first, starting at age 11. Cigarettes at 12. Crystal meth at 13: “My best friend put a needle in my arm and I woke up seven years later.” Then cocaine, for most of his adult life, but never so much that he couldn’t hold down a good job and keep a roof over his head.
Cocaine can be injected, snorted, or smoked as “crack” - a diluted but more addictive form of the drug. You wouldn’t think method would matter in terms of the impact on someone’s life.
But when Grolway switched from snorting powdered cocaine to smoking crack a couple years ago - mostly out of curiosity after seeing his new girlfriend do it - he ruefully discovered that at least for him, it mattered a lot.
“I started recreational use of crack, and within three or four months knew that THIS wasn’t recreation,” recalls Grolway. “I was totally out of control and spending every last time dime, including the rent money.”
He lost his house five months ago, and his girlfriend soon after. Like him, she’s now on the streets, passing the time chasing crack cocaine.
There’s only one day a month - Welfare Wednesday - when Grolway actually has the $1,000 he’s capable of spending on a single jag. But not a day goes by when he isn’t on the hunt for crack, even just a “hoot” from a friend.
“The thing with crack is that you’re never, ever going to get what you want. It’s not there,” says Grolway. “All that’s there is heavy addiction, paranoia, flailing, loss of control of your body.
“You’ll be up 10 or 12 days without sleep, and then you’ll finally crash and sleep for three days. But to shake that hangover - it takes the life right out of you - you’re going to go looking for more. Then it just spirals into this cycle: Buy it, sell it, middle it - whatever you need to do to be able to afford at least some of your habit.”
I ask Grolway what prevents him from turning his life around. There are some obvious ones: No place to detox. No place to live while he tries to clean up. No ability to find and keep work in the meantime.
“But there’s something else. I can’t get something straight up here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Something has happened, like a short circuit.
“A lot of us out here have hepatitis-C, and that alone can cause confusion. But then you add in the stress of no money, the police always harassing you, the drugs you’re using - there’s just so many issues to deal with. It’s almost like we missed the train, and it’s not coming back.”
Like most people on the streets, Grolway doesn’t like all his problems being on display in the busy downtown. But every “hidey hole” has been locked up, gated, mowed down or otherwise done away with by fed-up merchants and city cleanup crews trying to get a grip on the mess of homelessness.
“They’re only making the problems worse,” he says. “There’s nowhere to go anymore. We’re living where rats wouldn’t live.”
Grolway suspects people on the streets will eventually band together in their misery, and some will turn to violence. Politicians may be “hoping the problem just goes away,” but he sees new faces arriving every day.
“I just hope they come up with some kind of resolve soon,” he says. “If you were to go down a dead-end road 20 or 30 times, you would think that you’d start to see by this point that it was time to go down a different road.”