Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Welfare outreach puts workers where the homeless are
May 23, 2008

Wendy Sinke remembers wishing the cameras were there one rainy afternoon a few months into her new job.
She was on a downtown sidewalk, balancing an umbrella over her homeless client’s scooter so he and her laptop wouldn’t get wet while he filled out the income-assistance forms she’d brought him. Sinke figures a photo would have been worth a thousand words at that moment as a symbol of changing times.
An outreach worker with the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (MEIA), Sinke is part of a new government strategy that ends years of trying to get everyone off income assistance, and instead aims to get a few more on it. The program was launched on the Island last fall after highly successful pilots on the streets of a few small B.C. towns two years ago.
Sinke works with Victoria’s new multi-disciplinary outreach team, which grew out of the 2007 Mayor’s Task Force report on homelessness. Her role on the team is to find people living on the streets who ought to be on income assistance, and make it happen.
Most of the people she’s dealing with have mental illness. Many have a deep and long-standing distrust of government. The major challenge is in developing that trust, says Sinke.
“I definitely don’t go around announcing, ‘Hi, I’m Wendy from the government,’” says Sinke. “Even when I get them on income assistance, they may not always know I’m with MEIA.”
MEIA has had outreach offices for 12 years, including the Downtown Outreach Service on Cormorant Street. But what’s new about Sinke and her co-workers is that they’re now going out to find people rather than just waiting to be found, and speeding them through the process.
The ministry’s outreach workers have also been given more flexibility around policy - an essential change in terms of working successfully with folks who wouldn’t be able to make their way through the system otherwise.
If somebody doesn’t have identification, for instance - a universal problem for those living in the chaos of the streets - Sinke can not only help them fill out the application forms, but offers to keep their ID safe at her office if they want. She can even skip the ID requirement altogether if a street-serving agency can verify who the person is.
“A group of outreach workers meet every Monday morning, and everybody there knows the street clients,” says Sinke. “So if someone from that group calls to tell me that John Smith is in their office right now and could I come down, I’ll be pretty darn sure that’s John Smith.”
B.C. income assistance is divided into two portions, one for shelter and the other for support. Until they find housing, people living on the streets can’t qualify for the shelter portion - currently $375 a month for a single person. But they can collect $235 a month in support, and up to $532 if they’re considered disabled.
Sinke divvies up her clients’ monthly stipends into weekly payments if they request it, which helps them make their money last while also avoiding the month-end welfare spending splurge known on the streets as “Mardi Gras.”
Sinke’s previous job was working at the Victoria Transition House. That gave her an understanding of societal prejudices as relevant for people on the streets as they are for women fleeing domestic violence. Why a person can’t find their own way off the street is as complex a problem as why a woman stays with an abusive spouse, she notes.
With people on the streets slowly becoming more aware of MEIA’s outreach program, the next big challenge is to make sure service providers know about it, says Sinke.
Under pressure from two consecutive governments, B.C.’s income-assistance caseload as a percentage of the population has fallen by two-thirds since 1995 - from nine per cent of British Columbians to three per cent. Service providers have understandably come to believe that many clients don’t stand much chance of qualifying.
But things have changed, says Sinke: “Unless you’re 18 and fresh out of high school, there are enough exemptions now that nobody needs to be denied.”
The changes are small but significant, and urgently needed as part of the strategy for ending homelessness. Sinke sees the proof of that in her caseload files: In the last five months alone, she’s helped find housing for 12 of her clients.
“These were absolute street people, with long histories of living on the streets. Many of them didn’t even want housing when I first met them,” says Sinke. “That just shows how well this program works.”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Do you know where your laws are?
May 16, 2008

By the end of May, hundreds of new and amended laws will take effect in B.C., almost none of which have been given any public scrutiny.
In a scant three months, the provincial government has hustled 18 bills into law. At least another six are expected to be passed by the time the legislature recesses for the summer at the end of this month.
The bills affect hundreds of regulations from dozens of acts. The proposed Wills, Estates and Succession Act, for instance, has 276 regulations. The Public Health Act has 161. The Miscellaneous Amendments Act incorporates changes to 29 other acts.
Unless you’ve got considerably more time than me for a self-directed, regulation-by-regulation comparison of the changes, you and I remain equally in the dark as to what they are, the impact they’ll have or the rationale behind them.
Many are little more than housekeeping, of course, and others are welcome news. It’s great to hear of new laws protecting military reservists’ jobs back home when they’re sent to war.
But a number of curiosities and concerns are hidden under the mountain of words as well. Whether or not the bills ultimately make it through in the waning days of this legislative session, surely British Columbians at least deserve the chance to mull things over before new laws are brought into effect.
For instance, how was it decided that if a person dies within five days of a spouse who died first, that in fact it’s as if the second death happened first in terms of sorting out whose will takes precedent? (That bill has since been scrapped.) What will it mean to be required to launch an additional claim on behalf of government from this point on when we sue someone who has injured us? Is it good that the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Animals will be effectively immune from lawsuits?
Those were just a few of the questions to cross my mind during the briefest of perusals of the 43 bills on the docket right now (http://www.leg.bc.ca/38th4th/votes/progress-of-bills.htm). What might be revealed by a truly thorough review?
Certainly some of the proposed changes to the Election Act ought to give us pause, as they’ll disenfranchise an estimated five per cent of potential voters - some 170,000 people. The revised act prevents people from voting unless they have a home address and the government-issued, photo ID to prove it.
Obviously, those changes will be felt disproportionately by poor people: those living on the streets; people who can’t afford ID; people who change residences frequently.
I doubt the government deliberately set out to disenfranchise this group of people, and was more likely just seeking a cheap and easy way to cut down on the outdated information and numerous wrong addresses on B.C.’s official voters’ list.
But New Democrat MLA Rob Fleming rightly notes that unintended or not, the fact that people will be disenfranchised can hardly come as a surprise to the province given all the heated debate on the same point that preceded a similar bill at the federal level that became law last year. (That law is now being challenged in court.)
What particularly offends me is the government’s attempt in the media to portray the residency changes as a response to concerns raised by Elections BC. Read the 2006-07 annual report of Elections BC and you’ll see the lie of that.
The agency in fact recommended that more effort be made to register voters, given that almost half of eligible British Columbians don’t vote. In the 2005 election, Elections BC staff visited 125 shelters in the province specifically to sign up homeless voters.
You could make an argument that requiring voters to have ID listing their current address is necessary to prevent fraud. But as the Elections BC annual report also points out, there’s no fraud going on.
The agency combed through the 1.7 million votes cast in the 2005 provincial election and deemed 44 of them worthy of more investigation. But all they found when they took a deeper look were confused elderly people, mistakes by Elections BC staff, and a few folks who were too sick to know they’d made a mistake.
“Election BC’s conclusion is that there was no intention to vote fraudulently,” concluded the report.
The essence of a society is contained in its laws, and nothing is more important than getting those laws right. Governments simply can’t be allowed to define new law without our oversight and involvement.
Time to speak up, folks. Write to Premier Gordon Campbell at premier@gov.bc.ca; Attorney General Wally Oppal through his assistant at gail.c.dawson@gov.bc.ca; and to your local MLA (http://www.leg.bc.ca/Mla/3-1-1.htm). Exercise your democratic rights before they’re gone for good.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Homeless needle exchange hits road for better or worse
May 9, 2008

We’re about to become the first major city in Canada to pull the plug on its needle exchange, without a clue what will happen as a result.
As of the end of May, the region’s largest needle exchange will close its doors on Cormorant Street and begin a mobile service. The business of exchanging as many as 2,000 needles a day will be done on the street from that point on.
What’s the rationale? There isn’t one. It’s just what happens when the chips are left to fall where they may. The needle exchange is going mobile not because it’s an effective strategy on any front, but simply because no place can be found for it.
Greater Victoria has had a needle exchange for almost 20 years, operated by AIDS Vancouver Island. You’d never know it from the hand-wringing and hysteria that has accompanied any mention of the exchange this past year or two, but once upon a time the exchange had neighbours who actually wrote letters supporting it, and a day-care centre right across the street.
Those days are long gone, and for reasons that have little to do with the needle exchange itself.
Most notably, the number of people using the needle exchange has increased dramatically - from 500 clients in 1996 to more than 1,500 today, with no concurrent increase in funding. Up until a small lift last fall in the midst of a community uproar over Cormorant Street, the exchange had been juggling triple the number of clients with the same staffing levels as a decade ago.
The drugs have changed as well, says AVI communications co-ordinator Andrea Langlois. More mellow drugs like heroin have given way to intense ones like cocaine and crystal meth, which can crank up negative behaviours in users due to the way they affect brain chemicals.
Both of those drugs are also injected far more frequently by addicted users - sometimes 20 or more times a day. That has increased traffic at the exchange.
Then there’s just the sheer volume of people out there. The number of people living on the streets has grown fivefold since the exchange moved into its current Cormorant Street location in 2001. With most other services closed up at night, the exchange evolved into a place where the street community could hang out.
No surprise, then, that the neighbours gradually worked themselves into a fury over the discarded needles, garbage and steady stream of sick, scabby people they were seeing outside their doors. The owner of the building that housed the exchange gave AVI notice last fall that the service had to go.
Months of fruitless searching for another location followed. There was a plan to move the exchange into a Pandora Avenue building next to Our Place drop-in, but that fell through after alarmed parents from a private school a couple blocks away nixed the move. With the May 31 eviction date now looming, AVI has no choice but to go mobile.
It’s a most peculiar development for a region that really can’t afford any more evidence of the social decay in its core. Up until now, we’ve had one needle exchange; now we’ll have one wherever AVI’s van stops. What’s our plan for when those neighbourhoods inevitably start to complain?
Langlois is especially worried about the clients who like to maintain a low profile - the ones who stop by every night after work to pick up a needle or two.
They’re not going to want to risk being identified by having to make their exchange in a public place, especially if TV camera crew decide to make a big deal out of following the van on its route. The opportunity to connect clients with other services - including detox and treatment - will also be lost when the exchange goes mobile.
“We really don’t know how successful we’ll be in maintaining the number of needles exchanged once we’re mobile,” says Langlois, adding that if the number of exchanges drops off, “there’s potential for an epidemic of hepatitis-C in this city.”
The needles may be what bring people through the door, says Steve Bradley, a Christian outreach worker and recovering addict who used to run a support group at the exchange. But it’s the support and sense of connection that people get while there that can change their lives, he notes. Without it, there’s no way out.
“You close the needle exchange, you’re going to see crime downtown increasing,” predicts Bradley. “We can’t afford to lose that place.”
Got a widemouth plastic water bottle to throw out in the wake of the bisphenol-A scare? Drop it off at the needle exchange this month - they’ll hand the bottles out to clients as “sharps” containers for needle disposal.

Friday, May 02, 2008

We shine at solving non-problems
May 2, 2008

Our water bottles are safe once more, thanks to a federal response so speedy and decisive that you could almost believe a new day was dawning in Canada.
In less than a year, bisphenol A went from a chemical that few Canadians had heard of to one of the most talked about and roundly condemned toxins in the country. Were it not for my ongoing frustration at our penchant to rally around obscure concerns, I’d take last month’s BPA ban as a heartening sign that our federal government can still rally to a cause if it needs to.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure the world will be a better place without bisphenol A. It’s OK with me that we’ve banned the stuff. But in terms of tackling the issues that really ail us in this country and around the world, a ban on BPA gets us exactly nowhere.
North American scientists have actually known about the more unsettling aspects of the man-made chemical for more than 70 years. The media didn’t have much to say on the topic until about a decade ago, however, and only really got an appetite for it in the past year. Of the 115 stories on BPA that have collectively run in B.C. newspapers over the years, 100 of them have been in the last year.
If you haven’t heard - although I can’t imagine that - BPA is a chemical used in the manufacturing of hard plastic and epoxies. Researchers first identified it as an “estrogen mimic” way back in the 1930s. Men working in plastics factories can develop breasts from breathing in BPA fumes day after day.
BPA exposure is thought to put people at greater risk of hormone-related diseases like breast and prostate cancer. It’s also been linked to smaller penis size in infants.
Not good. But as a priority for public health, this loud fussing about BPA exposure is really just noisy distraction from the things that are actually killing us in this country.
The government wants us to believe it’s making the planet a little safer for all of us by banning toxins like BPA. But if that’s the case, how is it that truly disastrous toxins such as tobacco and alcohol remain readily available? Could it have something to do with the $14 billion a year in tax revenue generated through the sale of cigarettes and booze?
Smoking accounts for more than a fifth of all deaths in Canada. Alcohol-related harms cost us $14.6 billion annually. Consumption of either toxin over a lifetime is associated with all kinds of cancers, organ damage, heart and lung problems, and chronic health issues. Together, tobacco and alcohol use account for most of the burden of disease, death and disability in Canada.
BPA is used in the manufacture of plastic baby bottles, something which no doubt helped make it an “It” issue. But if it’s children and youth we’re worried about, why don’t we do something to protect the nearly 400 babies born each year in Canada with the lifelong brain damage caused by a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy - and the untold thousands who go undiagnosed? How come suicide is a leading cause of death for Canadians ages 15 to 24, and we don’t even talk about it?

Facts and figures around BPA-related harms are far less certain. Studies of the chemical’s toxic properties have generally involved rats, which were either injected with BPA or had BPA implants placed in their brains. That doesn’t much resemble the way humans ingest the chemical, so it’s difficult to draw parallels.
Nor do rats and humans respond the same way to toxins. Even the rats aren’t responding uniformly to BPA exposure; some don’t react to the chemical at all, and researchers are calling for more study to sort that out. In the meantime, we just don’t know the effects of low-dose BPA exposure on people’s health.
Again, that’s not to say that we should keep the stuff around. If we don’t need it, why use it? But at the risk of sounding cynical, what I conclude from Canada’s rush to ban BPA is that the plastics industry must not have much of a lobby, and that the media hullabaloo leading up to the ban certainly did a fine job of distracting us from all the other things Ottawa isn’t doing.
But please, drink deeply from your new BPA-free water bottle, and take what comfort you can from the knowledge that an uncertain and possibly non-existent threat to your health has been avoided. As for the real killers, they’re still out there.
Pick a project to move us off the "stuckness"
April 25, 2008

We’ve got the motivation. We’ve got the ideas. We’ve certainly got the money, and all the knowledge we need to fix the problems taking root on B.C. streets.
So why don’t we? That’s the million-dollar question - or the $852-million question to be more precise, which is roughly what it costs British Columbians every year to ride herd on the 15,500 people living on our streets. With the Olympics a mere two years away at this point, I would have expected urgency tinged with panic to have reached the highest levels by now, and yet it never seems to.
Richard LeBlanc calls it “stuckness.” He should know, given the challenges he has faced trying to set up a therapeutic community on the old Woodwynn farm in Central Saanich (http://www.createhomefulness.com/home).
“There’s a grand stuckness in Victoria,” says LeBlanc, who I first got to know several years ago through his highly successful Youth Employment Program. “We need to pick a project like Woodwynn - or any project, really - to get through it. Let’s pick one we feel passionate about and get past this.”
LeBlanc says he has been overwhelmed with support for his project, modelled after Italy’s famous San Patrignano therapeutic community. He recalled one two-minute trip through an office building that turned into a 45-minute meander due to so many people stopping him along the way to tell him how much they supported what he was doing.
Central Saanich council dealt the project a significant blow in February by nixing institutional or residential use of the property before LeBlanc had even presented to council. But LeBlanc would rather sort that challenge out than go find another piece of land - a lengthy and potentially futile process at the best of times in our region, and a major contributor to stuckness.
“If not here, where? If not now, when?” asks LeBlanc. “If you pick a new property, nine to 12 months from now we’ll be finished with due diligence and be back in the exactly same place as we are right now - and a year later.”
LeBlanc and I got chatting about Woodwynn a couple weeks ago over coffee with Ray Howard, who’d brought us together to talk about his own dream to do something with the five decommissioned BC ferries that are coming out of service in September. Howard wants to use them as floating treatment centres for people with addictions, and even has a low-profile spot picked out in Saanich Inlet where the ships can anchor.
Howard says everyone’s first reaction is to scoff, then declare that it can’t be done - but really, why couldn’t it? It’s an interesting idea.
As is LeBlanc’s project. As is a bottle depot similar to Vancouver’s United We Can, designed to work with, train and hire the “binners” out there who earn a living redeeming the bottles and cans we can’t be bothered to return. (There’s even a depot licence available in Victoria right now.)
All sorts of innovative projects are out there waiting to be tried. They’re going to require us to take a chance on doing things differently, and to stifle that automatic “No!” that rises to our lips so easily in this region. In my opinion, no idea should be considered too wacky to dismiss out of hand, because nothing could possibly be wackier than leaving things as they are.
But all the ideas in the world won’t get us far if we stay stuck. Let’s do something big, bold and dramatic for a change, and prove to ourselves - and the world that will soon be on our doorsteps - that it’s possible.
Speaking of saying no, the Capital Regional District was none too happy about my column last week about separating out returnable bottles and cans so that binners can benefit from some of the $18 million in deposits that go unredeemed in B.C. every year.
The CRD contract with Metro Waste - the company that buys the recyclables collected through the blue-box program - is based on three to four per cent of the “container stream” being redeemable containers, says a CRD spokeswoman. In other words, the CRD got a cheaper deal by telling Metro they could count on people like you and me to put at least some of our redeemable bottles into our blue boxes, which Metro then takes in for a refund.
With all due respect to the CRD, I’ll do as I choose with the deposits on my redeemables, and eagerly await word of other ways to put our forfeited deposits to work on social fronts. In Vancouver, a pilot project to collect workplace bottles and cans is generating funds for the United Way.
B.C.’s redeemable containers are managed by non-profit Encorp Pacific, and our unredeemed deposits are its major revenue stream. But Encorp has the means to make up that revenue elsewhere, says spokesman Malcolm Harvey, and would be happy to see deposits being rerouted to help binners.