Friday, May 25, 2007


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC

Remembering Hallway Gerry

Our harm reduction Mayor, Sam Sullivan, has announced he plans on lobbying Premier Gordon Campbell to re-open the former psychiatric institution, Riverview, for compassionate care.

Riverview, a large rambling hospital, situated on 1000 acres of lush greenery first opened in 1913 as an inpatient hospital which treated many individuals with uncontrolled mental health problems. Riverview at its height, served a population of 4, 600 patients.

As advances were made in the field of psychiatry, and as traditional hospitals added psychiatric departments to their health services, there appeared to be less need for Riverview. As a matter of fact, many community mental health outreach teams started up in various neighborhoods and the thinking in the late 80's was that a less institutional approach to mental health care would be more ideal for treating mental illness.

As this thinking gained favor, around 1991, the British Columbia NDP government dramatically down-sized Riverview. Many discharged patients found themselves in the Oldtown district, where they were housed in squalid rooms which the meager shelter component allotted them on their disability cheques.

During this time, I was working at DERA and this is where I first came into contact with a displaced Riverview patient, Gerry. Thankfully for Gerry, or so I thought, he was housed in a newly restored heritage building, Tellier Tower, operated by DERA and across the street from its offices. Tellier Tower once served as Vancouver City Hall.

Gerry, as [part of his re-socialization plan visited the DERA offices daily, where he often sought refuge in the hallway, smoking up a storm, slightly rocking back and forth. A very small hallway it was and I don't think suitable as a refuge. His advocate then was now MLA for Vancouver Mount-Pleasant, Jenny Kwan. Besides always seeing this heavy smog of smoke around Gerry, I observed the worst nicotine I have ever seen in my life on Gerry's fingers. This actually deeply concerned me. I often would sit with Gerry, chatting him up as Jenny in her office, busily rolled his cigarettes. Gerry hands were extremely shaky and he was unable to do this simple task. Although I was concerned over Gerry's chain-smoking, there was something truly compassionate though watching Jenny as she prepared Gerry's ciggies.

Because Gerry was always in the waiting area, someone tagged him with the name hallway Gerry and most of the staff referred to him as hallway Gerry. We all cared for him. As a community Gerry had a special place in our hearts and we presided over what we thought were in the best interests of this vulnerable man who had lived in Riverview for 35 years of his life.

During my chats with Gerry, I would say, you must love living in this new building with your own washroom and kitchen. I was taken back when Gerry would often proclaim, that he missed his home and did I know when he was going back. I spoke with Jenny about this and she informed me that Gerry thinks he will be going back. I asked Gerry on occasion what he missed about his former home and without hesitation, he would say, he missed his friends.

Hearing about Gerry's loneliness had an impact on me. I am by nature a sensitive individual and I would get a lump in my throat, whenever hallway Gerry asked if I knew when he was moving back home. I seriously began to question whether in fact, the closure of Riverview and re-socialization efforts was the right thing to do. Many residents from Riverview already had a community in place and whether it was humane or compassionate to be displacing them into an alien to them, community, needed further exploring.

Around this time, a staff revolt occurred at DERA. It was a deeply troubling time and it must have been extremely difficult for the more vulnerable members of DERA, including hallway Gerry.

A number of key staff departed DERA with the most prominent being Jim Green, who was offered a job with the new provincial government, the New Democrats. In his new position, Mr. Green lured away a few staff including Ms Kwan.

Shortly thereafter I also left DERA. I didn't see much of hallway Gerry after that, but I always prayed that he was being well taken care of by the new staff people at DERA.

Arriving home the other day after a wonderful lunch with two good friends, Alex G and Laura M, and as Laura was dropping me off, there in front of my building was, naked from the waist up--including no bra--was a female of approximately 45-50 years old. Laura was quite taken back over this scene as was I. This obviously distraught woman was in a humiliating position.

Speaking with her, I determined that she wasn't high on drugs but had some very serious mental health concerns. I spoke with her and guided her into our front courtyard which, thanks to the construction tarps over our building, provided this women some measure of protection. Brenda, the Vice-President of DERA, was just arriving at the Pendera and agreed to get the women some clothing while I safe-guarded the woman from further humiliation.

This woman, like many many others isn't faring well in Oldtown. She, I determined was homeless and in need of society's caring and intervention. I asked her if she wanted me to call an ambulance but she said No. Speaking with this woman, it brought back memories of hallway Gerry.

I often question how as a supposedly compassionate society, we can allow these individuals to be neglected and placed in harm's way. It seems to me that the mental health teams for the area are severely overworked and cannot properly manage their case loads and consequently we have many distraught, ill and delusional citizens roaming our streets. Often child-like or not aware of the dangers lurking around every street corner or hallway, they are easily taken advantage of and in the process robbed of any last shred of respect or dignity.

In Oldtown, while we have many units of subsidized housing and an equal number of special needs residential facilities for the mentally ill, we must seriously question though if this neighborhood with its attendant criminals, exploiters and parasites, as being the appropriate place for our most vulnerable to be?

Just as hallway Gerry was re-housed over a decade ago, believing this the right thing to do and as Gerry chain-smoked his day away, the residence provided for him, offered a vantage point of the comings and goings of the community. This community today though doesn't come close to resembling the one in which Gerry lived in the 90's. In Gerry's own words, it was a terribly lonely place to be. Imagine what it would be like for him today, if he were still alive.

So it seems, we have a moral dilemma on our hands and as our Mayor, Sam Sullivan, questions re-opening the mental health institution in Port Coquitlam and with the deplorable conditions of the DTES, I think its long overdue that we have this debate.

The question for me is whether we want to continue to place needy, sick and vulnerable citizens in harm's way? I'd rather accord our neediest citizens with compassionate care and provide them access to timely health care which provides for their safety and security.

Instead of providing them with bleak, hard and cold street pavements, or worse, dumpster sleeping, lets instead, consider providing re-socialization to a place with sweeping lush greenery and sloping hills complete with scenic river views.

I'd like to see Riverview re-opened and I encourage Ms Kwan to join me.

I think this would be a fitting tribute to our old friend, hallway Gerry. Re-opening his former home and ensuring proper treatment and housing for the weakest members in society--his friends-- just seems like the right thing to do.

Jamie Lee Hamilton