Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC


As I write this post, I find myself exhausted and sick probably due to my excursions into places with no heat where many of our less fortunate citizens were being held overnight in order that our new Mayor could present that he was doing something immediately to address the rampant homelessness in Vancouver.

In this post I will offer ways in which we can start to get a handle on what must be done to enrich the lives of our less fortunate so hopefully their lives begin to have some meaning, hope and prosperity.

First though I will need to rant a bit about what is so horribly wrong in this City.

I attended a number of Gregor's shelters over the Christmas season and his Homeless Emergency Action Team which has become known by its catchy acronym HEAT, is another band-aid which does nothing to assist in any meaningful way, the plight of our homeless.

To address street homelessness, we must begin to acknowledge that this homelessness for the most part is the end result of poverty, untreated mental illness and drug addiction. For the homeless, these three factors are often interwoven and without properly addressing these issues or coming up with a comprehensive master plan, our less fortunate continue to live in a way which resembles hell.

Drug addiction has no purpose other than ensuring someone is living a hellish life. Some individual or group or group of individuals is benefiting from someone's tragic need to get that next fix which they mistakenly believe dulls the pain of living. In actuality this increases the pain.

Addicts or the mentally ill often need to beg or steal for food to sustain themselves. Or they rely on various charities for hand-outs. This does not enhance life.

In fact charity is robbing people of human dignity. Providing handouts to people standing in line at some soup kitchens run by the various poverty charities hasn't helped citizens in my neighborhood. One has to be blind to not see this. Just walk around in the Downtown Eastside to see what rampant drugs, poverty and untreated mental illness has done to humanity.

In fact, the only available treatment I've seen so far for these recurring pathogens has been supplied courtesy of the taxpayers who in a real twist of fate, are contributing to the demise of these unfortunate souls. Yes you heard it here that compassion is killing our most vulnerable citizens and I am certain that many of you will not like hearing this but hearing it you must.

Of course, governments haven't responded adequately in treating the poor, sick and drug addicted. Widespread homelessness didn't happen overnight. In my neighborhood where most of the poor, drug addicted and mentally ill have been settled, you only need to walk through this community to bear witness to the roughly $5 million to $1 billion a year poured into the area to see that this money has not made one bit of difference in the lives of the sick, poor and marginalized. This Downtown Eastside settlement was man-made and it has had dire and disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.

Already in Vancouver this past year two individuals burned to death because of their tragic circumstances. While media has focused lots of attention on this and which the Mayor has as well, troubling questions remain. What are we doing to prevent homelessness and how are are we going to stop the endless destruction?

Not to tick off the police, even their compassion contributed to the burning death of the homeless woman named Tracey. They provided her a lighter which was allegedly used to light a candle to stay warm. The rest we know.

I want to make clear though that the police can't be faulted for this tragedy. It has been in the making for quite a long time. They are powerless to do anything because they are up against others who claim the homeless have the constitutional right to be homeless.

I must question though where has this constitutional argument to be homeless gotten us?

I would love to ask David Eby, the new Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association who now sits on the HEAT team with the Mayor whether the charter of rights and freedoms extends to the right to kill oneself in public?

Where do our own policy makers stand on this constitutional question of homelessness?

Our new Mayor and the Premier of British Columbia and other politicians response to homelessness has been to throw more of your the taxpayer's money at the problem. They know this hasn't worked, moreover, it hasn't contributed to bettering the lives for those trying their best to survive.

I hate to think that our politicians are banking on the public being so gullible to believe that throwing more money into the bottomless poverty pit (the poverty industry) is the answer. Yet there seems no other plausible explanation of why this pit continues.

Look at the Aboriginal population to see what the welfare state has created. As Aboriginal writer and lawyer Calvin Helin, who wrote in his Dances with Dependency book, he accurately claims this type of intervention is not sustainable. Within a very short time 1/3 of the workforce will be retiring and how we can expect the other 2/3 of the workforce to carry this unbearable load is not possible or sustainable.

Back to Gregor's shelters.

An interesting observation is that criminals in jail are treated better than our homeless. In jail you receive three meals a day plus snacks and you are not kicked out in the morning to go begging for food or stealing as you are in Gregor's shelters. In jail there are jobs, education and structured programs.

These new shelters I hate to say act as the new poor man's jails. I wonder if this is the type of action David Eby envisioned when he agreed to be part of HEAT?

The most recent example of throwing more money at the problem is the $1.5 million given to three charities so they can operate three temporary overnight shelters for three months for approximately 100 homeless citizens.

I visited these shelters and spoke to the homeless over Christmas. I listened to their stories. Recurring themes emerged. Either they were drug addicted or had untreated mental health. Of course many of them used up their welfare to get high. Many said they refuse to live in SRO's because they are hell-holes, crawling with mice and other unwelcome bugs.

Needing exploring is why the province continues to subsidize these slumlords who operate these filthy hell-holes. Why is the province paying directly to these landlords the welfare shelter portions to run such shoddy operations? Why is the public expected to compensate substandard housing which only benefits the landlord?

So what can be done to address escalating drug addiction and untreated mental illness in our City?

At the end of the three months, the homeless in Gregor's shelters will still be homeless. They will most likely still be drug addicted and they will certainly continue to suffer debilitating mental illness. What happens to these sad unfortunate souls?

Well for sure the status quo isn't working. Unaddressed poverty creates a huge poverty industry. The poverty industry, it can be argued has instead of helping people harmed them.

Doctors take an oath to do no harm and this is something citizens must demand from our policy makers. We must hold them to scrutiny and we can't be afraid to upset them with our demands for change.

There must be a commitment to develop a comprehensive master plan and the first order of business is to revamp the mental health act. Clearly in its current legislative form it isn't working. Tracey is an example of how the system is failing our vulnerable.

Jails, drunk tanks and temporary shelters are not places we should be holding our sick, troubled or addicted. These are not acceptable environments for the unwell. Proper facilities must be opened so that our sick citizens receive appropriate and necessary medical treatment they require.

Whether providing drug addicts the freedom to remain in a life of addiction and untreated mental illness needs examining. I don't think the taxpayers want their generosity mis-used this way.

I do not favor stripping away civil rights and we can't, however, I believe we must in certain situations have the flexibility to temporarily override rights when an individual is in imminent danger to themselves or others. If it is determined that the individual is not to be of sound mind, then we must step in to protect them from further harm. There must be proper checks and balances put in place to ensure no misuse.

I hate to use Tracey as an example but I must. Was it right to leave Tracey outdoors in sub zero temperatures? Surely we must recognize that there was a strong possibility that leaving her open to the harsh elements that harm could potentially come to her?
We must learn from Tracey's tragic death. It's as simple as that.

If civil libertarians at the end of the day say yes that homeless citizens still have the absolute right to be homeless then humanity suffers a major blow. A society that only offers humanity to the privileged will erode terribly. It already is.

Finally another area needing exploring and which we must focus attention is around currency. The currency of our society is cash. Without it people cannot function. Without it they have no freedom.

We have an obligation to ensure all people have opportunities to work. Even our mentally ill citizens if properly treated can do menial labour which doesn't create unnecessarily burdens on them. They too need to earn some cash so they also have a choice to get a coffee or beer.

Our mentally ill and drug addicted must have structure to their lives.

I worked in the field of mental health and I know how structured programs besides giving the citizens opportunity to socialize, these environments provide purpose, meaning and an enhanced quality of life. In many cases they also provide extra income.

Unfortunately civil libertarians in the past claim that these type of jobs create indentured slaves. I think they are wrong and here is why.

I use as an example of how civil liberties can impede humanity. At one time in the local Oakalla jail, prisoners were making license plates for the public. They of course earned small amounts of income which afforded them certain staples while incarcerated. While working they had opportunity to socialize and work as part of a team. This provided necessary lifeskills training which would assist them in future.

Civil libertarians brought pressure saying prisoners were not paid enough because they were being used as indentured slaves.

So instead of making a bit of extra money and developing lifeskills, prisoners instead began taking law courses while in jail. They receive no compensation and of course if they obtain a law degree this is of no use since one can't practise law if there exists a criminal conviction. Who paid for the courses was of course the public.

What is vital to humanity is citizens holding together during tough times. Those times are now.

I want to close by presenting what Jamie, a homeless and drug addicted man said to me over Xmas. Even though he was sleeping on the street in freezing sub zero weather and at night going to one of Gregor's new shelters, thrown out in the morning and begging for food, often stealing to get drugs or relying on hand-outs from compassionate people, Jamie said doing the drugs was still fun and while things were fun, he has no intention to stop doing what he is doing.

My readers may be wondering whether Jamie has a distorted sense of reality. I know I sure am.

In my opinion, the choices Jamie is making are not real choices.

I don't believe for a second anyone in their right frame of mind would choose to live such a hellish existence

Jamie Lee Hamilton