It all started on a cold January day while I was waiting for a bus destined for Sidney where my elderly parents live. A woman asked me for some money so she could buy some food. There's lots of food in Victoria, I said … though I was willing to share a little change regardless. The woman told me she has Crohn's disease, and a special diet, and she just wanted to get inside somewhere warm and have a decent meal. I noticed she was carrying a sleeping bag, and asked her if she had a place to stay that night. No, she said, the shelters are all full and the extra shelters aren't open.
I remember my response. “Are you kidding me?!”
I'll admit I'm a bit out of touch with the service providers in this town. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they're not particularly fond of me. For years, decades, I've been a staunch advocate of systemic change. Paradigm shifting. In my ideal world, there are no homeless shelters, no emergency weather protocol, and no jobs maintaining and implementing those services. There would be no homelessness, because everyone would have equal access to the resources they need to survive and thrive. Not grow wealthy and selfishly take more than their share, just survive and thrive.
Blame it on my University education. They taught me the history of colonialism and imperialism, hierarchy and patriarchy, and how that translates into creating societal constructs and personal philosophies that function from a perceived Top to a construed Bottom. It's devastating to people, to the planet, to all life on earth. Determined never again to fit into the dominant culture that creates - and then sustains and manages - earthly destruction, poverty, and homelessness, I set out on a quest to inspire some real significant change.
Not surprisingly perhaps, I found intellectual and philosophical allies most prominently among the impoverished and homeless. There aren't a lot of paying jobs for revolutionaries. I've visited tree-sits and tent cities and Portland's Dignity Village, and been inspired by the functional and creative communities that people can create when they're left to their own devices. At one point, feeling an extraordinary need to experience a possession-free nomadic life, I abandoned all my earthly goods and wandered throughout BC, Alberta, the coastal U.S., and much of Mexico. I eventually resettled in Victoria, and created an extraordinary niche - publishing the ultra-progressive Street Newz.
Street Newz is very much community driven. It evolves, each month, based on submissions from a variety of sources. Priority space is offered to those experiencing homelessness and poverty, and then analysis and articles from others - philosophers, lawyers, social workers, and professors among them. We're a very small budget operation so we're not able to cover every angle of every story, but we do a pretty good job focusing on the root causes of poverty, and some consequences of trying to live within (or without) the dominant economic system. The most common cry I've heard, from those who live with poverty, is about community money being directed towards shelters rather than directly on housing and housing options (including support for alternative ways of living, ie eco-villages, tent villages, dignity villages). It's not that people don't appreciate the emergency supports that are available, it's just that they see the bigger picture. I do my best to walk that middle line - appreciating the good work that people do to help those less fortunate, and hoping to energize the social revolution that will ultimately eliminate their jobs (with of course a resulting society offering even more meaningful employment for them, and for everyone).
So, on that cold day in downtown Victoria, speaking with the woman with Crohn's Disease and a sleeping bag, who seemed convinced that there were no shelter spaces available, I reacted. I had not received any information to the contrary. Street Newz and I were not on the mailing list for the Extreme Weather Protocol (EWP). My heart went out to the woman and I wrote an angry email.
That email ended up in Monday Magazine, without any consultation with me, next to a response from Jen Book who, I learned, administers the EWP. This sparked a conversation with Danielle Pope at Monday Magazine - she apologized, agreed to publish a correction, and to check in with me in future. It also generated an angry response from Jen who received many messages from concerned citizens, and other media. Jen insisted that I cease and desist until we had a chance to meet. I asked her to meet me Monday at the Solstice Café, and fortunately she was available.
Jen explained the difference between the Extreme Weather Protocol (EWP) and the Emergency Shelter Program. (I recorded our meeting, but unfortunately a technical malfunction rendered us both mute, so I wrote what I remembered her saying and sent it to her to be sure I got it all right. Jen's additional comments are in brackets.)
The Emergency Shelter Program includes those shelters, like the new Rock Bay facility and the Salvation Army, that offer shelter spaces all year round. The EWP, on the other hand, was established approximately 7 years ago in response to a big snowstorm. Representatives from local agencies got together to devise a plan to support homeless people in extreme weather conditions. Today, that project is coordinated by Jen Book. She was hired by those collaborative agencies, who take turns administering the project each year. This year the Salvation Army is responsible for the program. They receive money from the provincial government, and pay her salary. They also pay the salaries of the people Jen hires. (The salvation army is a funding conduit for my salary...Not for all the ewp staff. The staff is paid for by each agency that participates in hosting a shelter. Ie rock bay pays rock bay staff. Nfc pays nfc staff....Etc etc. They are also not responsible for the program...I am responsible for the program.) Jen assures me she has a reliable, knowledgeable staff working with her.
Jen carries a blackberry with her, and is constantly monitoring the weather from satellite images that show what's going on over Victoria's skies. If she sees particularly inclement weather approaching, she connects with her staff and the participatory agencies, and alerts them that the EWP is activated for that night. She and her staff attend the street dinners, they visit the drop in centres, they drive around in a white van and talk to people on the streets, letting them know where there's space and how they can get there. (You could also mention that we have a vast email list that goes out to all support agencies, posters are put up in the windows of some of the shelters and I maintain a website on a daily basis. During particularly heavy storms, we have red cross volunteers scouring the streets for people who may need extra assistance in getting to shelters.)
I asked Jen what happens if extreme weather happens in the middle of the night. She assured me that she's adept at determining the weather, but if something changes she and her staff get out there and find people sleeping rough and make sure they have the option to go inside. I asked her about extreme daytime weather, where can people go? Jen said the new Rock Bay Shelter has its lounge open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, also Our Place is open Monday to Friday. (We also open an additional daytime drop in service at St. John the Divine on the weekends if we are hit with heavy daytime storms).
We talked about the option of maintaining enough shelter spaces throughout the entire winter, rather than this off-again on-again approach, but Jen is convinced that the solution to homelessness does not include expanding her program. (I believe that I clarified the difference between the emergency shelter program and the extreme weather response program. One is a fully funded program dedicated to offering homelessness services and the other is a community emergency response program. It would be like asking to open an earthquake relief centre every night.) I don't feel I can confidently communicate what Jen believes the solutions might include, though I do recall her saying that the emergency shelter system, which functions all throughout the year, offers a lot of assistance in terms of counseling and transitional housing. Jen and her staff do a certain amount of counseling, she said, but they're not equipped to help people actually get off the streets. Jen feels her extreme weather response can be compared to an earthquake situation. You never know when it will hit, but you remain prepared for it and then do what you can to help people through it.
After I left Jen I walked to Our Place hoping to find people to tell me what the EWP looks like from their perspective. On my way I crossed paths with one friend, who's been homeless off and on for years. He's currently at the Salvation Army, in the dorms, but he's constantly having to reapply to be there. He's grateful for what he's got, he hasn't had to access the EWP services, but he feels he deserves some secure housing, especially now that he's enrolled in computer courses at Camosun and is taking art classes at Our Place.
At Our Place I found another street artist, one who's sleeping rough. I introduced myself as the Street Newz publisher, and he told me his story. He used to live happily in a house with his wife. It turned into a crack house with a slumlord, and something about a murder, so they ended up homeless. His wife died of pneumonia, on the streets, a few years ago. He's been sleeping in the downtown core for a month and has not been approached by the EWP team during that time. He did acknowledge the absolute importance of having extreme weather options. It saves lives, he said.
My head is spinning. On the one hand I see devoted, concerned, caring people doing their best to help those less fortunate. On the other hand I see increasing rents and food prices, the new harmonized sales tax, the lowest minimum wage in Canada at $8/hr, the highest child poverty rates, ever more poverty and homelessness, empty hotels and abandoned buildings. I see an EWP now being implemented in Campbell River, whereas Nanaimo has enough shelter space all winter long. I see a provincial law that could be used to force people into shelters (http://www.montrealgazette.com/wants+force+mentally+into+shelters/1136436/story.html). I see our tax money directed towards emergency solutions while creative alternatives remain unsupported.
Let me be clear -- I don't want to put anyone out of work. But neither do I want to encourage increasing numbers of jobs designed to help people. Who do I talk to about directly helping the people, rather than helping the people who help the people?
Part of me wants to believe it's all being taken care of … the people who help the people are also interested in working themselves out of a job. They realize that we can't continue to live within an economy that creates poverty and homelessness and poverty. They have a plan B, something to turn to after we reconstruct society. But another part of me sees talented artists and musicians, creative writers, healers, students, labourers, being pushed out, unable to keep up, becoming isolated and depressed. I see an increasingly corporate culture influencing every level of government, and degrees of institutionalization for homelessness that are complex and out of our democratic reach. I see paternalism. Well intentioned, but paternalism - creating solutions for people without including those people in the final decision making process.
What I don't see a lot of is acknowledgement that this 21st century world we live in, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of homeless and under-housed people, working poor and unemployed among them, is new and unusual. That food banks, established just short decades ago, were never intended as a permanent solution. That something in our social fabric is causing its own unraveling.
It's getting bigger and scarier. How do we gather support for and manifest truly creative solutions? When we're children we're encouraged to use our imaginations. When we're older we're told not to be so unrealistic.
It's a confusing world. I apologize if my original erroneous email caused unnecessary concern and damage control. My motives were not to misinform. I'm now receiving the EWP alerts directly, so next time it's particularly inclement weather I'll be able to tell that homeless woman which shelters are open that night.
Of course I'd still rather direct her to the eco-village where she can join a community and learn to grow her own food and live sustainably, independently. Nothing About Us Without Us ….....