Saturday, January 22, 2011

nothing about us, without us.

community media chats with street folk at
august 2010 "gathering on the green"
i love that i live in a community where people care so much.  i know this because i received an email from jen book, who works at city hall.  jen is frustrated because she feels people are blaming her for the problems associated with victoria's homeless situation, and for the inadequate responses from government.  she's also feeling that i've been instigating these attacks on her.

let me be clear -- my intention is to shed light on the societal structures that create and sustain homelessness and poverty, to draw attention to the reality of how that translates on the streets, and to encourage real change including creative solutions like tent cities and eco-villages.  i believe, and i know many support me in this, we're all better off when we can help ourselves.  handouts are nice, but they're not the solution.  my intention is not to attack civil servants, though, or others who do what they feel is helpful to those in need.  at the same time, i do invite everyone to think about what they're doing for their paycheque - are you helping to alleviate, or maintain, homelessness?

this latest mixup happened because a woman on the streets told me the shelters were closed one night last week.  it was a cold night and i sent an email expressing my concern.  i was quickly corrected - the shelters were in fact open that night.  i sent an immediate retraction, and got myself added to the direct mailing from city hall for future.  this misunderstanding has spurred a big discussion, it seems, which received further confusion when it was taking out of context in monday magazine (i'm working with danielle to remedy that).

it's an important discussion, and i'm glad we're having it.

my understanding (and i could be wrong, this is not journalism, just a friendly note) is that the provincial government provides money for shelter mats in the winter and the city of victoria decides how to spend that money.  but there's only so much money, so the city of victoria only opens the additional shelter space on certain nights.  (if i'm wrong on this, please let me know and i'll send an update and then we'll all have the real story).

in any event, the way it currently works is frustrating to the street community for many reasons:

1.  when the wharf street shelter and two other facilities offering extra shelter mats (st. john the divine and the sally ann) were closed at the end of october, a few people were relocated to the new rock bay facility, but some 70 were not.  for whatever reason this shift happened at the beginning of winter rather than some other more temperate time.  this has many implications on the street community.  suddenly they're divided further into the camp of those who can get into the new shelter, and those who cannot.  the new shelter is far away from the food and community services they need downtown.  additionally, a bylaw was recently enforced removing them from pandora green.  during the scariest time of the year, hallowe'en, homeless people were feeling further abandoned, scared, cold, and hungry since, along with shelter space, some food services were also closed.

2.  we know that city officials, on the tax-payers dime, have travelled to and toured portland's dignity village.  we know that dignity village began as a tent city, and has evolved to a self sustaining community that is incredibly successful, because portland city council cared enough to give up a tiny plot of land and let them go ahead with their dream.  we know that mayor dean has had email correspondence with dignity village (i've seen it).  i can also tell a story about meeting with mayor alan, years ago, when tony from had invented a bike trailer for binners (people who collect bottles and cans) that converts into a tent at night.  tony asked only for an empty parking lot so binners could camp somewhere together for the night, protecting each other, building community.  we all know the outcome of that request.

3.  homelessness in victoria is increasing.  many homeless people hate shelters, because they're crowded and people have issues like air-borne tuberculosis or drug/alcohol addictions and thievery.  they often can't take their shopping carts or their dogs inside.  they're often separated from their partners.  imagine what it's like for transsexual or transgendered homeless people in a gender assigned sleeping space.

4.  many are also frustrated because the extreme weather protocol (which jen administers, but didn't design) is arbitrary, based on weather.  if it's cold, rainy, or windy enough, an alert is sent out, the website is updated, and efforts are made to get people inside.  my understanding is that jen does a fabulous job letting folks know when the "extreme weather protocol" is in effect.  i know that rose henry and others help, when the ewp is enacted, by driving homeless people to the available shelters.  but if i'm a homeless person who's been shoved out of the downtown, i may not have contact with someone to know if the shelters are open that particular night.  i may not have access to internet.  or, what about when the cold, rain, winds begin in the middle of the night?  wouldn't it be better to just have shelter mats available all winter long?  (remembering that many homeless people will only take a shelter mat when it's absolutely necessary, often preferring to face the elements).

5.  then there's the "right to sleep" trial, which the city fought tooth and nail and lost.  a bc supreme court struck down a city bylaw that denied homeless people the right to erect shelter to protect themselves when no other space is available.  the city appealed the decision, and lost, but they did succeed in preventing people from having the ability to sleep in tents during the daytime in public places (what do you do if you work nights, or you're sick and the shelters are closed in the daytime?), and they did succeed in removing many of them from the downtown.  but they've lost, i feel, a lot of trust and respect in the process.

i'd just like to say that, as far as i know, none of this is jen book's fault.  she is a person hired by the government, by us tax-payers, to implement the shelter policy that exists.  it's not within her power to make change.  it's really wonderful that so many people care, but she's feeling as though they're taking it out on her, and that i'm somehow instigating that.  please direct your concerns to city council, to provincial and federal authorities who are responsible for establishing the direction our society will evolve.  write letters to the media asking them for more indepth analysis of the homelessness crisis.  their contact information is on their websites.

and if you have the ability to offer housing, to offer space in your backyard for a tent or two, to offer food or other kinds of support, thank you for doing that.  giving credit where it's due, there are some supported housing options being created, though the affordability of those remains unknown.  to those who are doing their best to tend to the emergency that is another canadian winter, thank you.   ultimately i hope we can all work together to transform society so we don't have these emergencies.  and we've got to include the homeless people in on those conversations.  they're the ones living it, and they have some very creative solutions if only they're given a chance to participate in their own emancipation.  as the saying goes, "nothing about us without us."