An Open Letter to the Premier of British Columbia
2661 Florence Lake Road
Victoria, BC, Canada
November 21, 2015
Dear Madame Premier:
I came from a very broken home, and as a youth, I lived on the streets for five years in many different Canadian cities until I finally came to Victoria BC in 1990, and turned my life around. I am in fact, lucky to be alive, and lucky to have an opportunity to write this letter.
Regardless of my rough start, by 2004, I was university-educated and ready to help my community, to give back. I took a job at a homeless shelter, and started a career that seemed perfect. I was very good at helping, because of my experience and resourceful approach. Over the next 12 or so years I helped hundreds get off the street, or get health care, or get addictions treatment.
But something was brewing in the political realm that I did not factor in. Things were somehow getting harder each year. I eventually got promoted to outreach worker, case planner, and even a couple of coordinator jobs, but the work was patchy. Always contracts, sometimes with benefits, sometimes without. All of the programs I was trying to refer my homeless clients to were being shut down, replaced with websites, and renting was becoming nearly impossible for them, because the social assistance rates were frozen. Furthermore, rents in my city were astronomical. We were told by our employers that we were under a wage freeze, so we trudged on, trying to save lives where we could.
And we lost so many. In one year, I counted 60 deaths of people in my community who were current or former clients of homeless services! I started to throw myself at the work in desperation, and it started to weigh my life down.
It wasn't interacting with the homeless that caused me stress-- I enjoyed my time with them-- it was the lack of resources available for them, and the confusing network of red tape that they had to go through to access help. It was always "do more with less". My co-workers seemed to be falling apart as well, especially the ones with families to support. Some of us were going to the foodbank ourselves, standing in line with the same clients we were helping at the shelter.
Finally, things started to come apart for me. I suffered a divorce, and a lengthy legal battle, but I could not find support anywhere. I could not get a legal aid lawyer because the legal system was overwhelmed, and something that should have taken me 5 minutes, took 2 years to resolve-- simply because I did not have anyone helping me understand my rights. I took stress leave, and I saw counsellors, but the problem was not emotional, it was structural. I could have the nicest, most supportive counsellor telling me "Derek, you just need a lucky break," but the circumstances were simply not workable. I bring home about $2000 to $2500 per month when I work. I pay $600 in child support, and about $1500 for a three bedroom so I can take my two kids on the weekend. If you do the math, you will see that I cannot make it go with those numbers, no matter how much I try. I am not eligible for any rental subsidies because I am not seen as having dependants.
So I let go. I left my last contract job, and I have been on EI for the last number of months. My EI is about to run out, and at that point, the rest of my life may start to collapse. If I cannot find work, I will be eligible for $640 per month on social assistance, which will not be enough to get me into a rooming house in this city. That means my children lose even the weekend time they had with me. I will be working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. Unfortunately, the best I can do is get back to a $2500-per-month employment position, where I will still be in financial crisis, but I have to keep going.
If I look back, I feel as though I have been starved out. My clients have been excluded from this society to the point where their very survival is threatened, and my co-workers and I are beyond exhausted. There was a period of time when it seemed like we were moving forward, and we could do some great work with people, but now it is simply too much tragedy for staff to adequately deal with.
I think the people of British Columbia will be reacting to these difficult circumstances in the next election, but that is not why I am contacting you today. This letter is meant to be a wake up call for you. There are still many lives that we can save, regardless of partisan politics. I trust you know of the "Housing First" strategy that is working around the continent, and I think you know how to get the resources out quickly. I am asking that you approach my mayor, Lisa Helps, and her council, and come to the table on some of her initiatives. She has made a great start as a leader of this city, and I would like to see some provincial support for her efforts.
Thank you for your time, and contact me if you have any questions.
Derek Book, Victoria BC
Formerly Homeless: A Journal of Lived Experience http://housecanada.blogspot.ca