Saturday, October 28, 2006

Filming Homeless

I guess a few street people attacked a camera man while he was filming them getting busted by the police the other day. Recently, our little town has been discussing homelessness and downtown drug use like crazy, but this new development should turn up the volume a notch. I can just see the letters to the editor that will trickle in over the next week or so, which will no doubt complain about the "culture of privilage" amongst drug users and homeless. Such violent acts, though provoked, can become symbolic of what's going on out there. Unfortunately, symbols are also gross over-generalizations, and the public just doesn't have the time to sift through the data to find out whether or not street people are violent by nature.

They are not naturally violent, in case you are wondering. Even the most hard core cocaine addict on a bad run is highly unlikely to attack. In fact, the most violent drug is alcohol, not crack, cocaine, heroin, or crystal meth, and alcohol is not used exclusively by homeless folks.

The attack does highlight the sensitive issue of filming or taking pictures of homeless people. We are a culture of documentation-- if there is an issue, we want to record it, film it, preserve it, and have at least one reality TV show about it. That gets really tricky with street people because the culture of the street says "no questions, no pictures, and certainly no bloody films about my life please." It makes sense doesn't it? These are people at the lowest point in their life. They don't want these images to be burned into their consciousness, or anybody else's consciousness. Cameras have a way of freezing people forever, and if I was going to be frozen in time, I would certainly not want to be remembered as a homeless drug user. When people are at their worst, the camera is a weapon of mass destruction.

Now the camera man might have been a bit surprised when the homeless people approached him demanding the tape. His culture tells him that the "truth" must be told, and he believes he is helping people by documenting their struggles. Perhaps the story was going to be about how difficult street life is, or a glimpse into police behaviour with the homeless. He may not see exactly what message he is sending these folks by filming them without asking. While most of us in Canadian society would be indifferent or even excited by the idea of being on the six o' clock news, these folks were not.

Cultural values are clashing between street and non-street people all the time, and it seems as though the gap is getting wider. So why is it happening, and what can we do to reduce the conflict?

These things happen because we humans are not educated about each other. If the street folks knew that the reporter had their interests in mind, or at least that his intentions were not malignant they may have been fine with the shots. If the reporter had any idea that the people he shot would be so offended, he might have reconsidered the filming. The camera man does have more access to educational materials, and more experience in dealing with humans in front of his camera, so one would expect his sensitivity. On the other hand, everybody including street people knows that violence is a horrible option which solves nothing and creates problems for everybody on both sides, so I see fault in both parties here.

I am going to make another gross generalization here, but I think it will help: street people need to be informed about who can be trusted. I don't think the press is particularily damaging to the homeless for example (another generalization) and as such, each news story that is done should be understood for what it is. Too often, reporters are seen as part of "the system," and are not trusted. Consequently, the true story of homelessness is not reaching the mainstream population with the full force that it could be. Politicians, social workers, businessmen, and other professionals all have tools for dealing with the media, and homeless people need those tools just as much, or perhaps more. Each reporter comes with a unique challenge, and street people need to know about their rights and the impact of their dealings with the media.

I will add that the press needs to be informed about street culture, which is perhaps not taken serious as a culture because of its internal diversity. Because people are homeless for so many different reasons, it is hard to quantify cultural norms of street people much less learn about them. Still, there are some basic lessons to be learned, such as how to use a camera without getting punched. I think explaining the purpose of the shoot, and clearly spelling out what happens with the film might help, for example.

Essentially, I believe conflict like this can be avoided with a bit of understanding on both sides. I hope that this incident has not tarnished anyone's view of the homeless, because like airplane passengers, there are always a few that do not handle the stress of life very well.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Boy, what a tricky situation Victoria has gotten into. There are not enough emergency beds for the homeless here, and the street population is growing steadily. While 40 new shelter beds will be added soon, and 50 permanent housing arrangements are in the works, these simply will not address the sheer number of homeless that huddle in doorways, or set up tents in park bushes. As we face a cold and wet winter, we have some tough choices to make as a city. I have heard the line that we can’t “warehouse” people by setting up massive dormitories where people sleep on the floor, but the reality of an increasing street population is making this band-aid solution more and more attractive. A 6 week temporary shelter for 40 people at a local church basement was opened, and within 3 weeks, that shelter was turning away 27 people. Furthermore, I know from my work with people at the needle exchange that a large portion of the homeless would not even go near the shelter, so the homeless problem is far beyond even the most conservative estimates.

While it is true that we cannot put our all of our resources into temporary solutions, we also cannot dismiss the immediate needs of homeless. The Toronto “Streets to Homes” initiative was developed to take drastic steps to reducing homelessness in the city. One of the strategies employed by the city was to limit or move away from the distribution of sleeping bags, blankets, and other essential gear, because the overall goal was to house people, not to enable them to sleep on the street. Agencies were permitted to distribute sleeping bags, but only after pursuing all other shelter options.

While this sounds great on paper, unless an immediate option for the sleeping bag recipient is provided, the risk of death from exposure is much higher. One writer called this particular idea the “Streets to Graves” approach.

While it seems from a surface investigation that nobody was denied a sleeping bag in Toronto, it does concern me that people are considering the removal of basic supports as a viable part of dealing with homelessness. Of course those basic supports should not be necessary in an ideal world, but if even one person dies as a result of some administrative rule made in a cozy boardroom, then the whole plan is flawed on an ethical level.

Caution is the approach that I am suggesting here. Perhaps there is a growing frustration with what appears to be a growing problem, and some are suggesting that the agency supports currently in place are enabling rather than helping. While I think the help on the ground needs to be complemented by permanent solutions and long range strategies, the grave situation that we face dictates that we cannot afford to lose any supports whatsoever. We must remember that even the slightest change in policy can have catastrophic effects on the extremely vulnerable members of our population, and act with due sensitivity. I know first hand what it’s like to sleep absolutely rough with no blankets, and believe me, it’s more about survival than sleep. I remember sitting on the side of the highway one autumn night. My friend and I were hitchhiking between London and Toronto Ontario, and it started snowing unexpectedly. We could not get a ride, and having nothing on but jean jackets, light clothes, and running shoes, we hit the ditch and built a small fire. We fell asleep more than a few times in those 6 or so hours, and luckily, one of us woke up each time and stoked the fire. If I had died there, what a waste it would have been. Basic support programs prevent tragedies, plain and simple. Despite our desires for longer-term solutions we must not forget the harsh reality that many people face. Bandaids might not cure the complete illness, but we have to stop the bleeding somehow...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Harm Reduction on Crack!

I'm sure there is a bunch of literature out there claiming that safe injection sites and other harm reduction strategies are the more acceptable way to deal with addiction issues. I just want to summarize the topic for those who may have just joined the discussion (hmmm, where have you been??), and to lend support to the most progressive ideas of our time.

There is a lot of talk in Victoria about opening a safe injection site similar to "Insite" in Vancouver. There are a lot of good reasons for opening such a site that go beyond harm reduction. Insite has thus far shown itself to be a community contributor, as well as a life saver for addicts.

The program I am suggesting goes several steps further. I think we need a "campus" of addiction care that provides safe injection/consumption areas, a drop-in center with an outdoor courtyard, a shelter/housing area with a meal plan, and team of health care and community care workers. This campus would prescribe clean and regulated cocaine and heroin through an onsite doctor, and develop a drug management plan with each user. Abstinence would be encouraged and supported, but not forced. The program would be covered under the health care system... free to drug users. It would be a long term situation for some, and a temporary solution for others. This campus would have strong ties to detox and drug rehab centers, as well as to other community supports.

Following are the top ten reasons why an addiction treatment campus would be better for our communities:

1) So much mental, emotional, and physical energy of drug users is spent on getting drugs. This energy can be spent on developing or using community supports, but so often, the addict is merely trying to get high. With prescribed heroin or cocaine, the addict can focus energy on personal growth instead.

2) I don't need to refer to stats to explain the relationship between drugs and crime. If hard drugs were available through the health care system, the community would see less violent and non-violent crime. There would be less victims, less cost to police departments, and more money to be spent on the health and well being of all citizens.

3) A "campus" model of addiction care would dramatically reduce health care costs. Because housing, medical care, and community supports would be included in the package, costs to other local shelters, emergency wards, and community services would be reduced. Many addicts tap into the current health care system on a regular basis, which cost tens of thousands per year per addict.

4) City streets, alleyways, and parking lots have become "uglified" with gates, fences, and physical deterrents to drug users. These security features would not be needed as much if society provided a safe place to use. Local restaurants would not have to worry about shooting up when they provide access to their washrooms.

5) Safe injection=safe disposal. If addicts have a safe place to use, hang out, and are not worried about being caught with syringes, those syringes will not end up in parks, crammed down toilets, or in some other place where an innocent person will get stuck.

6) So much mental and physical damage results from street drugs being "cut" with some cheaper substance. A lot of deaths occur when crystalized methodone gets mixed with heroin, for example. A prescribed heroin or cocaine program would ensure that the dosage would be regulated and safe.

7) If these drugs were prescribed, then the government of Canada would be the "dealer," and it is unlikely that the government will "push" drugs on young people, as current street dealers do. Street dealing would be greatly minimized, as it is really hard to compete with a "free" price.

8) Because of the housing and "drop in" nature of the program I am suggesting, there would be less of a gathering of drug users on streets where people do not want them. Many businesses are getting more and more frustrated with drug users on their doorsteps. Creating a safe place for drug users would help alleviate the tension in downtown areas.

9) Drug users would have a chance to interact with health care professionals and addiction specialists while picking up their daily dosage. This means that users will have opportunites for referrals, emotional support, or withdrawal management on a regular basis-- something not as likely to happen when you visit your drug dealer.

10) The spread of HIV and Hepatitis would be reduced, along with other serious drug-related illnesses.

These are some of the reasons. I want to stress that this kind of program is only compassionate if abstinence is encouraged, and I also want to stress that HOW the program is run will make all the difference. Progressive, present, and dynamic staff will be required, and the connections with other community services (Police, Health Authorities, etc) must be solid. It could be run as a study, but there is enough evidence to justify a permanent program already. Furthermore, the cost savings to the health care and the criminal justice system are tangible and immediately recoverable.

This is not a "giving up," or a "giving in," this is the next progressive step in a battle with a medical condition that affects every inch of Canadian Society. I will say it once again, for those who missed it: Until we treat addiction as an illness, we will have no progress.

Derek Book

Monday, October 02, 2006

Resource Mandates

In Victoria BC Canada, we are facing a huge shortage of funding for basic resources. Every social agency I have worked for is over-stretched and under-staffed. I guess fast food joints have the same problem, but saving lives is so much cooler than making burgers, so I'll stick to the social work issue here. It's really hard to maintain the mandate that you started with under these trying circumstances. Here at the local needle exchange, we are feeding, clothing, and damn near bathing clients in our sinks because they simply have nowhere else to go. Perhaps Street Outreach Services (our official name) did not set out to handle these things, but sometimes our ideals do not fit with reality so well.

So homeless shelters have become storage facilities, and soup kitchens have become emergency shelters, and food banks have become crisis management centers. There is a mindset out there that says we should all stick to our mandates, and not enable the government to... hold on, I have to stitch up a gushing chest wound...

...ok, what was I saying? Oh yes, the government is getting off pretty easy here, because there are enough compassionate people in Victoria agencies to hold hands and form a love chain all the way to Khandahar. These loving folks will always go the extra for people who suffer, so they get stretched thinner and thinner.

Perhaps these loving people could learn to have boundaries, but perhaps the whole concept of "mandates" is flawed. Does life operate in neat little categories? Those who work with the street population know that chaos is a part of the game. Of course we need funds, but those are slow in coming... way, way too slow. So what are you going to do? Leave people to suffer? Quit helping altogether? I think we need an action plan for how to deal with limited resources. I think volunteerism is one possible direction, for example. We can lobby the government forever, with little results. We can protest and get really angry, but I'm pretty sure that even most members of the current government feel powerless to stop the swell of economic pragmatism that is dominating the climate right now. So maybe it's time to turn to our fellow community members, and promote the idea of helping for free. Would our energy be better spent that way, I wonder? Of course we can't expect to replace the current workforce with volunteers, but we can ease the burden.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the government is not responsible for the cash shortage. Government writes up the budget, and therefore should be accountable. But in the meantime, community workers need to come up with a gameplan as we write those letters to our MLA's and MP's. Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

I Know Everything!

I write from the perspective of someone who's "been there," and I notice when I look back at my work that I could be misunderstood if I'm not careful. Let me say this clearly: I do not "know" the homeless. I do not know "what to do" about the problem that faces every city in the world-- the looming clash of cultures. I do not understand the causes, roots, or nature of poverty. Anything I say about what people may or may not be is a gross over-generalization, and I certainly don't have a catch-all solution for anything. That's why I sometimes just tell my story: I figure that when I talk about my personal experiences, I create a piece of the picture, which is better than complete darkness. My dad (you'll find out about him someday) said something that stuck to me:

"Don't believe anything you read and only half of what you see."

He was usually drunk when he said it, and it seems really dumb at a glance, but this little expression launched the critical aspects of my thinking. Let me show how the thought-train goes: If I, who was born into a family of poor alcoholics, homeless, mentally-ill, abusers, and victims, if I, who spent the better part of 5 years suffering in addiction and homelessness myself do not truly comprehend the issues that I and my family experienced, who does?

And when I say that I don't comprehend the issues, I mean that I can't look at somebody who is currently homeless and predict reasonably why they are homeless, or what it will take to get them off the street. I can guess, I can make assumptions, and I can make judgements. I can compare my own life to this person's life in the hope that we share some common threads, but I can't really know what they are going through.

That's why I have little faith in a reporter who is yelling into a microphone from the "frontlines in the war on terror." The fact that he is in the situation means nothing. Even if that reporter gives the microphone to a local, who is more directly impacted by the war, we are still not getting the full picture, though the media would give the illusion that we are.

Let's face it, we would all like to know "what to do," and we would all like to know what is REALLY going on. Some of us are convinced that we understand. I am not one of those people. I think we can only state perceptions, and even the things we claim are "factual" are just facts from one little view. It takes a LOT of these little views strung in a row to get a fuzzy half-picture.