The wisdom of Rose

By Aaren Madden, October 2011

Coast Salish social activist Rose Henry believes homelessness in Victoria is getting worse and she wants to do something about it.

 

Rose Henry, a 27-year resident of Victoria, is a founder of the Victoria Committee to End Homelessness. She blogs at rosehenry.blogspot.com and homelessnation.org. At universities, churches and rallies, she speaks about poverty and human rights. She writes for and sells Victoria Street Newz. 

The Together Against Poverty Society lists her on their board of directors, as does the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre. BC PIAC is a nonprofit law office fighting for social justice issues ranging from foster care to poverty to human rights. Right now she’s pondering an invitation to return to the board of the Vancouver Island Human Rights Coalition. You could say she’s a little busy. She laughingly calls it “my ADHD.”

Henry is also a member of the Aboriginal Health Advisory Committee for Vancouver Women’s Health Centre, under whose purview falls Sunny Hill Health Centre. Which is some kind of justice, given the childhood years she spent there after being permanently removed from her Snuneymuxw First Nations family home. 

At Sunny Hill, she was labelled mentally retarded. As an adult, she’s been labelled “protester, anarchist, Fist Nations Spokesperson, Homeless Advocate and professional agitator for waking people’s social conscious,” reads her BC PIAC biography. Says Henry herself, “I am just a person who is awake and cares about the world and is more than prepared to do the necessary work to improve the quality of life for everyone.” Above all, she wishes to be known as a builder of community; a destroyer of barriers.

I spotted Rose Henry as soon as I walked through the door of Victoria’s downtown library. She was sitting at a table, just to the right of the bank of public-use computers, where she used to spend hours managing all the irons in her fire. As I approach, she shakes my hand and shows me the sleek red laptop she now calls her own. 

The computer was a gift from the Norwegian delegation at the International Network of Street Papers Conference she attended last July in Glasgow, Scotland, thanks to community donations that helped pay her way. She was short-listed for a Best Vendor Writing award for her article, “ Economic Violence.” She didn’t win, but the computer does nicely, thanks. This day, she’d just received an email containing a photograph of her, looking radiantly upward, hands spread wide in a gesture of sharing. It’s the September cover of =Oslo, that city’s street newspaper. 

The accompanying feature reveals her journey. After Sunny Hill came foster care in Powell River. Although it was a supportive environment, homelessness and addiction followed with her coming of age. She was raped and left for dead as a young woman, yet she overcame that to have a son, get an education, and rise far beyond. In 2001 she attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, where she sat at the same table with Nelson Mandela. She found him “humble,” and wondered at his ability to endure so much and not become bitter. The highlight, though, was meeting her idol, social justice icon Angela Davis.

Clearly, she has learned a thing or two in her 53 years on Turtle Island. One thing she knows for sure is that we won’t rise above poverty and homelessness as a society unless we all sit at the same table. If we did, all decisions could be made through the lens of multiple benefits. Says Henry, “Let’s be proud of who we are and show the world that we can take care of our own people, the homeless and social issues,  and show we are the most eco-friendly community.” 

There are many possibilities, but one project she saw while in Scotland stands out. She toured a farm there that ran a transition program for people being released from prisons. “One acre of land was converted into a community garden. The growers can take their produce to the local markets or even street corners,” Henry explains. Some sell the street news along with fresh produce and have a growing clientele. “Holy mackerel, we have Woodwynn Farms not far from here!” she enthuses, suggesting similar programs could evolve there if—and hopefully when—the facility is able to reach its full potential. Further, the city’s overtaxed soup kitchens could be supplied by Woodwynn Farms or community gardens within city limits under similar programs. The potential for building (or rebuilding) skills, health, community, food security—lives, even—is in seeing people who are homeless as intrinsic and valuable to our whole community, she says. 

“The number one requirement is educating the housed about who their real neighbours are: possibly your own relatives; your own flesh and blood. They are not evil trolls living under the bridge; they are productive members of society. We need to take a step back and re-evaluate ourselves when we are judging a person based on where they are living. And that is both ways: the homeless need to re-evaluate who they are looking at, too.” Neither is the enemy, Henry insists. 

Once that happens, the possibilities are endless. Henry envisions the City solving social problems with a creative and integrated approach that actively includes the people experiencing poverty and homelessness in every civic endeavour. Take the Johnson Street Bridge. Its huge expense and controversy has pulled the focus off of the poverty and homelessness issues Mayor Dean Fortin was elected to address, but which she believes have grown worse. “It’s kind of a thorn in my side, but decisions have been made,” Henry concedes of the bridge issue, even while finding ways to realign the project to greater goals. “Let’s have a guarantee that the companies that are going to build this bridge hire local people. Let’s even say five percent of the people employed are living in poverty or homeless. Let’s ensure that when the lunch wagon comes along, it’s a local food supply. Let’s have some give and take,” she urges.

With those and many other ideas in mind, Henry has set her sights on a seat at one particular table. For the fourth time, she will be running for City Council in November’s election. She’d like to think “the city of Victoria is ready to break with tradition and take the risk and elect someone like me into City Hall; to see me as a councillor with the strength and tenacity to stick with whatever issues are tossed my way.” (In 2008 she got 3372 votes, placing 11th, with eight councillors elected.)

As we part, she summarizes her raison d’être: “I have a saying about Victoria. We have to restore unity back into community and understand homeless people are just homeless, not worthless. And if we work together as a team, as a family, in the end we are all going to benefit.” 

Aaren Madden learned much from Rose Henry, including the fact that in 150 years, Victoria has never had a First Nations city councillor. And that Turtle Island is the non-colonial name for North America.