Gimme shelter

By Gene Miller, November 2015

The homeless on Victoria’s downtown streets offer a full-colour snapshot of response failure.

A friend reminisces that back around 1970, when we both arrived, there was literally one visible Victoria “street person,” whose image I can conjure to this day, though not his all-in-the-family-era name (Cliff? Ralph? Stanley?): a tall, grizzled, indeterminately-aged, spastic-limbed panhandler who, at various pub entrances—principally, the Churchill on Government Street, near Morris Tobacconists—would make his lurching approach toward passersby and exiting beer hall patrons, never begging but asking in a repetitive singsong: “I work around the house for a dollar.” Given his uncertain control of his limbs, it seemed safer to give him spare change than a job, which may have been the point. Whether he was homeless or just a “business-hours” beggar is unknown to me.

Forty-five years on, he’s a panhandler no more, but feasting, I’m sure, at God’s long table. Victoria has survived his presence, seen ’seventies hippies morph into real estate salespeople, witnessed Eaton’s crawl to the retailer’s bone yard, and by steady increments become less exclusively the home of a generation of “nearly-dead,” cane-assisted pensioners, and more the mailing address of a new wave of active retirees (a shopper demographic, I believe), urban professionals and telecommuting executives, a large creative and consulting community, the occasional young person (we control their numbers with OFF! spray), and everyone else craving Canada’s least punishing weather and most forgiving social environment. Victoria has become less quaint, charming and village-like, more a city. Local real estate values have gone stratospheric and alternative health practitioners are a dime a dozen, though you wouldn’t know it from their fee schedules. Healing and protection of people—I say this with a minimum of sarcasm—may always have been our soft city’s destiny. 

As nurturing and edgeless as things may be here, the wide world is astir, and the air is heavy with risk. Let me be candid: Have you ever looked the Devil in the eye? One percent of the population owning 50 percent of the world’s wealth is a prescription for chaos, as it has been before in history. When the dam breaks, all other bets are off, quite possibly along with a lot of heads. Ditto climate Russian roulette, but that’s another story. 

Without intending to draw an exact parallel with the above, I direct your attention to the increasingly hard-to-miss socio-economic crack in our local paradise, visible, sometimes quite literally, behind the next Garry oak: park tenting, street begging, shopping-cart homelessness and parking lot camping—a great deal of it—its epicenter Downtown, but with long  lines radiating into our neighbourhoods. 

Ask yourself: passing fad or Dickensian foretaste in these eerie times? 

We study history, understand it as a record of our patterns, accept the principle of historical recrudescence, promise with high-minded speeches to learn from our missteps, and then, oblivious to all of that, run our lives on the same blundering assumptions and self-interests, turned away from the fact that history is reality’s operating manual. This paradox is understandable because bad news is never about us, only what happens to other people. 

Or, as Otis sang, you don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry.

I’ve never been hungry or cold a day in my life, never lacked for a night’s shelter, or skills to market. I don’t talk with imaginary friends, don’t rock back and forth on my haunches, uttering ritualized gibberish. My body doesn’t scream for drugs or booze. I don’t pedal around Downtown’s streets on a bike, selling crack or heroin. I don’t eat soup mix boosted from a convenience store. I’m not a predator. My parents didn’t hector or diminish me, or drop kick me into a hard world—I’m not broken. I generate repartee sprinkled with irony and weltschmerz so rarified and entertaining that I’m almost a party act. I’m educated, coherent, hard-working, publically engaged—a model citizen, just like you.

Know what I think? There, but for the grace of God…

So how exactly does it work? For them? How do people who started out with a head and the standard 20 digits get to such a place of lousy self-image and collapse of ego that they are able to take up a piece of sidewalk and remain planted there for several hours until…what? Some drugs are sold or scored? Or the high wears off? Until the pity or shame of passersby turns into a quarter, a dollar, five? Until a buddy comes by with a six-pack or some distracting idea, or the need to defecate forces a visit to the public washroom in Centennial Square or some alley or city greenspace? Until the cops or someone else with a uniform and a scowl moves you along, or a shopkeeper comes out with curses and threats? Or it’s mealtime at some nearby social serving agency?

Bad brains? Bad childhood? Bad attitude? Bad luck?

In stop-and-start traffic on Douglas Street, about 9 one weekday morning, I inch past a pile of rags mounded against one of our blue heritage-style lampposts outside Subway, between Yates and Johnson. At the last moment I realize that the mound of rags features a head of hair resting on the sidewalk. The mound moves amorphously as some human creature within adjusts its sleeping position. Passing that way again late morning, I see the owner of the hair, a woman, forty-ish, now slumped against the Subway wall, surrounded by her rags, begging for change.

“Want to Survive End of Days?” “Gene, Will You Survive The Coming Social Collapse?” “Chemical Cleanser For the Bugs In Your Brain?” asks the junk in my email inbox. Here’s a simpler, more immediate supplication: “Keep me off Douglas Street.”

To be fair, it’s not each and every street. But in the right light and at the right hour, it’s possible to get the feeling that by increments, Downtown’s streets are turning into asylum corridors. It never breaks out as social eruption. No, it’s insidious; it’s just…there. Meanwhile, middle-class shoppers, way past their “urban adventure” years, vote with their wheels and head to Uptown and the Superstore. 

And besides, the street people, where would you send ’em, what would you do with ’em?

Uh, house ’em?

I think the presence of so many beggars crashed in front of convenience stores, so much flyblown humanity pushing shopping carts mounded with crap (I exclude those productively collecting deposit containers) is an expression of social collapse and a slowly but visibly spreading social cancer. I think the appropriation of public parks—everything from Beacon Hill Park to some tiny neighbourhood oasis on Caledonia—as camping and tenting and crashing space is socially damaging, destructive of community tone and well-being, and a full-colour snapshot of response failure. 

I believe it indicts us. I worry there’s payback for inaction.

Sure, it’s all Harper’s fault. The vanishing funding. His nastiness. Everything’s Harper’s fault. I bit my lip yesterday gnawing on a pork chop bone. Harper’s (or his successor’s) fault, but God knows, not my own.

Small blessings: We can calculate the number of street-living, shopping-cart-pushing chronically homeless—350 or so, or about one per thousand of the regional population. The number isn’t overwhelming, and it doesn’t make a response impossible. 

All of which makes so revealing the prevailing tone of the hundred-plus comments following the Times Colonist’s [OR our almost-daily newpaper’s] recent story about Mayor Lisa Helps who, if you missed the news, “paid” a $20 stipend to each of about 350 homeless to attend a forum/workshop to consider positive housing responses. Predictably, readers’ anger surfaced: Helps is a commie, a socialist, a fool, Victoria’s worst mayor ever. Ditto councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday.

Funny, I see Helps as a model of enterprise, prescient about the need for timely reinvestment. She reckons the social costs and the cost to the Downtown economy of the visible presence of the homeless who come from the region and beyond, and proposes to direct regional financial resources to alleviate the problem. Find the stupid in that.

There is an interesting feature to the structure of everyday life: Worries remain hairline cracks, neglected until they turn into chasms. It’s hard to get sufficient attention, to isolate and focus, to marshal resources, to act. A lot of social noise gets in the way of a constructive response: “Yeah, they have no skills, but they sure know how to work the system.” “Hey, Victoria has all the provincial government jobs and the tourist dollars, so fuck ’em, let ’em deal with the street people.” “The blue bridge, sewage treatment, homeless housing—when is this taxpayer rape going to stop?”

Recent CRD reports paint an uneasy picture: Thousands of regional households are living on the margins of housing affordability in our pricey little town. It’s a thin and porous membrane, and some folks are a paycheque away from eviction. When people are living on margins that narrow, any economic judder can shake them off. So, how about 700 homeless? Or 1500? 1500’s a nice number. It trips off the tongue. 

Me, I like zero. There but for the grace of God.

Gene Miller is a founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability.