FILE — A group of homeless people gather at Linear Park on 25th Ave. near People Place. (Parker Crook/Morning Star)

COLUMN: Demystifying the homeless

Things are thrown at them, and some of them are physically assaulted.

Carole Fawcett

For the Morning Star

“Why don’t you get a [expletive] job?” is frequently yelled out the car window as people drive by Linear Park, where some of the homeless hang out.

Things are thrown at them, and some of them are physically assaulted. It is safer to hang around in a group.

“It wasn’t my goal to become a homeless person when I was a kid,” stated one young woman. “People don’t want to be here, but things happen, situations occur and sometimes we end up here. Trust me — it can happen to anyone. I don’t know why people don’t get that.”

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“I first started to go to the Mission when I was 10 years old. My Mom was addicted to drugs, so that was how I was raised”.

“We really need housing, but it seems like most of the housing is for old people.”

“I’m always [expletive] tired. It’s kinda hard to sleep anywhere and I was even booted out of one place because I fell asleep and I guess they thought I was high. I wasn’t. I was just tired. People are so rude and mean. I cry a lot.”

“I have HIV, agoraphobia and I admit, I do use some drugs. I have a place to live, but the money I get from my disability isn’t enough, so I stand here and on some days I get $200. It really helps a lot. I do try to work every now and then, but I find it very very hard to be around people — even standing here talking to you I feel stressed.”

“The Mission is only open for five days a week, so I can’t get food on Saturday and Sunday.”

These are just a few of the things I was told when I talked with some homeless souls.

The blaming and shaming attitude of the “just say no” movement (Nancy Reagan, circa 1986) still prevails. It makes those who use feel even worse than they already do — which may be why they use drugs in the first place, to numb the feelings of unworthiness. A former drug user shared with me that using drugs takes over your mind and body. It becomes almost impossible to think about anything else as you fixate on how to keep yourself feeling good enough to cope with life and keep the demons at bay.

It is frequently trauma that may have sent someone spiralling into drugs or alcohol addiction. It can be sexual or physical abuse in the home, or by someone close to you, as well as many other types of abuse. It becomes very challenging to find counselling or ongoing help for any of these issues when you live on the street and don’t have an address, and almost impossible if you are actively in your addiction.

In order to do so, you have to fall under the mandate of all the different agencies. This can be challenging in itself, as while they want to help (and do), they can almost collide due to their various mandates. It’s called bureaucracy and it can stifle forward movement as we get stuck in the paper spiral of red tape.

I’m told that if you are a drug user, you will not qualify for financial assistance. This could be a bit of a catch 22, as a lot of folks have mental health issues and turn to drugs as a way to cope or numb their emotional pain. Illegal activities then become a way to obtain money.

There are so many barriers, with the biggest one being housing. If someone has a roof over their head and can get a good nights’ sleep, it stands to reason they will feel better about themselves. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs speaks to this, with the three basic needs being food, shelter and healthcare. There will always be hardcore people who, no matter what, will choose life on the street, not willing to adhere to any rules. But the numbers could drop drastically if service delivery changed and housing was available.

Some of you may be aware of how the municipality of Medicine Hat, Alta. dealt with the problem of homelessness. They have a ‘housing first’ plan, where regardless of where an individual may be at in their sobriety, people are provided with housing and other supports. It has been very successful. Perhaps it would be a good model for Vernon to adopt.

In Portugal, in 2001 they took it one step further and decriminalized drugs, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. They decided to treat possession (small amounts) as a public health issue and decriminalized it. The drugs remained illegal, but getting caught with them meant a small fine and a referral to a treatment program. There would be no jail and no criminal record. This decision saved lives and the opioid crisis stabilized. They worked together with the addict and paved the way for the likelihood of success in overcoming the addiction.

This systemic change flowed throughout the country, right down to the average person and people were speaking more respectfully with a deeper understanding, of those who had addiction challenges.

It has been proven that the authoritarian (behave this way or else) approach does not work, and in fact, only exacerbates the situation. Granted, there has to be some rules and regulations, but they need to be used as guidelines with flexibility built in.

We must remember that the homeless are all someone’s child, mother, father, sister, brother or friend. They are human beings who did not purposely choose to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. The circumstances of their life created this path, and given that current treatment models have low recovery rates, we must step up and provide the support so that all our citizens can live with dignity and self-respect. Perhaps it is time for a change.

Carole Fawcett is a freelance writer and editor.

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