“There will always be room in my parking lot for a little coke and sympathy” Rolling Stones.
In October, 2015, I returned to Canada after a long absence to find myself, sometime well after dark, in the rather fine art and architecture of Vancouver International Airport. It was the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend and I was alone, destitute with nowhere to go. I was only 76 at the time, walking with a cane and lugging a passel of well loaded suitcases with about everything I owned on board.
It seemed prudent to seek official support; so I found and announced my predicament to some lovely young RCMP officers (all about the age of grandchildren). I placed myself entirely in their hands. Two hours later, about midnight, an airport security officer escorted me to the Chapel, where there was a lovely Murphy bed ready with clean sheets to receive my very weary person.
When I awoke there were two kindly grey-haired ladies there, volunteers, who welcomed me with a card for Tim Horton’s across the hall. I could choose any breakfast from their menu. Happy Turkey Day, I was ready for coffee and yoghurt, the very thing, indeed!
I stayed with them for an unprecedented two nights. On Tuesday morning, the official chaplain arrived and quickly was on the telephone to arrange for me a place in shelter to stay. I was shown a taxi to take me to downtown Vancouver to the Salvation Army Belkin House on Homer Street.
Well, it is the Army, you know: dormitories, clean, with 4 beds in each room, a bathroom with showers down the hall, a 7 am wake-up call and 11 pm curfew, their official chapel down the hall for devotions, a strict no drug or alcohol use policy and a 24 hour staff. It was certainly a welcome sight at that stage of my repatriation back into Canada.
I was on the 7th floor of the shelter on the woman’s floor for females and mothers with children. There was an assorted group of quite desperate ladies, mostly in their young 20’s, or 30’s obviously off the streets and working at cleaning up their drug habits: all homeless and in need of solace. Many of these darlings were very hard core street people.
For me, just here again after so many years, it was a very big shock. It was necessary for me to quickly come up to speed on what was happening in the regions where I was born; where I had left from in 1973.
It was not a pretty picture but there we were and except for the rigidity of the institution and its program, rules and regulations, its hierarchy, we could be thankful for the safety to be found within the cement walls: a space to rest, decent enough meals and proximity to the downtown.
I stayed there through the Christmas season until late in January, through the deep of the winter cold, rainy weather. Christmas week we were treated to a festive dinner served on charmingly decorated tables with centerpieces and glittery baubles by some lovely people from one of the local churches bringing us our sliced turkey, mashers, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
The donations closets were scoured and piles of clothing and shoes were brought out onto five long tables. We might have our pick from among theassorted leavings and some definitely usable, even handsome clothing. It was an interesting kind of gifting tree. Me and my vanity found a pretty white lace skirt, a couple of warm scarves, a wool sweater.
By mid-January, when I had stretched the time well over the Salvation Army 30 day limit (their subsidies from the B.C. government depend on a rapid turnover of people). I was packed off to the Look Out organization shelter on Yukon Street across the Granville bridge, south across False Creek to a different neighborhood. It was the same enough: free bed and free meals.
This time there was the variance in that this place had a harm reduction policy. Although there was no overt use of drugs permitted, there was plenty of covert, in the room and outside down the block indulgence in cocaine, crack, some methamphetamines, heroin and a lot of marijuana (the sweet smell of excess!) The ladies in my room sat every evening like chirruping birds to inhale from a pipe. I watched allowing that they needed something for themselves in that activity which I had never been related to in any way.
By proximity there I was learning tolerance, release of any kind of judgment allowing myself to observe their behavior from a place in myself that neither understood their compulsions nor felt any distress for their poor choices. It was obvious they did not realize the downhill path they were treading and certainly it was equally apparent that any word from me would be resented. Leave it alone was my choice.
The place was full of ever more heavily addicted people, a lot of men who sprawled all day on the bank of sofas in front of a blaring television watching bad shootem’ up with rocket launchers kinds of sci-fi flicks, cowboy westerns and cop shows. The ladies were a little more subtle but equally involved with the television. I saw how deadly the brain entrainment is of those flickering pictures and subliminal messages. Addiction extends to television, cigarettes and sugar.
The kitchen was a rather less wholesome than Belkin with a cranky cooking staff to serve. Both places offered what’s been called the SAD diet: standard American diet style: farmed meat and potatoes, pasta, mac and cheese, canned soups, very short on fresh green salads. Bundles of cake and cookies, sugary juices and 2% milk in gallons all meted out serving by serving to the shuffling lineups.
The winter weather was dismal and even more tedious than I remember and by late in February, I found myself abed for about four days. On the 5th day, as I arose, my lungs coughed up a horrid mass of black sticky stuff. Somehow over many years, I had eaten enough strength into my body that it had just gotten rid of a 30-year accumulation of smog from LA, pesticides, coal tar, preservatives, formaldehyde residues and a bunch of heavy metals from driving around a great deal.
It is a testament to the concern of the shelter that next day the administrator packed me off to Vancouver General for rehab with doctors’ antibiotics and oxygen therapy. Turned out I had a big case of pneumonia first in 76 years; I was in both VGH and then UBC hospitals for a total of seven weeks. It was determined by testing my ability to walk and reading my heart rate which soared with that formerly ordinary effort, that it was necessary to be mobile with the aid of a wheel chair quickly supplied by the Red Cross organization. When I was brought back to Belkin house early in April, the chair changed my stay in shelter considerably.
What were they going to do with a nearly 77-year-old lady trundling in a wheelchair with a housing situation in Vancouver bordering on plain zero? There were no available accommodations for anybody at just about any reasonable price anywhere.
It was a very stressful time because on the one hand their mandate at Belkin House of only 30 days was being extended and extended, and I was being required to phone daily all the shelter options in the city and surrounding territory, none of which had vacancies, many of which were not even wheelchair accessible. Their pressure was intense for me and I surely twigged to the fact that I was no longer just older, I was – old! It was in this cauldron that I began to figure out what the game of some of these charity institutions is really all about.
In a nutshell: the institutions exist to perpetuate themselves. People are employed who fit the criteria there is and that maintains the artificial public image of their charity when it is really all about government funding based on numbers. For those of us in the beds, it was clear that 30 days was about the limit. As each worker fits the criteria and behavioral norms in place then tenure is available to them. They keep their jobs. Some of the people accepted these conditions without question and some were restive; one lady left quite abruptly after a Friday morning shift. Most really do perform with high degrees of skill and often immense dedication. Round of applause to them: these people make life in the shelter, a very public life with very little privacy manageable.
It is important to notice that each person there is really two people. One of them is a ‘job description,’ a list of attributes that makes them employable and the second is a real person, flesh and blood with feelings and emotions, and a home to go to after each shift.
Always the job description wins out and each of us is at service of the institutional game. This results in a loss of the individuality of the inmates in favor of a number: how many of us have to be processed each month in order for the coffers to be filled from the government charged with funding.
By the end of July, 9 months after I had arrived in Vancouver, I had overstayed my welcome. Of a mandated 90 days a year, I was approaching 250 days. One evening I was scuttled off in a taxi to Powell Place, operated by yet another organization, the Bloom Group, way over on Powell Street in the downtown east side of Vancouver.
Fortunately for me (well, being a senior senior and disabled to boot is a really “big ticket”: I was given a room of my own and a virtually unlimited option to be sheltered there. There was even a warm welcome offered!) Until I could obtain funding from the Feds, my pensions and GIS enabling me to be housed in a market saturated to the level of .06 vacancy they were stuck with me. I was learning how to be a good guest.
I can report to you, gentle reader, that the tax money you provide is generally being used properly. There is no overt graft or pay off game in place. However, there are conditions and points of view held by the institutions themselves that vary greatly across the three different places I have stayed in over a little more than two and a half years back home in Canada.
From my personal point of view, (a highly functioning much older lady wheeling in a chair) where I was last, Powell Place has suited me the best, minimum rules and no curfew. The board of directors and the management are aware of conditions on the street: there is really very little adequate housing for any people of low income, even if they can actually function as ordinary tenants.
The end of the story is this: the staff and management at Powell Place advocated for me to be housed in a new Atira project downtown on Hastings Street in the heart of the ghetto. I am grateful, indeed, not only for the dedicated service I was treated to but also the compassion and hard work of ladies who found me this fine place to live. I’m surely old enough, on my birthday this year, I begin the count down to end 8 decades. Thank you very much.