streets are the 21st century asylums

Dave came and went from our lives for a few years. Like the homeless here in Whitehorse, he survived bitterly cold Winnipeg winter nights by couch…

Dave came and went from our lives for a few years.

Like the homeless here in Whitehorse, he survived bitterly cold Winnipeg winter nights by couch surfing.

Our apartment building just south of the Osborne Village area provided him with several friendly refuges.

Eva and I didn’t have a couch in the early days of our marriage, but we had a mat and bedroll that he could and did occasionally use.

Dave was in his early 20s and his life had already been bashed and battered by cross currents, snags and some not so hidden obstructions.

A victim of childhood abuse he had turned to drugs and alcohol for solace.

Burdened by these, Dave knew that he always hung just at the edge of a whirlpool that could suck him down in an instant.

When he came to us, though, he usually was on the upswing and looking for a way to stay above that hopelessness for awhile.

We eventually lost touch with Dave.

Back in the late ‘80s, I did run across him again on the downtown East Side of Vancouver.

The downtown East Side is one of those places that seem to catch the cast-offs, the flotsam and jetsam of our individualized, isolating, consumer society.

The Carnegie Community Centre there had thrown out a lifeline to him.

Dave had joined a group of street poets and authors at the centre and had begun writing.

Buried in my piles of paper I think I still have one of his pieces, in it the pathos he described of his street life couldn’t hide the glimmer of hope he still saw.

Last week in Vancouver I half expected to see him again when I headed over to St. Andrews Wesley United Church just down Burrard from St. Paul’s Hospital for a forum called End Homelessness Now!

I scanned the audience of several hundred, but no Dave.

Had he made a new life for himself or simply vanished, submerged by societal indifference, government cutbacks and the accumulated pain he bore?

“No homes, no jobs and no hope” characterized for Mike Harcourt, the former BC premier and a panelist that evening, the lives of a growing number of people in Vancouver.

Dr. Nancy Hall the forum’s moderator noted that earlier in the day Senator Michael Kirby, the new commissioner for the Canadian Mental Health Commission speaking at another gathering in Vancouver had called homeless shelters and the streets “the asylums of the 21st century.”

A backgrounder prepared for the forum stated that “The most common estimate is that 30 to 50 per cent of the people who are homeless have a mental illness.

If you include addiction with mental illness the figure rises to 80 per cent.”

Estimates place the number of people sleeping on the streets in Vancouver every night as high as 2,000 with another 700 in shelters and an unknown number couch surfing.

The number of people on the street is expected to double by the time the Olympics come to Vancouver in 2010.

One panel on a photo display at the forum starkly laid out this reality.

“There’s no way out down here,” lamented Kerry, a 25-year-old from Prince George.

“If young people want to live their lives like worthless pieces of shit, then move down here.”

Christine, a 46-year-old from Alberta, gave some simple advice to young people thinking that life on the street would somehow be better that dealing with the problems they face, “Don’t.”

“No homeless by 2015” was the political challenge Mike Harcourt threw out to us the audience.

His sentiments were mirrored by Rafe Mair, the well-known broadcaster also a panelist.

“Unless citizens let elected officials know there will be a political cost to leaving people homeless, they won’t get off their asses and do something substantial enough to solve the problem.”

Here the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition has put out a similar challenge: make the Yukon hunger free.

Homelessness and hunger both demand our compassion, concern and action.