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Commentary: Together we can make a difference when it comes to poverty and homelessness

“I paid attention to the people who treated me like a human being”

Jason Charlie

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, “How do we, as a community, deal with poverty and homelessness?” I can only speak from experience and I hope my friend is reading this. Poverty and homelessness means a person has nothing, only an instinct to survive.

The life expectancy for someone who is homeless is 34 to 47 years. The life expectancy for the average Canadian is 77 to 82 years.

I have lived on the streets in Vancouver and here in Whitehorse. I can remember, I was fourteen years old, sleeping during the day on the grass at Oppenheimer Park or Victory Square because the nights were pretty crazy in Vancouver.

Sometimes my growling stomach would wake me and I would hurry off to a nearby soup kitchen, or panhandle for a bag of chips or personal pizza. Sometimes, at night, I would raid someone’s plum tree. Other times, if I had enough, I would go to the Chateau 44 drop-in centre where they served cheap meals.

A point-in-time count that was done in Whitehorse on April 17, 2018 found that at least 195 people were experiencing homelessness that night. Of those, 61 people were absolutely homeless while at least 134 were in provisionally accommodated housing. Seventeen of those people were children younger than 18.

There were many times I would couch-surf at a brother or sister’s place who were from Whitehorse. I met one guy who was from Whitehorse who offered me the floor to sleep on. I declined because he also offered me a chance to shoot up (inject intravenously) some Talwyn and Ritalyn.

Over time, I have thought about that moment. Maybe he sensed the emptiness and loneliness I was feeling – that each passing day grew less illuminating. Being so young, I did not know how to deal with my feelings so I drank, instead of using other substances, my sadness away. It was like there was nothing to live for.

Later I lived in Whitehorse. The difference was that I was older, a full-blown alcoholic, and my family was here. I understood my family had their own lives to live so I tried my best to respect that and did not bother them.

Because I was drinking and not feeling, I stayed wherever I could. I would sleep, pass out in some stairwell, or at the riverbank, or at the clay cliffs. If it was cold, I would try to get a bed at the detox centre or Salvation Army. If there were no beds, I would make a fire at the riverbank or the clay cliffs. Or I would find some car or warm dryer to sleep on. Sometimes, I would make some noise to get thrown into the drunk tank.

Even though I was a bit more aware than when I was a kid, the feeling was the same. The awareness helped me to be a little less careless.

Inside, there was a shimmer of light and the memory of my friend telling me that no matter how dark it gets in the world, the light will always shine through. In a sense, for some reason, I clung to the idea that life will get better but I was still dying inside. My life experiences, the habits were ingrained; I was conditioned.

On the street, I would be depressed and stressed out about my next meal or where I would sleep. It was paralyzing. The uncertainty stays and freezes you to the point of seeking numbing avenues to escape. I understand, now, the effects of PTSD, the fear, and apprehension; people’s daily stresses of how basic needs (food, shelter, and medicine) will be met.

In 2018 the living wage in Whitehorse was $18.57 per hour, an increase of $0.31 per hour compared to 2017. Minimum wage in the Yukon as of April 1, 2018 is $11.51 per hour, $7.06 less than the living wage.

Different life circumstances can lead a human being to a state of vulnerability.

I know, as a community, we can break the cycle. When I talk with people on the street, I tell them to find someone they trust and talk with them; it enables them to reach who they are as a human being and let go of the trauma which is holding them back. We are social creatures and need to be included.

Like I said, I could not have made it without the help from others. In both places (Vancouver and Whitehorse) I was with people who were in similar life situations. We took care of each other and shared what we had. We were only as strong as our weakest member and I would only follow those who had our best interest at heart.

I paid attention to the people who treated me like a human being. Those were the people who offered guidance, support, and encouragement. It was the humanness: a pat on the back, a smile here and there, being offered a coffee or cigarette, or people expressing words like, “Do not give up”. The little subtleties, no matter how small, made the difference. Rapport must be developed and nurtured.

From my interactions with vulnerable people, I know they are smart, beautiful people. They are just trying to find their way. They have very valuable life experience to offer. If it were not for the love and compassion shown to me, people would not have reached me. Believe me, I was hardcore.

As a community, we have to remove the biases, the discrimination, and the racism that is shown to vulnerable people. They are stigmatized, looked at as some pestilence, and we forget they, at one time or another, had a home, a family, and a job and were contributing to society. They lost everything dear to them. Most have hit rock-bottom and are continuously kicked when they are down.

Whenever I have a problem, I contemplate. My ancestors come to mind and I remember an old matriarch telling me, “As long as there is breath, there is time for change.”

It is never too late to reach out and offer kindness, compassion – a piece of your heart. Acts of kindness, the vibrations, will send ripples throughout the universe; it will be felt. Living life from the heart is where greatness is born – creating heaven on earth.

I believe we all can make a difference. Life is a process and together, as a community, any obstacle can be overcome. Healing is getting back to normal growth function and it is a lifelong journey. We can start by treating vulnerable people the way we want to be treated.

Jason Charlie is a Whitehorse resident who completed this opinion piece as a part of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s Voices Influencing Change program.