Reprinted from "Criminal Justice" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (8), p. 7
all too often, the people I find sleeping in doorways, alleys and public parks have spent years of their lives incarcerated. Usually they entered the prisons with a head injury, a mental illness, an addiction and/or a chaotic lifestyle. They usually left prison relatively healthy, with a community reintegration plan in place. Yet, now they are sleeping outside— cold, hungry, and without medication, housing or supports. They tend to remain in the streets for years, until they are hospitalized or re-incarcerated. The staff they work with need to place more emphasis on the realities of living in extreme poverty.
There is nowhere in the Lower Mainland and perhaps nowhere in Canada that alcohol and street drugs cannot be readily obtained. However, in the urban core of most cities—in spite of the prevalence of social problems—it is possible to find an affordable room within walking distance of the supports and services ex-offenders need. Affordable, secure housing is the cornerstone to accessing mental health and recovery services.
Living away from the urban core tends to cut a person off from access to services. A missed welfare appointment often results in the welfare file being closed, loss of all income, eviction for non-payment of rent, and so, living in an alley.
The toll of “living rough”
People who live rough experience constant, overwhelming stress. Within the first two weeks of living outside, most people have their backpack, bedding, watch and wallet stolen. With this theft, they lose their ID, the last of their mementos (i.e., children’s pictures), and the names and phone numbers of people who could help them. This theft usually involves violence, facial injury, and physical and emotional trauma, Beatings, serious threats, recurrent thefts of panhandled money, even theft of shoes from their feet is a fact of life for people who live outside. The blanket may be taken from their body while they sleep, by another cold, tired, homeless person, a final disillusionment. There may also be unsavoury encounters with police. With the loss of a home base, they have lost identity, companions, possessions, status, safety, ritual, structure, hygiene and grooming. Not surprisingly, their mental health deteriorates quickly.
When people live “dormer à la belle étoile” (“sleeping under the beautiful star,” in absolute homelessness), they soon begin to exhibit a cluster of symptoms. The full cluster of these symptoms did not apply to the person while they had a home, and most symptoms disappear within days or weeks, once the person moves into a room of their own. This full cluster of symptoms is specific to people who are living outside, and includes the loss of trust, inability to hope, sleep deprivation, blood sugar swings, ennui (boredom or weariness), alienation, confusion, inability to plan, loss of most abstract thought, inability to respond to complex questions, disbelief that their actions can lead to predictable results, extreme fear, and the inability to envision a realistic future. In addition, during homelessness, most people lose awareness of time and date. Without a regular sleep pattern, hours, days and weeks blur. Further clouding perception may be the psychosis, depression, FASD, alcoholism or other addiction, and/or the broken heart that contributed to the original incarceration.
Life is spent grabbing sleep in three to four hour stretches, standing in food lines, waiting in line to use a phone, a shower, a toilet. Time may be spent overcoming aversion to panhandling, “dumpster diving” and prostitution. Relapse to addiction is inevitable
There is almost no mental health outreach into the homeless population, and there is no welfare outreach. At this time, there is little possibility that a homeless person with co-existing disorders will find their own way through the system and back to indoor living. Those with prison experience often gravitate to small colonies of people living rough with those who share their background. Time is spent participating in underground economies and in drug use. Consequently, they avoid supportive services, become inaccessible to the little outreach service that does exist, and rely solely on the shelterless subculture in which they are living.
We can ignite sufficient hope in a homeless individual that they will allow us to lead them through the system from welfare to housing, but only if we can produce results within a few days. Producing results quickly in the current political climate is a near impossibility. And while a person can be led, they cannot, while homeless, be sent to complete tasks with any expectation of success.
Homelessness is a disability in and of itself—more disempowering than all the other disabilities put together.
Realistic release strategies must plan on housing and support
It is imperative that a release plan, based on establishing a welfare file and securing housing close to services, be in place before people are released from incarceration. Prison staff preparing people to go back into the community must work with full awareness of the constraints of living on a welfare income. To survive, people need to be near food banks and soup kitchens, medical staff, neighbours who are not afraid of them, and mental health services with food and activity programs. These needs are not met in upscale neighbourhoods, where the street drug availability is hidden.
Pre-release planning may need to include living in an urban core neighbourhood where drugs are sold in plain view. Such a neighbourhood will also provide tolerant landlords, more flexible welfare offices, advocacy services to prevent eviction, and addiction recovery services. A small room in a residential hotel in the city’s core provides sustainable housing where ongoing services can be secured, giving people realistic hope of achieving other goals they have.
An addict seeking to relapse will find a ready supply of drugs in any community, no matter how invisible the drug market is to those who do not use street drugs. At the same time, our media has done a disservice by failing to portray how readily sobriety can be sustained in urban core neighbourhoods. It is a well-hidden secret that many who live in deep poverty use no drugs whatsoever, and that the majority of people living in the urban core are not addicted. Hidden behind an all too visible drug market, is a vibrant and healthy community where people enjoy meaningful lives.
About the author
Judy is Coordinator of the Tenant Assistance Program at Vancouver City Hall. To find the homeless “at home,” Judy walks the city overnight—counting, waking, interviewing and assisting the people who make their homes outside