Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 16-17
There is an unexpected knock at my door, this December day in 2006. It's my brother, who I haven't seen or spoken with in a year.
He has quite literally been missing. I reported him missing to the Vancouver Police Department missing persons registry around Thanksgiving, as my elderly mother hadn't seen him for six weeks.
The police reported that he was in town, withdrawing small amounts from his bank account. This behaviour, they said, was characteristic of someone living in the chaos of the Downtown Eastside (DTES). He was not psychotic enough, however, to be hospitalized under the Mental Health Act. At least I found out that he was alive and not one of the "missing." The current pig farmer1 trial adds a double edge to family members of people who are missing.
My brother has dropped out of his mental health treatment program and moved to the DTES. In the past year, he has moved from his own apartment, to my mom's condo on the eve of spending New Year's in a homeless shelter, to a respite bed because my mom couldn't have him in her tiny space any longer, and then from one single room occupancy hotel (SRO)† to another in the DTES.
He is homeless. He is not counted among the 1,200 people who sleep in our streets every night, but he does not have a secure and healthy place to call home. He has a single room in a welfare hotel for which he pays $425 per month. He has no running water in his room and the toilet is down the hall. He showers at a Vancouver parks board swimming pool, when he can get to one. Though he is housed, his housing could disappear with the next hotel upgrade that occurs as the City of Vancouver prepares for the Winter Olympics in 2010. He is a member of the underclass, created by governments that have not invested in housing for people like my brother.
I ask if he's hungry. He says he is. But it's a very proud "yes." He says he has a microwave in his hotel room, but he has no way of preparing food and doesn't have any refrigeration. He's having trouble including enough vegetables in his diet. He can't buy any in his neighbourhood, even though he lives on the edge of Chinatown and is actually quite close to several produce stores - he has a delusion that Asians are conspiring to take over the world, and he won't go near them. He has learned this is not a socially acceptable delusion, so when he is well he downplays this. But he still won't go in their stores.
I rack my brain to think of already-prepared food I could give him. I ask him if he's tried heating canned stew or soup in his microwave. He says he has a bowl he could put in the microwave.
I ask if he has a can opener. He says, "No."
"Would you like one?
Getting to yes with someone with oppositional defiant disorder is a major victory. You have no idea how pleasurable it is to give a homeless, mentally ill person a can opener.
I carefully suggest that, now that he has a can opener, he could open a can of soup and heat the soup up in his bowl in the microwave - it is ceramic; okay for the microwave. His mental wheels turn.
"Do you have any soup I can take with me?"
I get a can of soup. It's the kind that doesn't even need a can opener. I show him how to pull the tab on the lid to open it. He watches with real interest.
"You're hungry then?"
He replies that yes, he is hungry, and he doesn't feel well. He's adamant he isn't sleeping because he isn't eating well. And, in case I was going to bring it up, he does not have a mental illness.
I recall that disordered sleep is often an early warning sign of a psychotic episode.
"Did you have any breakfast?"
"No, I haven't, and I don't want you to make me any food."
I get the picture. He is homeless, broke, hungry and proud. All I can do is think of food I can give him that will meet his criteria for working out in an SRO hotel with only a tiny microwave, no water or refrigeration in the room, and a city water system under safety alert due to heavy winter rains. And that, above all, will allow him to maintain his dignity.
I see that most of the food in my cupboard requires preparation. I'm a devotee of How to Be a Domestic Goddess, so my brother and I are far apart. And yet, there is an art to cooking in an SRO on welfare. Every social service and health worker who is paid to care for homeless people should try it out for a week.
There is an unopened box with eight packages of instant oatmeal in my cupboard. Would he like that?
"Oatmeal is good."
I also throw some apples in what has become the food bag. He tells me he has a coffee maker in his room. Would he like some tea to take with him? Yes, he would like some - just the orange pekoe type. How about some bottled water? Yes, he would take some.
"Have you thought about going to the shelters for lunches and dinners?"
"No." He knows the DTES scene. He says the quality of the food and the hassle of the experience is not worth it.
Mentally ill people are called "bugs" in the homeless community, and they are fair game to pick on. Junkies working for their next fix are extremely aggressive, particularly meth addicts. But above all, and despite the reality of his existence in the poorest postal code in Canada, he cannot bring himself to join the ranks of the walking wounded living on the social system in the DTES. He cannot ask for help. His logic: if I do not receive help, then I am not ill with one of the most discriminated-against conditions in the medical dictionary: schizophrenia.
My brother has what psychiatrists call "refractory or treatment-resistant mental illness." One doctor told me that he lacks "executive function"; that is, the frontal lobe can't coordinate. It doesn't seem to matter what my mother and I do. We can't treat him. But for some 20 years we've kept a gentle, dignified watch around him - something the system doesn't know how to do.
"I'm moving to Surrey." He says they have golf courses in Surrey and he can find a better place to live there. He talks about not liking the DTES. There are bugs in his room.
"I understand. Are you safe?"
"I don't like living there."
This is the closest he has come to expressing despair about his living situation. He doesn't use drugs, so the depravity that goes with mental illness and concurrent addiction is quite a horror to his 'plain ordinary' psychoses and delusional thinking. His psychosis is ever-present. And yet seems to come and go within the moment. Some moments are clear; others are baffling. I am never quite sure which is which until he reaches the end of a sentence or paragraph.
My brother is part of the cash/no benefit economy. He wants to move away from the crisis-prone poverty community he lives in and the health care system that knows something about him, but consistently humiliates him. It forces him to take treatment and never gives the kind of support he wants to get well, like support to get a job.
I can see he is starting to unravel. I've seen him approach the edge of madness numerous times before.
"I just need to eat the right food and then I would feel better. I could then move to Surrey and go golfing." He stands up and takes a swing with an imaginary club. "Yup. Go to Surrey and golf."
I am desperately trying to think of some way to make Surrey seem less desirable to him. The Surrey he can afford is ripe with meth users, and the scene is tough. I try a new approach.
"It would be great if you lived near us, as Mom is 82 and is getting frail."
"She has been getting frail for several years now, and that's her problem, not mine. I have to look out for myself."
I know the conversation is rather fruitless. And I know there is no safe housing for someone like my brother outside of the DTES. My neighbours actively campaign against such housing. I am suddenly shamed by the reality of the housing situation in Vancouver for people with a mental illness who are homeless. I understand how going to Surrey, a community where he is unknown, is a more appealing choice outside of the DTES. But I worry that the stresses of moving may also push him over the edge that separates functionality from madness.
He stands up suddenly. He grabs his plastic shopping bag of food, puts on his shoes and stomps out into the snow. Here this moment; gone to Surrey tomorrow . . . Maybe.
I hope he can figure out how to microwave the food he took. And I hope he can't figure out the way to Surrey. Better he lives with the dream of golfing in Surrey. And wonderful that he is still capable of imagining a better future in the midst of chaos, disability and hunger.
About the author
Maggie* is a safely housed sister
- This reference is to the trial, begun in January 2007, of Robert William Pickton, a Port Coquitlam, BC, pig farmer charged with the murders of 26 women who had gone missing from the Downtown Eastside between 1995 and 2002.