State of mind, part II

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

In early November, a couple weeks after my initial excursions downtown, and tour of the Drop-In Centre, I went back with Gauntlet news editor Katy Anderson. We parked my car in front of the YMCA and walked the two blocks to the front entrance of the DIC. Against the gate separating the DIC’s driveway from the street, a man and a woman were making out. A little ways beyond them, sitting on the curb of the driveway opposite us, was a young man wearing ragged clothes and with a cigarette tucked into his hat.

Anderson went up to the man and greeted him. After only a few moments, he agreed to an interview. During the discussion Rayrey Babcock, a 21-year old who has been living on the streets for seven years, said that, in his opinion, there was not in fact a large prevalence of mental illness amongst the homeless (except in the elderly), and that a lot of the substance abuse stemmed from the simple fact that people on the streets couldn’t find anything to do. They did drugs because they were bored.

“Everywhere you go you see people [doing drugs],” said Babcock “You think they want to do that? They want to go to school, they want to live good. But if their home that they lived in and were brought up in was substance and drugs and alcohol, then that’s exactly what they’re going to become. It’s hard to get away from that because you’re brought up into that.”

Babcock said that a lot of people on the streets abuse drugs and alcohol because it is the only available distraction.

“They’ve got so much pain and guilt of what they’ve been through, all they want to do is do drugs or drink to try to solve their problems,” said Babcock. “Of course it doesn’t work, but they don’t see that.”

Babcock also elaborated on the difficulties of getting yourself out of such a situation.

“Some of them go to rehab, but what’s rehab?” said Babcock. “You’re only in for like a week or two weeks, and then you come right back out to the same system you’re in. Of course you’re not going to be clean.”

This problem is also being recognized by the mental health industry, which is making moves to change its practices in accordance with what are being recognized as the best way to treat homeless individuals with substance abuse problems.

“The premise now has switched,” said Calgary Health Region coordinator of mental health housing Bettie Yanota. “We used to say before ‘if you behave, take your medicine, don’t abuse drugs and see your follow-up worker then we’ll help you with housing.’ It’s reversed now. We’re beginning to realize, how can you behave and get well and do all this stuff if you don’t have a house?”

As the homeless population continues to grow, the services aren’t catching up, Babcock noted.

“All these agencies and everything should be growing too, as much as the people,” said Babcock. “I’m not seeing that happen. When pregnant teens need help and they’re homeless or if they’re doing drugs and they want to try to get help, some of them get turned away. Why should they get denied?”

PTSD, abuse, negligence and those predisposed

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has a huge role to play in pushing people towards substance abuse and homelessness, noted David Chakravorty. He identified domestic violence, particularly against women, as a large contributor to the problem. Immigrants and refugees who are suffering PTSD are also a concern and often do not receive the care they need. They wind up on the streets self-medicating their past away, with little ability to leave that situation.

“[There is a challenge] facing us with a [growing] intake of refugees and immigrants from war-torn areas continues to grow,” said Chakravorty. “Local immigrant support agencies lack expertise in dealing with mental health and homelessness issues. Issues around culture, language and support make it very difficult to get these people connected to the long-term help they need to overcome their demons and get settled.”

People brought up in a traumatic environment can go on to become addicted and homeless, according to Calgary Urban Project Society direct of operations Robert Perry.

“I’d say those people who had traumatic events in their early childhood are the ones predisposed,” said Perry. “The traumatic event in your childhood could be substance abuse by your parents, could be homelessness by the parents, it could be involvement with the residential school system or with child welfare.”

Patrick Cluff

There is a liquor store located directly behind the DIC. This seemed grossly inappropriate when I first noticed it and my initial inclination was to interview the manager about why they would be so callous as to build a liquor store in such a location (Chakravorty had said that the store had been built after the old DIC, noting with a certain black humour that it was assuredly one of the busiest liquor stores in the city). As Anderson and I walked towards the store, we passed two police officers standing in the parking lot between it and the Cecil.

There were two people inside. An overweight man wearing a raggedy t-shirt who we would see in about half an hour in the Cecil Tavern as we drank our beers, and a woman who my memory refuses to describe. Buoyed with confidence from the success of our last interview, I told them that we were from the university paper and asked if we could talk to them about substance abuse amongst the homeless population, noting that they must see many such individuals given their location. The woman ignored me and the man was obviously uncomfortable and reluctant to speak. Then, as I began to wonder if this would be a fruitless excursion, a man wearing glasses, a hat and a violent yellow coat came out of an office located behind the cash registers, near the door. The overweight man told yellow jacket that he should speak with us. My initial guess–that he was the manager–was blown out of the water as he said that he himself had been homeless for some time and had only recently begun to work at the liquor store.

Patrick Cluff, 58, the man in the yellow jacket, talked about his experience living on the streets.

“It is not pleasant,” said Cluff. “Especially if you’re a couple. It’s hard enough to look after yourself, and now you’ve got to look after somebody else. And it is brutal. You don’t know whether you’re going to be together for the night or you’re separated.”

Cluff fell into homelessness as a result of his substance abuse. Strangely for a man working at a liquor store, he ruined himself with alcohol.

“My wife died,” said Cluff. “And I got into the booze and lost my job, lost my apartment. You know, the same story. [I] ended up on the streets for about a year or two years. I just hurt that much, the only way I thought I could get over it was by drinking.”

Cluff noted that, though there were probably services that could have helped him cope with his wife’s passing and overcome his drinking problem, he was in such a bad place that he did not even think of seeking them out.

“I didn’t look for them,” said Cluff. “So in a way that was kind of my fault. But yeah, there probably was [services]. At that time, I couldn’t care less. I kind of gave up a little bit.”

Cluff, who is not an addict, said that he didn’t need any help to kick his alcohol problem, mentioning that he still has a beer on occasion. He acknowledged that a lot of people do require addictions treatment services to help them deal with their problems.

“Hang outside here and you’ll see every third person,” said Cluff. “It’s just something that they do. They’ve gotten themselves into a rut that they can’t get out of or they don’t want to get out of. It’s a way of life for them.”

The Cecil

At the conclusion of our discussion with Cluff, Anderson and I ventured over to the Cecil Tavern. Inside we went up to the bar and ordered a beer. I had said I would pay, but found that I only had five dollars in my pocket. As I moved towards the ATM, Anderson pulled out a 10 and gave it to the bartender. I gave her the five dollars, silently cursing myself for having no money. It is much later before I think that particular curse probably runs through a lot of minds in the Cecil.

There is live music at the Cecil Tavern every night but Sunday. Unfortunately we were too early, but the bar was still busy. A variety of people, some in groups, a surprising amount alone, sat over small glasses of beer and highballs. Anderson and I moved to occupy a round table directly beside the dividing wall in the middle of the bar, on the side where the band would later take up their instruments. The other side houses more tables, a shooter bar and a row of VLTs. Three people were sitting to my right, chattering away in an obviously inebriated state.

Anderson began talking to a woman who turned out to be a waitress at the Tavern. She wasn’t working at the time and though she declined to be recorded, sat with us and talked for a few minutes. Her name was Dianne and she appeared to be in her mid-twenties.

“I think that they’re suffering from personal issues,” she told us of the Cecil’s patrons. “That’s what brought them down here. We all have our stories. For people who don’t have support systems or anyone else to talk to, they come here. One guy has a mental illness because he lost his wife and his children and his mind broke. He can’t focus.”

Dianne left and moved towards the bar. A group of police officers entered the tavern. They asked a man to show them the contents of his pockets. He did so, and apparently nothing incriminating was found. They left him. There were five police in the bar. One of them spoke with Dianne, who grabbed her coat and left. She was followed out by a woman wearing a jacket over top of a reflective construction vest. The police exited behind the two women. It is unclear what happened, but we know the police presence here is frequent, aimed towards reducing trouble in the bar. A sign hangs above the VLTs which prohibits, among other things, knives in the tavern.

Over Anderson’s shoulder, was a man apparently mentally ill, perhaps under the influence of some potent substance. Gesticulating wildly, talking as he swayed back and forth hypnotically, he looked to be in the middle of a conversation. He was alone, only his drink keeping him company.

Leaving the Cecil, we walked through a throng of people in the doorway crowded around a man in whose palm resided two little chunks of crack-cocaine. “That’s twenty man. That’s twenty.” The dealer tried to convince his sceptical client.

Violence, prostitution, the homeless victimized

The security guard at the DIC said that in the park across the road, adjacent to the river, there is a stabbing nearly every night. The police weren’t able to verify that comment. Not all crimes get reported, especially in that part of town.

“We know that there is a criminal element that is entrenched within the homeless population,” said district 1, zone 3 community team sergeant Frank Cattoni. “If you’re in a situation, will a criminal go after a harder target or a softer target to get what he wants? Do the homeless provide him with opportunities? Absolutely. One of the challenges we get dealing with the homeless is that we have to get them to trust us, to come forward and report complaints.”

Canadian Mental Health Association program manager Jennifer Finley, who works closely with the homeless population, frequently sees individuals who are victimized while living on the streets.

“I had a guy in my office for an interview yesterday,” said Finley. “He had a shoulder broken in three places and his eye was all bruised up. [There are] people sleeping outside, getting kicked in the head. I had a client getting stabbed while he was sleeping outside. My sense is that it is getting worse. How often have I heard about stabbing right in front of the Drop-In Centre?”

She also said that a significant proportion of the homeless population, if not actively engaged in it, have at least a history of prostitution. This is not confined to the women.

“To have a history of prostitution is not uncommon at all,” said Finley. “Among the homeless female population, I would say that it is quite high. What I was surprised with when I started five years ago was the number of male prostitutes.”

Abandon, ignore and a desperate lack of compassion

“It doesn’t seem as though, in our society, that we have a premise to start with that everybody is entitled to a place to live of their own,” said the Calgary Health Region’s Bettie Yanota. “It’s very difficult to do anything if you don’t have a house. If you have depression or psychosis or substance abuse, it’s difficult to do anything about it, because it’s stressful not having a house. We should be ashamed that we’re not housing people.”

CUPS director of operations Robert Perry said the situation is worse than society abandoning the homeless.

“I don’t think we’re abandoning them,” said Perry. “I think we’re ignoring them. Just don’t care. It’s worse than abandonment, in my mind. Abandoning means you’ve thought about it for a second. We don’t even think about it anymore. A grave indictment of what we call ourselves: citizens, the people. It’s actually a reflection upon us all that we now have mentally ill people sleeping out in the rough in the winter.”

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, a target of hope

Not all is bleak. Nearly everyone I spoke with is optimistic about the future. All said that they are seeing homelessness becoming a prominent issue. It is no longer just a few do-gooders in the community who are seeking ways to solve this problem, and beyond that, are actually putting these sought-out methods into practice. Businessmen, the government, provincial and local, as well as the community in general are beginning to involve themselves in the issue of homelessness. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, a project that has had tremendous success in the United States, is now being implemented in Alberta.

“The Calgary Committee to End Homelessness was started by a few oilmen and a lawyer,” said Calgary Homeless Foundation administrative assistant to the project manager and vice-president Loree Clark. “The mandate was that they would adopt this ten-year model [and] spend one year developing it. The first draft of the plan has to be done by the end of [November]. The actual plan has to be published by the end of January.”

Perry said that the most important thing that is happening is that people are no longer just fixing blame on others, but are accepting responsibility and moving towards a goal. His comments were echoed by Finley.

“As long as there are homeless people, not enough is being done,” said Finley. “We need support services, addictions services, all sorts of housing. I think [the Ten Year Plan] is wonderful. I think it’s about time that politicians and CEOs get involved. A city as affluent as Calgary should not have that many homeless people. My sense is the buck is being passed. That’s why I like the Committee to End Homelessness, because they are accepting responsibility.”

The plan is set up around an economic model that demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of helping people get housing rather than keeping them homeless and frequently accessing emergency services.

“[Americans implementing the plan] really looked at the economic model,” said Clark. “They found that most folks who were chronically homeless cost the system, the tax payer, anywhere between $100,000 and $250,000 per year. The chronic homeless portion is the smallest, but it uses the most services. If you give someone a home and ask them to contribute 30 per cent [of the rent], they cost the system about $28,000 per year. That cost may go up, but it is nowhere near the cost of using emergency services.”

There is something to be done. Perhaps this ten-year plan can act as a common target which will allow the necessary focus for the homeless problem to be effectively addressed.

Hopefully it will. It is unreasonable to continue to allow the mentally ill, the individuals with faulty brain chemistry, the individuals who have made some bad choices and the individuals whose upbringing never granted them a choice at all, to continue to live in an environment of degradation and violence.

This environment pushes them towards substance abuse to deal with their problems, be it self-medicating a chemical imbalance or coping with the inconceivably bad day that never ends, with the exit blocked by waitlists at treatment facilities, where there is nowhere to go after coming through those programs except right back into the same situation that put them there and where they are ignored by a society that won’t even take the time to abandon them.

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