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ANDERSON: The two solitudes of vagrancy and addiction

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June 07, 2019 - 3:59 PM

 


OPINION


A recent town hall in Vernon highlighted the two solitudes of opinion surrounding the so-called “homeless” problem happening across BC and to a lesser extent across Canada right now.

One body of opinion focuses on the well-being of the “homeless” while the other focuses on the harm the so-called “homeless” are creating.

Perhaps the first thing to recognize is that the problem has been misnamed. It is not a homeless problem.

A mass homelessness problem, as the term is commonly understood, is a product of an economic and/or climactic catastrophe – like the dustbowl years of the 1930s, in which economic and climactic collapse brought destitute families from the prairies to settle in makeshift camps across BC, then the land of promise just as California was the promised land in Steinbeck's “Grapes of Wrath.”

We had squatter camps here in Vernon in the 30s too, but they were families striving to live, and maybe even get ahead, in circumstances entirely beyond their control. More importantly, those families were here in BC in an effort to better their lot, because behind them was disaster and here was the best they could hope to find.

Our “homeless” problem is not that. While there are certainly homeless couch surfers and RV dwellers, sometimes because rent is too high, or housing too hard to find, those folks are not at issue in the clash of solitudes. Homelessness of that sort can be fairly easily dealt with through subsidized housing for those who wish to utilize it, and it doesn't give rise to the sort of anger and emotion surrounding the issue we face.

The problem we have is addiction and/or mental illness. More particularly, the relatively small number of that population who feed their habits through crime. Many choose to live in makeshift shelters in and around our urban areas, and the garbage generated alongside our waterways, the constant annoyance of panhandling, open drug use, the threatening behaviour of some, and most of all the crime – the ever-present crime – makes taxpaying citizens see red.

It's not just the visuals or the anecdotal impacts of citizens having everything not nailed down stolen that hurts civil society. There is a whole economic underlay that most folks don't even know about, because stores don't want to talk about it for a number of reasons, both for image reasons and fear of retribution.

Take the time to talk to store managers near trouble spots, and you'll soon learn that store theft and even a threat of armed robbery (through used needles) is relatively commonplace. The costs from theft, robbery, clean up, and an inability to retain employees is astronomical in problem areas, and often exacerbated in large chain stores by a corporate policy of non-intervention...employees simply have to sit and watch vagrants walk away with merchandise.

In one such store I talked to it's common practice for a vagrant to walk in, take a small but expensive piece of merchandise, walk out, and bring it back for a non-receipt refund a few minutes later. Even if the store had a choice, enacting a receipt-only refund would make its regular customers angry and potentially drive away repeat customers, so it simply simply takes the loss. It's the least bad solution to a problem it shouldn't have in the first place.

As above, the response to this problem has developed into two opposing camps.

The first, which I'll call the “systemic” camp, consists mainly of service providers and so-called “social justice warriors” and favours a root-cause approach, pinpointing a number of factors including poverty, trauma, addiction, and mental health, and believes the answer is to address the root causes first and foremost, while in the meantime making their subjects safe and comfortable. According to this approach, if the root causes are addressed, the negative behaviours that arise from them will be similarly resolved.

The approach has theoretical benefits to be sure, since once an individual is treated and resocialized one can assume they will no longer be living in makeshift camps and stealing for a living.

The weaknesses to the approach are twofold: it is a years-long, perhaps even multi-generational, project; and it tends to generate demands for “empathy,” loosely translated as special treatment and a suspension of law enforcement. To paraphrase a frequent query on social media goes like this: “instead of arresting them, why not try to help them?”

Indeed, it has evolved to the point that possession of stolen shopping carts have become something of a human right in the minds of the followers of this school of thought. At Vernon's recent town hall, a man broke down in tears demanding that street dwellers be treated like human beings rather than “the people we're all shitting on here.”

The second, which I'll call the “we've had enough” camp, are those who don't necessarily disagree with addressing root causes as a long term solution, but want more immediate solutions to the disproportionate impacts caused by this small and troublesome population.

Many in this camp are suffering the direct effects of theft, garbage and defecation on their property, threatening behaviour and so on, and are concerned about the general degradation of the city. They've had enough and are simply not willing to wait several years in hopes that the root causes can be fixed. They were epitomized at the town hall by folks pointing out that a small number of miscreants are running roughshod over the city, and by a merchant in the downtown area who argued that the people we're supposedly shitting on are the ones shitting on us.

“We're all being asked to care about them,” said one distraught merchant, who has suffered significant economic loss and an existential loss of clientele in her location near the local shelter. “But when will [City Council] start caring about us?”

There is no meeting of minds between these two groups. They may both be concerned over the same base issue, but their perspectives and solutions are polar opposites.

But what if there's a middle way? If the problem (addiction/mental health) is separated from the behaviour (crime/antisocial shenanigans) and dealt with as two separate issues, both camps should be satisfied, if not completely, at least sufficiently. After all, addiction and mental health issues may explain bad behaviours, but should they be used as an excuse? Should folks with mental health and/or addiction issues be given a free pass when it comes to the rules? If service providers are left to battle away at root causes with whatever treatment theory is current in academic circles, while truly recognizing that the very real concerns of the “we've had enough” group requires more immediate answers, it seems to me that we can come closer to a solution.

Far from treating addicts like subhumans, what if we treated them like everyone else is treated, including, and perhaps mostly notably, facing the consequences of bad behaviour?

If I steal property, I can expect to be arrested and charged. Why then do we give the so-called “homeless” a free pass on possession of stolen property? If I decided to camp on the privately or publicly-owned outskirts of a city, I can be expected to be moved away, and quite rapidly. Why then do we allow the same activity to go on for months just because someone can claim an underlying condition?  Is it truly compassionate to treat these folks as a separate case while ironically arguing that they deserve to be treated the same way as everyone else? What if one part of the answer is a sustained crackdown on crime, vagrancy and anti-social behaviour?

What if, instead of ignoring vagrant camps in our urban areas and along our waterways, we shut them down as rapidly as possible, and keep shutting them down each time they pop up? What if, instead of handing change to panhandling addicts to help them score their next fix, we said no, and told them where to find help instead? What if, instead of thinking of stolen shopping carts as a human right, we started treating them like the stolen property they are? What if we started treating all of us the same way and enforcing the same laws for all of us? What might happen?

One thing that would happen is a dramatic drop in nuisance crime and nuisance vagrancy, and quite likely a change in urban tone. But just suppose for a minute that in addition to that, making the street entrenched lifestyle harder instead of easier actually helped them.

Many former addicts suggest that the cessation of addiction ultimately boils down to a cost benefit analysis...that when an addict finds his/her lifestyle too hard to live with, they seek help or in some cases simply walk away from the lifestyle.

In Alcoholics Anonymous this is referred to as “hitting rock bottom” and in another intriguing thesis it's called “Aging Out,” but whatever one calls it, it amounts to a personal decision. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a voluntary decision either.

Portugal's successful drug strategy has garnered media attention mainly because of decriminalization, but most experts recognize that its actual success is attributable to mandated treatment extended to hundreds of thousands of patients. In Portugal's drug treatment strategy, anyone caught with a “personal” amount of drugs — up to 10 days’ worth of a substance — is ordered to appear before a health department official through the agency of a "dissuasion commission" and usually forced into treatment of some kind.

And all of these approaches agree that treatment and recovery doesn't need to be voluntary in order to be effective.

BC Housing recently opened a housing facility in Vernon with a “peer-monitored” room set aside for drug use, costing around $30,000 per resident. For that kind of money a patient could be sent to high end treatment for six months with enough left over for several more months in a sober living facility like Bill's Place.

Why is the province spending that money on what amounts to enabling palliative care when it could be spent on treatment instead?

Marshall Smith, Executive Director of the Cedars Society and a recovering addict, explains this idea in some depth here. So if a vagrant lifestyle can be made as difficult as possible, if pressure from as many angles as possible can be exerted on the lifestyle, if rock bottom can be imposed so it's easier to hit, might it help? We need a major shift in thinking, from palliative care to treatment and recovery.

The only caveat, of course, is that the provincial health ministry will have to be there to step in with real treatment measures when folks ask for or are forced into the help they need. The health authorities will have to refocus their main efforts on treatment and recovery instead of the much cheaper, shorter term “harm reduction” strategies they are currently enamoured of.

What we're doing now isn't working.


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