Two Different Worlds

Two Different Worlds

In Vancouver for the Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness meetings this past week, I took opportunity to cross the water and go downtown.  Outside eating a bagel breakfast in Yaletown, the city was waking.  I saw some BMW’s, Jags and even a Rolls Royse Silver Shadow coming and going in preparation for the day.  One billboard for condos particularly struck me, with the scale of prices listed, starting at only $499,000 to $6 million.  I wonder what the condo fees are for a six million dollar condo.

Things changed as I headed for the East Side.  The route I took didn’t gradually change from rich to poor, it was paff! – Poverty all at once.  Extreme and systemic this poverty was unlike any I had ever seen in Canada.  Similar elements everywhere, but all dwarfed by the overwhelming intensity of concentration. 

People experiencing homelessness and abject poverty, everywhere, in overwhelming numbers.  Laying on the streets, sometimes beside grocery carts that looked like they were just filled from the town dump, people with nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to look forward to were ‘just there’.  Folks with mental health issues mumbling to themselves, ranting incessantly, many just staring into nothingness.  Milling in small groups or lined up along the walls of buildings at the back edge of the sidewalks, people seemed to be waiting for something or nothing.

I found myself at Carnegie Centre, corner of East Hastings and Main at the Carnegie Community Centre.  It was a library, a drop in, and a multi-service facility.  Some fellows were playing pool downstairs, small groups of men drinking coffee and reading free newspapers.  Outside was a patio with a five foot rod iron fence around it. I bought a coffee and sat with the guys on the patio.  So far, at the Centre it was ‘regular’ and expected, but what happened next was not.

Outside the patio, on the street, the wheelers and dealers were doing business.  I have never seen intensity of drugs and dealing drugs with such blatant disregard for anything or anyone.  I watched for over an hour as people came and went, rolls of money changed hands, pills or packages exchanged and notes taken – who was fronted what.  Dealers would swagger over with John Wayne walk and ‘in your face’ make deals and bargains: its business, working the streets, its Wall Street, East Hastings and Main Street style.

I stayed too long.  The layers of depravity and disregard for human dignity were overwhelming.  Working girls paid their pimps, got some drugs and stagger away to the next trick.  Addicts trying to get more drugs on front, with pleas and promises of pay back. No concern or care – just business.

I walked outside and stood on the corner.  In just minutes I was ignored and in the midst of the whole scene.  Fifteen feet removed from the patio view, an entirely different set of players – the same game.  Across the street the same thing.  I walked to west to the next corner – more.  Further west to the recycling depot where people lined up with shopping carts of looted bottles and cans – more.  I crouched and leaned against the wall and watched – same performance, different players.  It was time to go.

Two blocks further and business, tourism and commerce ruled once again.  Back to the Beamers, Jags and Porches.  Prosperity and blessing.  Construction and gentrification. 

The impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics still imprinted on downtown Vancouver, but something very different imprinted on my heart and mind.  I am still reeling in the aftershock.

Injustice IV – Stonewalled

A heavy heart is mine as I write what will probably be the last blog about Tom until he is released.  There are several reasons for this, some (but not all) of which I will detail.

I had an appointment to meet with Tom on Monday, April 12 at 9:30 am.  On the Thursday or Friday before, he was transferred to the penitentiary in Kingston.  It would take me 4 – 6 weeks to be cleared for a ‘professional visit’ at that institution, or 1 – 1 ½ weeks to have ‘visitor’ status. I started the process immediately.  That was Monday.

On Tuesday, I was informed (through my own sources, not CSC) that he was moved to ‘another location’ (unknown).  On Wednesday I got a lead on another jail where he might be.  I am waiting for a contact there to confirm this.

The Parole Office will not meet with me, although I requested this several times.  I asked to meet with her and her Director, but was denied.  They have discovered that I have been blogging about this and are ‘consulting legal’ to see what implications there are for our meeting.  Stonewalled.   I have written permission from Tom, signed by him in jail before he was taken to Kingston, to release the information of his file to me.  It was witnessed by a prison chaplain at the jail who watched Tom sign (without duress or cohersion).   They are investigating whether it is enough for them.  So far, and into the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

They suggested I speak to their Media Response person, and I did so finally after several days and voice messages.  We spoke and I was informed of the process, the rules and regulations involved in a very general sense.  When I mentioned that Tom’s conditional parole was completed on May 4th, there was some surprise and a quick investigation into his case.  Affirmed.  Oh, in that case, he will walk on May 4th.

I am not a quitter, and if this is an example of injustice and wrongful accusation/detaining, then it should not be.  I have been advised by a lawyer (who is my friend) and an official from Corrections Services Canada that it might not be a good idea to continue to pursue this matter.

I asked my lawyer friend about possible ramifications if I continued to blog about Tom’s cause.  He replied that nothing would happen as I am only presenting Tom’s side of the story (with Tom’s permission).  He did mention however, that if I pursue it, it might be difficult for Tom.

The CSC official told me that it often does not go well with the individual involved (Tom in this case) after they have their story made available to the general public (!), and that I might consider ceasing to blog about this.

For Tom’s sake, I am stopping- but only because of my lawyer friend’s advice.  I will bring you an update when he is released May 4th – sooner if something significant occurs.

A final note to you at Corrections Services Canada whom I understand are following this blog:  I understand protocol, process and procedure, but please remember that you are dealing with a real person, with real feelings, who yesterday (April 14th) celebrated SEVEN (7) years of total sobriety.  Here at the OIM office, we were planning a big party to celebrate – cake and all – but Tom was alone in his cell.  Couldn’t even reach him by phone.  Don’t even know where he is right now.

But one day when he is released, we will celebrate together.  I would like to invite you to the party!

Injustice upon injustice III

I  am sorry to report that Tom is still in detention – the ‘proper’ name for jail, although there is nothing ‘proper’ about it at all.  The first night he was arrested on March 12, he slept on the shower floor.  Then, by association with a cell mate who was caught smoking weed, he did solitary for the next five days.

 The story continues.  For  the ’bottom line’ people, you should know there’s no happy ending here.  I have not been able to communicate with either the decision makers, or the information holders to obtain the whole story, so I have only one side of the story still – Tom’s.  Tom has given me permission to share this with you.

He has not been served papers or given information about his accusers.  It started out as panhandling, which was not a condition of his parole, but other reports have been set forth:  I present them to you as Tom told me in prison.

 One of the conditions of his parole is that he should not have association with people with criminal records.  Tom  was ‘seen talking to people’ – no names given, no place or date, no reference or identification  of his accuser.  He was ‘seen coming out of an alley (Bank and Cooper) with ’some people’. No accuser named, no identification of people he was supposedly with.

                He talks to people on the street all the time. You can’t not do that if you live downtown: it’s a “Hey, how’s it goin’?” kind of thing.  There is no alley at Bank and Cooper – we had our office there for ten years.

  1. He was accused of not following his correctional plan because he had not obtained employment.

For the past eight months he has been coming to the OIM office as a part of our work skills program.  He walks to the office and on the way says, “Hey, how’s it goin’?” to people he knows on the way.  He is punctual, a hard worker and willing to do whatever needs to be done.  He is reliable, efficient, a model worker and just pleasant to have around.  One of his workers has advised him that he should not consider taking employment until he is ready.  He was counseled to continue with the work skills program  with OIM, because it was a very positive influence in his life, and if he had to leave for some reason, it would not have the same ramifications as leaving a place of employment.

  1. Tom was incarcerated for reasons of “for public safety”.

No  substantiation, no identified accusers and no recorded or known  ‘incident’ that might suggest wrongful activity.  Another of Tom’s workers has gone on record and noted the positive progress Tom has made.  He has been  working with him on a life plan following parole time.

  1. Tom was supposed to have had ‘association with known drug dealers’.

He was ready and waiting for drug testing when he was arrested, but it never happened.  He has not been drinking  alcohol and never has had any issues with drugs. No drug charges on his record at all, ever. None.

 Tom tells me that he has been offered release if he agrees to three conditions:

  1. Cease to be a part of the work skills program at OIM
  2. Wear a collar that will give constant identification of his whereabouts at all times
  3. Respect a curfew

 He has refused to comply with these.  He mentioned the first condition as the deal breaker.  In his association with us at OIM,  he has found meaningful work volunteering (and then in work skills), moral support and a degree of friendship that has gone beyond acquaintance.  He says it feels more like family. 

Easter is just over and we’ve looked at the story of the passion of the Christ, his pain and suffering and then his resurrection and victory.  For my friend behind bars, it’s Good Friday all the time, with no glimmer of Sunday morning.   Not now at least.

Injustice upon injustice – it’s called Life on the Streets

Some things set me right over the edge, mostly it’s a different story with a similar theme: injustice (see Justice III, Feb 26/10).  Here is yet another:

Tom is a recovering alcoholic that will be celebrating seven years of sobriety in two weeks.  He works his 12 step program and is determined to stay clean.  He came to visit us, then volunteered, and then entered our work skills program.  He comes to the office four days a week to help: no job too big, no job too small, he does them all – with a cheerful heart.  He has a record but his probation ends in two short months – and he works hard at keeping clean.  He won’t even cross the street  without a walk signal.

Clean. Squeaky clean.  Pleasant, kind, hard-working, and a delight to be around. We have high hopes for Tom.

So one day, he doesn’t show up. A day, then two and more and then a week and we wonder where he is.  No way to contact him.  Finally we find him – in jail. 

He is in jail right now, been there just over two weeks for “parole violation”.   For “panhandling”.  Reported to his Parole Officer (P.O.) by an “anonymous” person who called it in.  Over fourteen days in jail (and counting) with no help.  No lawyer.  No hearing.  No explanation.  Just “there”.

I called the P.O. and left message after message with no response.

Tuesday of this week the P.O. goes to see Tom in jail to tell him he can’t get out until next Thursday.  Sorry, no.

How can this be?  What about his rights?  Good question.  Looks like Tom doesn’t have any.  An ‘anonymous’ call is enough to land him in jail.

Right now, I don’t have the complete story. But I know enough to know there’s something wrong here – very wrong.

So, today I called my lawyer.  Let’s look into this.  Lawyer will call the P.O. and make an inquiry.  Let’s find out what’s happening here.  Let’s get to the bottom of this.  I have an appointment tomorrow at the jail.  Somebody has to do something about this.

This is a sad story.  Sadder that it happens all the time.  Sadder still that most of my street friends’ rights violations (this appears to be one of them) go unnoticed, undetected and unresolved – particularly so because they don’t have anyone who will help.  They get lost in the “justice system” – or the justice is lost in the “system”.  Maybe it’s just “the system”.

ANYBODY INTERESTED IN DOING SOME ADVOCACY??  Get ready for rejection, apathy, unanswered messages, high levels of frustration getting around red tape, and white hot rage when you see injustice heaped upon injustice heaped upon injustice – oppressing people who are already broken and helpless.

Naw… it’s hoping for too much that somebody somewhere might respond to this plea for help and say, “Hey, I can do something.  Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

(Let me get back to you on this next week.  Friday morning, 1:01 am)

Violation of Sacred Trust

“Of all people, you should know better.”  His words pierced my soul.   These words and this day will be burned in my mind forever.  Seven years ago, but it seems like yesterday.

I had just started with OIM and everything seemed like chaos.  I guess it was chaos for me, trying to balance everything, be fair, help people, and do intervention in a culture that was strange to me, potentially explosive – all the time.

About 200 people at the drop in on a hot summer afternoon.  I was watching two men: one of them was pacing the floor across the room strung out on drugs and aggressive.  Probably crystal meth, I thought.  Crystal meth was in abundance on the streets – not good.  It’s the kind of drug that can make you feel invincible, feel no pain (literally), and you can become aggressive.

The other man was using, maybe some blend of alcohol mixed with prescription drugs – he was having a heated argument, with no one, someone or anyone.  Have to keep an eye on him.

Another man comes up to me and engages me in conversation.  In just a few short minutes, he has told me some of the highlights of his unbelievably traumatic life.  His earliest memories seeped in torment, a childhood of abuse, loss and damage  so severe that it’s almost unimaginable.

Across the room the ‘pacer’ has a violent verbal outburst and I look to see who is the target.  Then immediately to my left the second man throws a wild punch into the air- trying to keep his invisible tormentors at bay.

The man in front of me says, “I can see you are too busy for me.  I’m going to go.”

Cut to the quick.  I quickly explain: the guy across the room, the guy to my left, I’m in charge, so sorry, I want to hear you, I am listening, but things are happening…

“You’re in charge here?  Of all people you should know better. I’m going to go, you have no time for me.”  He turned and walked out, ignoring my desperate pleas to remain and give me another chance that I really didn’t deserve.

Burned on my memory, I had done the greatest misdeed that could be done to someone who was in the midst of crisis – in a  moment of confession where all he needed was a friend to listen.  Too busy, preoccupied, otherwise engaged when I should have been engaged – with him.

People experiencing poverty and homelessness, living on the streets have two things they have complete control over, that they can choose to give or not: one is their real name, the other is their story.  If someone gives you their real name and their story, they have given you everything.

A violation of a sacred trust: a lesson I will never forget.