About Inn From The Cold

Thursday, December 29, 2011

One foot in the hospital

The shelter has been closed right through the Christmas season, due to the weather being not quite extreme enough.  Volunteers and staff had stepped forward beforehand offering to be available for shifts Christmas Eve and Christmas day which was heartening.  So we were ready.  I've been out and about in Richmond almost every day we've been closed and am surprised that I've only encountered two people from the shelter.   Both were in a warm dry place over Christmas: the hospital.

"Bud" and "Dave" have a lot in common, aside from sharing a roof over Christmas. They aren't buddies but they know each other from the streets.  Both are over fifty and have spent too many of those years abusing alcohol, living the very rough life of a person with no home, broken relationships and ill health.

Beer is their drink of choice and both go for the extra strength (7+% alcohol) varieties, "Bud" choosing a US brand and "Dave" one from Europe.   Dave usually keeps an open one in the bottle holder of his bike and sips on it while pedalling the streets in search of empties.   Bud keeps his supply in his shopping cart, but his cart mostly contains the empties from what he's consumed.  He told us recently he's trying to cut back on his beer consumption, saying he's down from 48 cans per day to 8 cans per day.

Neither is immediately endearing.  Bud's a large, rough-featured man, often teetering on the edge of consciousness and barely coherent, so people tend to be intimidated by him.  He's not welcome many places and his standard parting words are "sorry for the hassle" but he's never been a hassle at the shelter.   He most often sits quietly at a table or crashed out on a mat.  Dave's also not welcome many places.   He comes across as an ornery, foul-mouthed, in-your-face kind of guy.  Despite the rough exteriors and scarred interiors, both are gentle souls, who like to laugh and spend time with a fellow human being.

Bud and Dave were hospitalized a few times this year.  Dave was hit by a car while riding his bike and Bud while pushing his cart along the side of a road, twice. Both were also hospitalized for several months this year with long term illnesses.   In Bud's case, he had checked into Vancouver detox (there are no detox facilities in Richmond) last January but after a short time he was transferred to St Paul's where he spent several months and apparently was diagnosed with a serious illness of the brain associated with alcohol abuse.  We heard he was wait-listed for long term care then, for reasons unclear, he ended up back on the streets of Richmond, back drinking again.   He seems to be in a perpetual state of impairment, perhaps the beer, perhaps brain damage.

Bud stayed with us a couple nights again this season and we learned he'd rented a room in a house in Richmond, but he has a hard time locating it.  The police drove him round and round one night looking for it but they couldn't find it.   When I bumped into him a few days ago, he remembered the street name  and knows roughly where it is, but it's such a long walk from where he spends his days that he sometimes just bunks down wherever -- in a covered doorway or sharing a public washroom with another man who calls that place home each night.  He was hit by the second vehicle just last week and that landed him in hospital for Christmas.

Dave's been in the hospital since August after a collapse.  He's looking better but still unable to walk and needs to be lifted in and out of a wheelchair.  I can't imagine him returning to the streets -- he looks so frail.  Fortunately, he's wait-listed for a long term care facility in Richmond.  A previous time when I visited, I asked if there was anything I could get him.   He was very specific with his request: a 3-bladed razor, a large pair of nail clippers and Q-tips and he even gave me directions to the best dollar store to buy them.  I was glad he didn't ask for beer.

 He's feeling relatively wealthy now as his outreach worker is saving up his CPP cheques for him while he's in the hospital and he received $200 cash for his bike from Cap's cycles.  They were storing it for him while in hospital, but sold it after it became clear he probably wouldn't be riding again.  They even brought the money to the hospital for him. Dave's a good customer of Cap's and they treat him well.  He went through 3 bikes this year -- the first was damaged when he got hit by a car.  Cap's repaired his bike for him, knowing Dave couldn't pay them right away, but he did pay once he collected on his ICBC injury claim from the accident.   That repaired bike got stolen, and the replacement bike was stolen as well.

The only thing Dave's purchased so far with his loot is a pack of cigarettes, but he hasn't smoked one yet because he doesn't have warm clothes he can wear in the outside smoking area.   When I visited him last week to bring him his reactivated cell phone, I asked again if he needed anything and this time he asked for some warm clothes for the outside smoking area and, in a hushed voice, a mickey. I told him I couldn't bring him a mickey and he didn't try to push me.   I was hoping a few months of sobriety might have built up some strength to resist the drink.  Then again, maybe it has.  He's holding a pack of cigarettes and hasn't yet smoked.  So maybe he'd resist the booze as well.  Or maybe a wee dram now and again wouldn't be so harmful for someone in long term care.  Who am I to judge?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We are the 99%

In a previous post, I mentioned that we'd donated our extra mats to the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre on Cordova who were short of mats this winter.   I volunteer in the Downtown Eastside every Friday (at The Listening Post), so it was pretty easy to deliver to a very deserving organization, in one of the neediest locations in Canada.

Exactly one week later, I was back in this same area, this time picking up donations for Richmond shelters, from Lotus Light Charity Society located in a Buddhist temple on E. Hastings.   Lotus Light have an annual Winter Charity Drive and distribute sleeping bags, food and socks etc to the needy.   It felt a bit strange to be picking up these things from the Downtown Eastside for delivery to Richmond and I asked Sean, the monk coordinating the charity drive, why they'd chosen Richmond.  He explained that they used to just distribute only in the DTES, but they realized the needs were wider so they extended their gifts to Greater Vancouver.  Sean himself lives in Richmond and most days he sees a man sitting at the entrance to the Brighouse Canada Line station asking for a handout, so perhaps that was the seed that eventually led to this gift to Richmond.

Driving home in a car crammed with 15 sleeping bags, 90 giant bottles of shampoo, dozens of bags of cookies and dill-flavoured Crispers, boxes of toothpaste, clothing, bottled water etc, I got to thinking about "Roy", who's one of the regular panhandlers at Brighouse station.  He stayed with us a couple nights last year and I've talked to him several times on the streets.    Most people walk by panhandlers like Roy, ignoring them.  A few say hello.  Others struggle with the dilemma of whether they should offer cash or not, worrying about how it might be spent.  Enough do give that, after a few hours of work, as he calls it, he has enough money to buy some fried chicken at a nearby greasy spoon and/or beer at the liquor store.

The daily presence of panhandlers in downtown Richmond (and the ongoing existence of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver) is a thorn in the side of some, an embarrassment; ignored or despised by others, but it does serve as a constant reminder of the work that remains to be done.  

This brings to mind the occupy movement with their "We are the 99%" slogan, i.e. we are the 99% of the planet vs. the 1% who hold a disproportionate percentage of the wealth.  What injustice.

But if we turn this 1% vs 99% model on its head and look at the bottom 1% vs the top 99%, we get a different perspective on us vs them.  In this model, the 1% are the poorest in our community, people like Roy and people living on the margins with very low incomes.   And the constant presence of panhandlers on that little piece of sidewalk outside Brighouse station can be viewed as their "Occupy Brighouse sidewalk" serves as a peaceful protest of the injustices in our community.

Now "We are the 99%" has a different meaning.  Now, we -- the 99%--  are the ones with the wealth and the power, the people who can make a difference.   You'd think solving the problem of the poorest 1% would be easier than the problems associated with the richest 1%, but we'll see.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where are they now?

We've been open 4 nights so far this second activation of the season and we'll be open again tonight.  I'm particularly grateful that we're open tonight as tonight is the St Alban Community meal night so it's always wonderful to be able to allow people to sleep over after enjoying a meal.  Tonight is our Christmas dinner, with Santa and the works and the last Community Meal for 3 weeks, so will be extra special.

We had 8 people stay at the shelter last night (all men), 7 the night before and 6 the previous two nights.   Twelve different individuals have stayed with us so far this season, all men, and only 3 of them had stayed with us last year.  So lots of new faces, new stories and after a short period of adjustment by all, we've settled into a community again and it feels great.  I'll provide some updates on our new guests shortly.  In the meantime, since we saw 37 different folks last season, you may be wondering where are the other 34?

Well, many are unaccounted for, but here's an update on some we know about: 

"Dave" who celebrated his 60th birthday with us last winter, is in Richmond hospital, after collapsing in August.  He's still quite weak and unable to walk due to swelling in his legs.  He's in good spirits, in no pain and says the food is good.  He's waitlisted for a long term care facility in Vancouver.   Seeing him now lying in his hospital bed, it's hard to imagine this same man spent most of the past few years riding his bike in search of bottles, with so much chronic pain, spending all those nights in an abandoned house.  I'm relieved to know he's being so well cared for now, but saddened by the fact that it took a near death incident for proper care to be provided.

"Wally" had found accomodation last winter in a rooming house in New West, found a job in his construction trade, but has fallen back on hard times.  He's currently staying in Richmond House (Salvation Army emergency shelter) and is on borrowed time as he's stayed beyond the normal 30 day maximum.

"Sonny" who had been living a very rough life, sleeping under concrete parking ramps and the like is thriving.   He's living in a parked motorhome in someone's driveway in Richmond.  He looks great.  His hands are clean (if you knew Sonny, this in itself is a miracle) and more importantly has been clean of substances for several months.

"Kip" who landed a job as a cook at Tim Horton's just at the end of the shelter season, moved into some accomodation in New West and we'd been seeing him pretty regularly at the Community Meal but haven't seen him since the summer break.

"Otto", the man with a car and a job but no gas for the car to get to work (we gave him a huge bag of empties to buy gas) is not doing very well.  I ran into him in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and he's lost pretty much everything.

Sadly, one of last winter's guests passed away this summer.  Mid 40s.  I don't know any details except it was sudden and tragic.  He only stayed with us a few nights, but he had a large, unforgettable personality.  He was a semi-regular at the Community Meal and his last meal with us was the last meal of the season.   That night, he dined outside with a couple others on the newly purchased picnic table.

"Dorothy"  dropped by the shelter for a coffee Sunday night.   She lived last winter in a permanently parked camper on the riverfront and joined us several nights when her propane ran out or it just got too cold to heat.  She was recently evicted by Vancouver Port Authority and is temporarily staying in a newer camper parked in the back driveway of a Richmond megahome, paying the owner $450 per month for the privilege.  She is looking for a better place to park her camper.

"Lance" was also evicted from a different camper parked in the same riverfront location.   His current whereabouts are unknown, but he now has a girlfriend and may be staying with her.  By the way, neither Dorothy nor Lance have a vehicle -- they get their campers repositioned by friends. 

"Roy" who stayed with us a couple nights last winter is in his regular spot in one of the city parks.  He's one of those folks who prefers the solitude of his own place rather than a shelter.  In Roy's case, his place is actually public property.  There was an article in the local paper about him living in this place, with a photo and description of its precise location and complaints from the users of that facility, but he's somehow managed to remain there. 

"Carl" is still in subsidized seniors housing in Burnaby and doing very well, hoping to return to Richmond one day when a spot opens up.  He occasionally joins us at the St Alban Community Meal and is trying to help his good friends "Will" and "Maurice" get accommodation.  Will and Maurice are 2 of our three returning regulars this year.  Will actually was placed in subsidized housing in Surrey last spring, but was evicted a couple months ago and is back in his tent in the same woods he and Carl spent last winter. Will and Maurice have a good lead on a suite in Richmond so let's hope that works out for them soon.  And I look forward to them appearing in the next "where are they now" list.

Friday, December 2, 2011

What's happening at the shelter?

It's cold out and the shelter's not open.  What's up?  

The temperature's been very close to meeting our criteria to declare an extreme weather alert, but not quite.   We do have the ability to stretch the criteria somewhat if we are aware of a big need on the streets, but we haven't seen this yet this winter.   Richmond House, the emergency shelter open year round reports minimal turnaways, so not a big demand there.   And during our 4 night activation a couple weeks ago, we saw 6 different individuals and only 3 of them stayed with us the last night we were open.     The temp dipped to -4 during that activation and hasn't hit -2 since.    With the latest forecast, there's a small chance we'll open as early as tomorrow (Sat) night and I'll be in contact with my counterpart at Richmond House each morning to make a decision based on the latest weather (and street) conditions.   I'll publish a new volunteer and staff schedule and send around an email as soon as we decide.  

Although our shelter isn't open tonight, a few of our extra mats will be put to good use.  I got a call from the Downtown Eastside Women's Center on Cordova who are short of mats and brought them a few of our extra mats today.  They are a 50 bed emergency shelter for women, open 365 days per year.  They've been operational for several years and been opening their doors at 11 pm.   This winter they are opening at 6 pm and the number of women staying with them has surged, so they need more mats.

Finally, the hall where our guests dine and sleep is going to be used for the annual St Alban Fair Trade Fair tomorrow, Sat 3 Dec, from 10 am to 2 pm. You might want to check it out.  More details here: http://www.bclocalnews.com/community/134783338.html  What's not mentioned is that the shelter will have an information table, with our fundraising team's gift bags on display offered to those who make a donation to the shelter.

Thanks again for being there for our shelter guests.  We'll be opening soon and it could be a long season.