The following is the August Blog post by Inclusive Community Artist-in-Residence Lindsay Wong.
Story Gathering, Crime, and Homelessness
Three flashing cop cars surround us. A heavily bearded man that I recognize as a CSO user skips half-naked beside me on East Broadway and Ontario. He hums and sings loudly to himself. He tries to high-five me. I don’t know this man’s name, but he sometimes sells drugs to my neighbours in JHSLM housing.
On my way to work, I randomly happen to run into him on the street, where he’s having a moment of psychosis, grinning and bowing and waving to everyone.
“Helloooooo,” he shouts at the flashing cruisers.
“Take it easy,” a female cop says to him, and he finally kneels, prostrating himself on the sidewalk. She handcuffs him.
I step away from the scene and head off to teach a full day of college admission essays to wealthy high schoolers in the West End.
August has been an emotionally-intense month for both the participants of JHSLM housing and service users. My neighbours confess that they’re restless and anxious about the beginning of fall, which means starting new classes at community college or finding new jobs. Their fear is marked by escalating substance use, raw outbursts, and in-building tension at all hours. Furniture breaks. Doors slam. People scream.
I don’t know when the shift occurred from workshop host to “one of the dudes,” but I find myself helping those who struggle with literacy purchase used furniture on Craigslist, while helping others schedule appointments with my favourite tattoo artists in the city. I dispense math lessons whenever someone asks me to explain the difference between a gram and an ounce, as they’ve been “getting ripped off” when buying weed.
Homelessness in the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighborhood and among JHS users have also increased significantly. According to The CBC, the homeless population has grown by 2 percent in 2018. Many of the story gathering participants are sleeping in front of my building, rotating between Kingsgate Mall and the grassy mound in front of Mount Pleasant’s funeral home.
In public, Crystal whimpers as she hugs an oversized teddy bear for comfort. Seconds later, she slathers thick lotion on red oozing sores. One morning, she and her partner, Joseph, fight openly on Fraser Street, flinging running shoes at each other, both of them sobbing. They use the parking lot of McDonald’s on Main Street as a public toilet. Their lives and most intimate moments are on display as passerbys walk by them, averting their eyes.
These story gathering participants and JHS users have nowhere to go after the CSO office closes.
Our last workshop was particularly emotional. Maurice, a 67-year old, who has spent 17 years in jail for armed robbery and drug dealing, shares his incredible story. He’s been homeless for the last decade, barely surviving in Memorial Park.
“You know, I hurt so many people,” he says, shaking his head. “I physically hurt them real bad but also gave them PTSD. They can’t recover from what I did to them. I was struggling to make ends meet as a welder, and I turned to crime to get money. I inflicted violence in so many awful ways. But one day, I woke up and I suddenly got empathy. I didn’t have it before, but now I have too much empathy. I can’t think about what I did without feeling like a horrible person.”
Upon hearing this, another participant, Bobby, mutters “Fuck this!” as he quickly leaves the table. As he exits in an emotional whirlwind, he hurls his felt markers. I pick them off the floor. Bobby’s on probation for causing late-night disturbances in our building, and I think Maurice’s story affects him on several personal levels. Afterwards, Bobby doesn’t return to workshop.
When Maurice is finished speaking, Brenda starts sobbing. Large tears waterfall down her face. She suddenly confesses to shoplifting a pair of oval-shaped earrings at Superstore the other day, yet now feels consumed by her guilt.
“Have you stole before, Lindsay?” she asks me between tears.
“Not on purpose,” I say, thinking back to a few carelessly lost library books. While shoplifting is not one of my vices, I do jaywalk and sometimes drive over the speed-limit.
“Why did you steal them?” I finally ask her.
“I just wanted them,” Brenda mutters, rubbing her eyelids. “They cost too much money.”
“You just need to take care of yourself,” Maurice says, consolingly. “Just think about what I said. “This is why we need this program so people can talk and learn from each other. On the street, there’s nothing to do but drugs. Here you get to colour and meet nice people from all over and learn stuff. That’s what I told SFU when they asked me to give a speech on homelessness.”
Maurice continues, explaining how difficult it was for him to be unemployed and homeless, how the lack of dignity and starvation torment him and continue to traumatize him. While the JHS has found him housing and he’s incredibly grateful to have access to a kitchen and a bathroom, he still struggles with living indoors and sometimes feels a powerful inclination to sleep outside. Uncomfortable in a bed, he’s slowly adjusting to using furniture and eating home-cooked meals again.
I’m devastated to hear about his continuous struggle to adjust to indoor-living–a necessity that I don’t take as a privilege, but as an essential right. But with Vancouver’s rents continuing to become unaffordable for the general population, what will happen to those living on the margins? What will happen to the poorest citizens in Vancouver?
Maurice tells me that he’s so ashamed of his homelessness.whenever he thinks back to that particular decade of his life. He’s so ashamed of begging for money and allowing people to witness him at his most desperate and vulnerable.
“You guys saved my life,” Maurice says, seriously. “I really want to start an outreach program that will let me talk to homeless people to tell them about John Howard. I almost died out there this time. Just by accident, I was sitting in the back of the room and someone found me. I wasn’t going to make it. You know, Lindsay, winter is coming soon. A lot of people are gonna die.”
I worry about what will happen if Bobby loses his housing. He struggles with heavy drug use. He frequently screams and punches walls, disrupting other residents. I worry when I don’t see Crystal and Joseph camped in their usual spots and when they don’t show up at our story gathering workshop.
I worry about the workshop participants, as much as my neighbours worry about the upcoming fall.
At the end of the story gathering session, Maurice shyly gives me his artwork. He’s spent five hours painstakingly colouring orange and yellow daffodils.
“You guys really make my life better,” he says softly. He pauses, looking at the ground. Then he says: “I’m really glad I met you. You’re such a nice person.”
Thank-you Linsey, it reads. I tear up.
*Names of participants have been changed to protect their identities.