Homeless in Vancouver: Welcome back, raccoon eyes; what took you?

I saw him slouching into the McDonald’s last night dragging a giant black hockey bag. That told me lots. I knew he wasn’t over here just to get some fresh air.

He didn’t see me. He only came over to me because he saw my laptop. He wanted to borrow part of an AC adapter—the wall plug part he didn’t have. He was kneeling down to look at my adapter and only then looked up at me.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, in his distinctive gravelly voice, more a statement of fact than anything else.

I took in the cleanness of him, the dryer-sheet smell of fresh laundered clothing and his slightly mussed appearance, particularly both his eyes—his black eyes. The bruising had to be a few days from fresh but he still brought to mind a tall, rangy raccoon.

He had a story all right and he told it to me. In a nutshell: room broken into and burgled, took law into own hands, arrested, homeless again after five years off the streets.

How sad, but sadly not unusual. And of course he made a beeline for Fairview—why wouldn’t he? He's a fellow who had been so visibly homeless in and around the South Granville area when I came out on the street in 2004.

A walking, talking, dramatic comedy from way back

The first time I saw him back then, he made an impression: tall, with a raspy voice. A loud and proud character. An honest-to-goodness honest heroin addict (within reason) who wasn’t shiftless or lazy. Unfortunately for everyone—especially himself—all his fine personal qualities were so bound up with his heroin addiction that he couldn’t help tripping up because of it—constantly.

It was both comical and painful to watch because his personal disaster field could all too easily encompass other people in the surprisingly tight-knit group of South Granville homeless people he belonged to. Back in 2004, this group resembled a kind of atomic model in the ways they orbited a two-square block area cornered by Broadway Avenue and Granville Street, and by the way they variously exhibited positive or negative attractions to each other.

It wasn’t in him to be a quiet or meek homeless person. He was what you might call a walking, lippy, inconvenient truth, and he had a positive talent for pissing off people in authority; all he had to do apparently was exist. You had to admire the guy, and I did, even as I winced.

The people he couldn’t help but annoy included certain business owners in the South Granville area, seemingly every Vancouver police officer he so much as said hello to, and other unknown so-and-sos who, back in around 2007, piped him in the back of the head while he was sleeping one night.

Strange thing to describe as a wake-up call but it seems to have been the trigger that got him off the streets and into a place just on the north side of False Creek—downtown but away from the Downtown Eastside—but still not far enough away for his liking.

By the time I left my two year job at the Masonic Centre at the beginning of 2010, he was already a fading memory in the Fairview area.

If this sounds a bit like a eulogy, it isn’t. I have one of those to write, but this isn’t it. I’m just sad to say he’s back, because, well, it would be nice to see more homeless people get off the street and stay off.

How the state of being homeless can become a state of mind

In my experience, homeless people are, in a way, like alcoholics—and I don’t mean when they actually are alcoholics. I'm referring to the risk of recidivism among “reformed” street people after society has gotten them off the street. I mean their tendency to be once-and-future homeless people.

It’s a fact that a long bout of homelessness leaves its mark on a person—changes them; or, to put it another way, they change their way of looking at things or they can’t function successfully on the street. And if they’ve made that mental adjustment, there’s no going back.

Or to put it yet another way: “You can take the person out of the street but you can’t take the street out of the person.”

Glib that, but true I think. Long-term homeless people have a kind of hacker’s attitude to the workings of the urban environment. The “normal” folk have a superficial view; they take things for granted, and they don’t really pay attention anyway. The kind of street person I’m talking about has paid attention and learned—a lot. No amount of time in social housing will make them unlearn the lessons the street has taught them.

Then there’s the whole addiction thing, except I’m talking about the addiction of many long-time binners and Dumpster divers who will never loose the craving to lift that lid and poke that garbage bag.

And how do you cow someone into taking or sticking with a crappy, toxic, minimum wage job if the threat of homelessness is no threat, if they know they can make an equivalent living as a homeless person but without all the BS? Kind of knocks laissez-faire economics into a cocked hat, if you ask me.

Just a better, stuffier, sleeping spot?

So if I’m saying anything, it must be that, in a way, long-term homeless people don’t necessarily stop being homeless even after they go into housing. Many—if they’re receiving government disability money—will continue doing everything they did: binning, panhandling, and sleeping outside when it suits them. All that’s different is maybe they have a better, drier, warmer sleeping spot, perhaps with a bathroom and electricity and lights they can turn on and off.

If they go into the Downtown Eastside, then their place may be worse than a parkade for security and cleanliness, and if they’re on welfare, then they either utterly transform their lives or keep their shopping cart’s engine running because sooner or later they’ll be cut off and be right back where they started.

So maybe the question I should be asking is not why this guy ended up back on the street but what took him so long?

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