Homeless in Vancouver: Crow à la cart

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      “It’s not real,” Henry warned me, as I examined the facsimile crow he had perched on the top of the piled stuff rising out of his shopping cart.

      He found it while binning the previous evening.

      In the poor light of a back alley it had looked like a dead crow someone had chucked in a Dumpster.

      So he grabbed it—who wouldn’t?

      We both agreed it was a very good fake crow.

      This happened earlier in the week on Wednesday and it really was the “crow of the day” because it was gone the next day, along with everything else in Henry’s shopping cart.

      All casualties of “cheque day”.

      A fool and his or her money...

      It’s four days since provincial government welfare and disability cheques were issued: “cheque day”.

      Or as I’ve heard it referred to, “Mardi Gras”.

      For most people I see living on—or just a "social housing" bedsit away from—the street, cheque day is a defining feature of their lives. The starting gate and finish line rolled into one.

      It’s also intimately associated with another feature that defines the lives of so many street-ish people: their drug use.

      It’s called “Mardi Gras” because a sizable number of drug addicts get this free chunk of money dropped on them and after just scraping by most of the month they can afford to go crazy for a day or two.

      Welfare recipients only get about $235 in their pocket so they can’t go too crazy.

      Luckily, drugs are plentiful in the Downtown Eastside and priced to sell.

      People on monthly disability cheques might receive well over $700. If they’re so inclined, they can and do really go to town.

      If they’re in some kind of housing, the bulk of the recipient’s welfare or disability money goes straight into the hands of their landlord so at least they can’t easily lose their place.

      But otherwise, within a few short days the party is over and the money is gone.

      Win some, lose everything

      Henry is homeless and receives a welfare cheque of $235 or so.

      It’s not a lot of money—Henry can make that bottle picking in three or four days if he works really hard and luck is with him—but the welfare is extra and it’s steady money a person can plan on.

      Henry has planned for a few cheques to fix up the Acer One laptop he managed to buy with a previous cheque nearly two years ago.

      It died under mysterious circumstances. He says someone took the hard drive and he’s wanted to replace it ever since.

      In the meantime he’s found and used several laptops—they all came out of the garbage, they were all at least four years old, and they’re all gone.

      The most recent one we set up with Ubuntu Linux. It’s gone, too.

      It will seems like plain carelessness to lose so many laptops but only if you’re not homeless.

      Sooner or later homeless people lose everything—to accidental loss, environmental damage, theft, or even confiscation by the police.

      All homeless people are losers, right?

      Everyone loses things or just misplaces them.

      But when homeless people absent-mindedly put a thing down without thinking, they can pretty much kiss it goodbye.

      You think finding the remote you mislaid in your living room is tough, imagine what it’s like when your “living room” is an area on the map of Vancouver.

      And it should be hoped that you have fewer thieves in your living space.

      People like Henry who live on the street and call a shopping cart their “house” also have a hard time keeping their stuff because they routinely have to leave their shopping carts unattended outside whenever they go inside.

      They run the risk of having everything they own stolen every time they go into a restaurant to eat, use a restroom, when they do laundry, or go into a community centre to get a shower.

      Or when they have to go downtown to pick up and cash their welfare cheques.

      Henry pushes his luck and gets a reality check

      This cheque day, Henry didn’t want to take his shopping cart downtown.

      After weighing the alternatives he opted to leave his cart in the mouth of an alley beside a busy business in Fairview—it was the safest choice he could think of.

      It nearly worked.

      Henry went off downtown cart-loose and fancy-free and his albatross of a shopping cart sat unmolested in Fairview all day—I checked up on it when I could.

      It was a fine tribute to the neighbourhood that it even went untouched overnight and was still perfectly intact when Henry finally showed up the next morning.

      If only Henry hadn’t pushed his luck by leaving it and wandering off one more time.

      His shopping cart was gone by the evening when he returned a second time.

      Like any red-blooded homeless person, he railed loudly at the injustice of the world.

      He wasn’t wrong but he could’ve saved a bit more scorn for his own poor judgement.

      Interestingly, his loss had wider repercussions.

      Another homeless person faced with making the trek downtown to deal with his own welfare cheque had paid Henry five dollars to look after his sleeping blanket.

      To be fair, Henry had told the fellow he planned to leave his shopping cart unattended in Fairview.

      The fact remained that Henry’s loss did this other homeless guy out of a sleeping blanket—which he had borrowed from and was supposed to return to another homeless person.

      Like so many things, poor judgement also comes in threes.

      While he was downtown, Henry had completely fallen for the lure of the Downtown Eastside and spent all his welfare money: buying at least eight three-dollar decks of knock-off cigarettes and a miscellany of hard drugs.

      Henry has weaned himself off crack but freely admits to still doing cocaine and crystal meth.

      Friday, in between kicking himself for his own weakness, he told me how Wednesday the downtown Honduran drug dealers had been bringing out “the good stuff” and giving him free samples.

      Whatever. He blew his money. Didn’t fix his laptop and lost all his possessions.

      Admittedly, some drug dealers would have been marginally poorer if Henry hadn’t gotten a welfare cheque but there’s a case to be made that Henry himself would have been materially better off without it.

      I know full well there are thousands of poor people across British Columbia who benefit from the welfare and disability money they receive.

      I’m only referring to the flow of government money to the street people and near-the-street people I see in Vancouver.

      In that case it seems like the real beneficiaries are drug dealers and Downtown Eastside slumlords. They make out like bandits on cheque day.

      In this story, there’s really nothing for anyone to crow about.

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer.


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      Jun 1, 2014 at 9:38pm

      Can you you give this guy a raise, please? He is the most interesting columnist at the Georgia Straight. He is far more interesting than Suzuki.


      Jun 2, 2014 at 10:44am

      Great article and perspective. How messed up -- that as a society we can tolerate this and leave these people behind!