Homeless in Vancouver: Homelessness—it’s about the drugs, stupid!

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      On this, the third day of the eighth annual Homeless Action Week (formerly Homeless Awareness Week) in Metro Vancouver, I despair of ever seeing an end to homelessness.

      Actually I don’t believe there will ever be an end to people falling into homelessness and people should probably stop looking for one. Instead I believe we should be building a sort of social escalator that will continually help lift as many homeless people as possible back into the mainstream of society so they can be self-supporting, contributing citizens.

      This would ultimately involve dealing with as many barriers as possible: literacy, depression, skills training—the third-world conditions of reservations—but if this sounds too ambitious, we could just start with the drugs.

      Nothing contributes as much to the misery and social harms of homelessness as street drugs do. And nothing else stands in the way of empowering people quite like drug addiction.

      Take away addiction and all the other issues of homelessness become so much easier to deal with.

      The region’s Band-Aid solution of trying to simply put drug-addicted homeless people on social assistance and warehouse them in social housing is woefully shortsighted.

      First, it can’t end homelessness and neither will it sustainably slow it down. It is not a stepping stone to real independence but more of a dumping ground for misfits that threatens to  become a bureaucratic empire of the poor—a kind of gulag full of people with no expectations beyond their next government assistance cheque or hoot, whichever comes first.

      Furthermore, it does little to even reduce the appearance of homelessness. Paradoxically it will actually help keep the homeless people it houses roaming the streets for years to come.

      You can take the person out of the street but…

      A panhandler I know serves to illustrate my point. This person has been homeless for years but managed to get off the street and into social housing in the Downtown Eastside within the last two years.

      In recent months, they’ve been in and out of housing for various reasons. In November, they will be out on the street again, except they are already mostly sleeping outside.

      Probably they’ll get back into housing but it hardly matters. Inside or out, they still live the life of a homeless person—they need to make money to support their drug habit and that means panhandling. Same as it always has.

      All this turkey wanted for Thanksgiving

      What a panhandler’s hard work earns them—an expensive wee baggie of crack.
      Stanley Q. Woodvine

      Yesterday morning, seeing that I was having my breakfast in the McDonald’s on West Broadway Avenue around the corner from South Granville Street, this panhandler asked if I would watch their bags for a few minutes—they wanted to go pick something up.

      Vancouver drug addicts can order their drug by phone and have them delivered. In the Fairview neighbourhood, some of the common drop-off zones are within easy walking distance of the intersection of West Broadway and South Granville.

      On returning, knowing that I like to blog such things, this panhandler plopped a miniscule blue plastic baggie on my tray with the exclamation: “Fifty-five dollars!”

      They were telling me they had just spent $55 on a baggie of crack cocaine that couldn’t even cover half a thin dime. However, they explained, it could cover their drug habit for the day.

      Another friend suggested the panhandler might have exaggerated—that it might only have been $30 worth of crack cocaine.

      Still, that’s not much more than a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And not a whit smarter.

      When does Drug Addiction Action Week start?

      Monday was Thanksgiving in Canada, a good occasion to express how thankful I am that I’m not a drug addict—though I am homeless.

      It’s also now Homeless Action Week in Metro Vancouver—a week of seminars, exhibits, and outreach meant to have some positive impact on homelessness—a good time to wonder where the treatment of drug addition enters into the efforts to end homelessness.

      It doesn’t appear to be overtly on the agenda of any of the 29 events that make up this year’s Homeless Action Week.

      I strongly believe it should be. Drug addiction is both a major generator of homelessness and a reason why being homelessness is so awful for so many people.

      I believe that a lot of the worst aspects associated with homelessness—mental illness, street disorder, and petty crime—are actually an overlay caused by addiction to street drugs.

      Think of any aspect of being homeless and you will find that drug addiction magnifies its awfulness and makes the overall problem of homelessness that much more difficult to solve.

      And therefore I seriously doubt that simply sticking homeless people in social housing—with their drug addictions intact—will solve anything.

      Addiction, like misery, loves company

      Social housing alone doesn’t change the fact of people’s addictions. To buy the street drugs they need, formerly homeless addicts must continue to engage in all the same activities as they did before they were given social housing—panhandling, binning, collecting scrap metal, prostitution, or whatever.

      Some “former” homeless people use their social housing intermittently, preferring to still sleep on the streets where the money they need to buy drugs can be found and where the friends they like to do the drugs with are also to be found.

      Housed and addicted street people will continue to do their drugs in alleys with other street people (who may themselves be housed). The housing is like a good sleeping spot: a particularly cozy and secure parkade.

      Social housing by itself doesn’t change behaviour; people do. But even if they want to change their lives, street people in social housing will still probably have to fall back on the panhandling and/or binning they know how to do in order to simply survive the month.

      Particularly as spots in social housing can significantly slash a person’s social assistance.

      I’m told that welfare recipients living in one social housing complex in the Dunbar area have had their welfare reduced from $235 per month down to $60 because one meal is served each day.

      The one formerly homeless binner I know who now lives in this complex has more incentive than ever to go scrambling for returnable cans and bottles every day.

      Simply housing homeless people who have drug and alcohol drug addictions doesn’t necessarily get them off the streets.

      Homelessness and drugs: chalk and cheese or what?

      In the minds of most people, drug addiction and homelessness are closely linked, and in fact an awful lot of street people use or are addicted to drugs like crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, and heroin.

      But why ever these men and women started taking street drugs—the high, pain relief, peace of mind, to forget, or as an escape from boredom—the drugs clearly end up taking more than they give.

      In all important regards, drug addiction actually conspires with circumstances to make homelessness a more difficult existence than it needs to be.

      The days and nights of the walking dead

      The common street drugs all seem to have the effect of turning addicts’ attention inwards. People who are high seem to become selfish and self-absorbed creatures.

      It’s bad enough that some of them will lie, cheat, and steal to feed their habits, but under the influence every street addict I’ve known becomes remarkably unconcerned about their surroundings; oblivious to the people around them and—often as not—forgetful of anything they possess.

      As a consequence they become their own worst enemies. They lose their money and their stuff and through their ignorant, selfish behaviour, alienate everyone around them, losing any sympathy other people might have had towards their plight as homeless men and women.

      And thanks to street drugs, homeless drug addicts also slowly lose their minds.

      You have to be crazy to be homeless!

      Everyone apparently knows—or certainly believes—that mentally ill people often become homeless.

      I mean that it’s taken for granted that circumstances can bring people into the world with mental and physical challenges and that some of these people will, at some time in their lives, fall through the cracks of Canada’s social safety net and end up living on the street.

      And that is sadly true, but where is the discussion and awareness that street drugs and homelessness also create mental illness?

      They do. Believe me. The progressive neurological damage of street drugs magnifies all the negative emotional aspects of homeless to create an ideal incubator for serious mental illness.

      Every long-term homeless person I know who has also had a long-term addiction to street drugs is clearly suffering cumulative neurological damage.

      I watch with dismay as the handful of drug addicts I know slowly lose their mental faculties.

      I’m dismayed because I’ve known these men and women for years and because I’m as certain as I am of anything that the same degradation is happening—has happened—to countless homeless people I’ll never know.

      And there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that it won’t keep happening forever.

      The elephant in the room

      Some of worst problems associated with homelessness are clearly problems of drug addiction but, for whatever reason, we can’t seem to stop the drugs from flowing.

      I believe addressing addiction to street drugs would do as much to alleviate the harms of homelessness as social housing.

      I think getting homeless drug addicts off the street into housing and off the street drugs and into work-related programs should be hand-in-hand priorities.

      How this should be done exactly I don’t know. Perhaps Metro Vancouver could hold a week of seminars and discuss it.

      I do not believe that simply trying to warehouse homeless drug addicts is eliminating—or will ever eliminate—homelessness. 

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




      Oct 14, 2014 at 4:17pm

      Stanley, I'm glad you have the wisdom to see the real problem. If only the "enlightened' poverty industry types could understand that you will never make a dent in homelessness until you deal with the drug problem. I'm curious how you feel about Insite. How do you feel about helping junkies shoot up as a method of getting them off drugs. Isn't that enabling??


      Oct 14, 2014 at 7:24pm

      Excellent article, and point well made. I am reminded of a documentary (a few years old now) called "The Devil Plays Hardball". In it, they take people off the street and provide them with housing and no other support. The result? Well, you'll have to watch to find out.

      Stanley Q Woodvine

      Oct 14, 2014 at 7:34pm


      I strongly support Insite's goal of harm reduction.

      By reducing harm to addicts, Insite not only saves lives but it demonstrably reduces the harm drug addiction can do to the larger society.

      For example: by supervising injections and supplying clean, safe, equipment, Insite is reducing the spread of disease among addicts and lessening the chance IV drug users will be a significant vector of disease transmission for the general population.

      Harm reduction is a win-win. Everything should be so well-thought-out.


      Oct 14, 2014 at 8:58pm

      Bobo - Insite is not about helping junkies get off drugs. It is about giving in to the realization that these people are not going to quit, and that this program will reduce the collateral costs (od's, AIDS, Hep C et all)

      It is enabling, but at the end of the day is less expensive than the alternative.

      It is similar to Cold Remedy's. They address the symptoms, not the disease. Were these people to be "cured", the poverty industry might be out of work, and therein lies the conflict of interest


      Oct 14, 2014 at 11:54pm

      OK what about this.

      The Mental Health Act ss22-28 empowers the province to involuntarily commit people who are a danger to themselves or to others. There is a review of detention at 48 and hours and 30 days.

      I think that if a person is passed out on a piss soaked mattress in the alley behind Abbott Street with a needle hanging out of his or her arm, they meet the definition. Because in that state, anyone could have robbed, raped or flat out murdered them.

      These folks are in the state of extremity. They need to get off the shit.

      But they won't, probably, do so on their own. And why would they? If they preferred being sober to being high, they wouldn't spend so much money, time, and effort getting high would they!

      Some people haven't been sober in years. They're probably terrified of the idea, let alone have any notion of how good, energized, clear and confident they would feel without chemical help.

      I'm not talking prohibition. Lots of people can handle their highs, but I'm talking about the ones that Woodbine sees who are losing their marbles all over the place.

      But involuntary committal to a detox makes sense for some. Give them the 30 or 60 days to kick, feed them good food, give them some interesting books to read and interesting company to hang out with, take some exercise... I dunno if it would work for everyone, lots of people will head right back to VANDUstan but some won't and they deserve the chance to change.


      Oct 15, 2014 at 12:59pm

      My last comment on moonbeam is at odds with your comment even though I found your article, insightful. Keeping the zombies high with protective measures (safe injection sites) isn't helpful.

      My neo-conservative-liberal belief is that you use sympathy and try to help them deal with their demons - child abuse or whatever. If you can't, get them the heck off the streets and put them in some sort of supervised facility - holding pen away from society which they rob and cheat.


      Oct 15, 2014 at 3:04pm

      @Mooha, and others

      Harm reduction is about keeping people alive long enough so that they might be able to quit. Programs are there to support people where they're at, by supplying resources for counselling and quitting (etc) if that's what a person is ready for, or by reducing harm when they're not ready to quit. Does anyone wake up one morning, and out of any of the options available (get the mail, make some coffee, go to work, become addicted to heroin) willingly choose to develop a dependency to a drug? Addiction is complex thing, and the risk factors that contribute to likeliness of addiction must be investigated more thoroughly and addressed. I repeat: harm reduction isn't cough syrup for a common cold. Harm reduction keeps people alive longer so that they might find the support and courage to take the risks associated with quitting.


      Oct 15, 2014 at 3:21pm

      Stanely is absolutely right. Drugs are a big problem. But not just the use of drugs, the criminalization of using them. All that does is empower the drug dealers who prey on homeless addicts, and turns a health problem into a crime. Warehousing them is only a temporary and very expensive solution that does little to fix or even improve the lives of those affected.

      Unfortunately, the poverty industry in Vancouver is making too much money to want to change anything. Insite does more to help, in fact. Insite's goal is to reduce the harm drug addicts do to themselves. Those who use Insite are demonstrating a small desire to care for themselves and their health. That may not seem like much to you and me, but to a drug addict, that's a good first step which can sometimes lead to more and better treatment for drug addiction. Shelters do nothing of the kind.


      Oct 15, 2014 at 4:25pm

      Uh, they are taking drugs because they are too fragile mentally to deal with reality. They are already dead.


      Oct 15, 2014 at 8:27pm

      Actually, people with your conception of reality are quite childish and unsophisticated. Reality is a perception. By "reality", you mean the perceptions enjoyed by the mass of mankind. You could criticize any rare perception---intelligence, beauty, love, etc. etc. by demanding that such be subjugated and viewed through the lense of "reality" as conceived by the witless.

      Taking drugs is rarely a sign of mental fragility; not taking drugs is a sign of mental fragility and, quite likely, an addiction to a single cognitive state---sort of like someone who eats the same sandwich for lunch every day. Is it legal to do that? Sure. Is it boring? Ya, it's boring. You haven't any right to insist people be satisfied with boring experiences.

      People take drugs because they want to take drugs. Any other story is metaphysical claptrap that denies the absolute fact of human agency and control over self. Humans are volitional beings. The volition is never impaired; that is a religious myth used to justify ostracization of those whose wills differ radically from the mass.

      The first order of business is to end the drug war. These people are the victims of a war. They simply did not exist prior to the drug war, not in the same way. Addiction has always existed; the lot in life of addicts under drug war conditions is a manufactured experience.