My friends Glenn and Shaun are probably South Granville’s most recognizable homeless residents.
The inseparable friends, who are often mistaken for brothers, have been looking after themselves and their expensive opioid drug habits by panhandling on the sidewalks of the high-end shopping street, day-in and day-out, for nearly a decade.
Now it looks like the pair may finally be getting off the street and moving into social housing. But what had been a certainty for months is suddenly up in the air.
All they know for sure is that they will no longer be moving to the Marpole neighbourhood.
Home sweet modular homes
Glenn and Shaun had been among five Fairview-area homeless people that I know personally who were picked to move into the 78-unit, temporary modular housing (TMH) complex at West 59th Avenue and Heather Street.
However, now that it’s more-or-less completed, the pair have been told—along with six other homeless people they know—that they will not be moving into the Marpole TMH, after all.
This bad news followed a series of missed deadlines that began at least by the middle of February.
I know that the two were already frustrated by delays when, on February 14, their moving-in date was unexpectedly put off nearly a week, to February 19 or 20. Then on February 18, they were informed that they might have to wait until the end of the month.
Among the excuses for that delay, they told me, was uncompleted electrical work.
Friday morning (February 23) both Glenn and Shaun told me that they would no longer be moving into the Marpole complex ever.
They received this news on February 21.
They (along with six other homeless people they knew) had been bumped, in order—it was explained to them—that their ground floor units could be given to eight people using wheelchairs.
Reportedly, the Marpole temporary modular housing has 14 wheelchair-accessible units, which are about 25 square-feet larger than the other 64 units. But these must be on the ground floor as the three-storey Marpole TMH does not have an elevator.
Glenn and Shaun are now set to meet on February 28 with workers from a number of provincial government agencies involved in social housing, including B.C. Housing and the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The new plan, they tell me, is to find them space in social housing that they say is located at West 2nd Avenue and Fir Street (which I can find no trace of online).
(Note: There is nothing in the way of social housing at 2nd and Fir. It's likely that Glenn and Shaun mean the 50-unit temporary modular housing complex coming to the corner of West 2nd and Ash, in a parking lot west of the Olympic Village.)
Fear (if not loathing) in Marpole
Both Glenn and Shaun strongly suspect that the real reason they had the welcome mat yanked out from under their feet at the last minute was to mollify residents living in the area of Marpole around the temporary modular housing.
For months, a group of Marpole residents have been loudly expressing their concerns about having drug-addicted and antisocial types of homeless people dropped into their residential area so close to an elementary school.
I have written on Twitter that I and other homeless people I have spoken to in Fairview (including Glenn and Shaun) are not offended by residents questioning the location the temporary modular housing in their Marpole neighbourhood.
I believe that nothing but good comes from people challenging the decisions of their elected officials. This can only encourage inclusion and transparency in the political decision making process.
Politicians should have to answer the concerns of the public, especially if those concerns are unfounded or irrational.
It’s not like our elected officials never make mistakes.
Earlier this week I traded email with one of the Marpole residents who is protesting the temporary modular housing. This person was fine with having his personal opinions quoted so long as I did not use his full last name.
Here is some of what Tony W. wrote me (with a few minor spelling corrections on my part):
“Hi there, I am a member of Marpole community currently involved with the Marpole TMH protest. We are primarily worried about the location of the TMH building across from Laurier Elementary School and the fact that it will house at [least] dozens of Level 3 individuals with no oversight.
It is primarily a safety concern for us given what we have read and heard about level 3 service individuals, and how social housing are run, from people who [have] lived in them.
As well, we do think that to help the homeless, government should be talking to the homeless to see what they need and how best to help them with real and permanent solutions. It is a travesty that a person like yourself prefers to live on the street because the conditions are actually better than being in social housing, due to drugs, crimes and other issues you [have] stated.”
It is true that I have written about substance abuse being at the root of the harms associated with homelessness and how I would rather stay homeless in the Fairview neighbourhood as long as the alternative was living in a single-room-occupancy (SRO) suite in the Downtown Eastside or, more to the point, in constant proximity to individuals hellbent on drug-related theft and violence and who are consumed by drug-induced paranoia and psycosis.
I have also documented how some homeless people I know, who have been placed in such social housing situations downtown, have evicted themselves and gone back to living on the streets of Fairview.
In fact, the kind of individuals that I and many other homeless people want to avoid living next door to are the same “Level 3 individuals” that Tony W. and other Marpole residents are so concerned will make up a significant percentage of the tenants in the TMH at West 59th and Heather.
The three-degree service-level designation is one way to gauge how social, or antisocial a person is and therefore how much “watching” they will need in a communal living situation—with “1” having low needs and “3” having a medium to high need of oversight.
The City of Vancouver’s Temporary Modular Housing Contract Approval report of September 25, 2017, raised red flags with some Marpole residents, in part, by indicating that the tenancy of the modular housing would be a mix of all three service levels and by characterizing service level 3 individuals thusly:
- Non-engagement with treatment and support services
- Poor housekeeping, hoarding and hygiene
- Extensive criminal history indicating high risk to re-offend
- Can create security problems through aggressive and intimidating problems
- Episodic dramatic presentation, manipulative, demanding or intrusive behaviour, inability to sustain personal relationships
- Frequent conflict with other, poor communications skills, history of property damage
Who can blame Marpole residents, or anyone else, for being concerned about living next door to such puppies?
And I doubt that residents who read the city report were impressed how the list of criteria for determining the feasibility of TMH sites made no mention whatsoever of weighing neighbourhood-related considerations, beyond the proximity of transit.
Personally I was struck by the need for potential sites to be available for an initial time span of five years, plus a possible five-year renewal. Everything I have heard and read in the media has indicated that the “temporary” in temporary modular housing stood for a three-year lifespan, not five to 10 years.
Glenn and Shaun were quite surprised when I referred to the modular housing as temporary. None of the workers they spoke to gave them any reason to believe that the modular housing was anything less than permanent.
Glenn and Shaun—mostly harmless
In my reply to Tony W. I wrote that none of the five homeless candidates for the Marpole TMH that I knew personally were high-risk characters that he and his neighbours needed to worry about.
I cannot say that Glenn and Shaun do not have their moments. They can certainly be grumpy and growly in the morning before they’ve had coffee and they can be downright pettish about their sidewalk panhandling spots on South Granville and they are opioid drug users.
But opioids do not cause irreversible neurological damage the way that crystal methamphetamine does. The big problem for an opioid user is the ferociously addictive nature of the drug, coupled with the high cost of supporting the addiction, not to mention the ever-present risk of dying from an overdose.
Opioids certainly do not make Glenn and Shaun aggressive or paranoid. They are altogether rather peaceful, even-tempered individuals. They are also friendly, intelligent, thoughtful and inquisitive. And on top of all that they are two of the most voracious readers I have ever met.
As panhandlers on South Granville they are known for being as close as brothers and for their habit of sitting on and wrapping themselves in blankets (hence the “Blanket Brothers” nickname that somewhat irks them).
They are also never without books, preferring to let their hand-lettered cardboard begging signs and paper cups speak for themselves while they quietly read.
I think it could also be said of these two bookworms that they are overdue for a chance at changing their lives.
Glenn tells me that he has been living on the street for 20 years (since 1998). And Shaun says that he’s been homeless for 15 (since 2003). Both say that they have tried to get off the street before and that they are looking forward to using the stability of housing for all that its worth.
That means substitution therapy (whether methadone or buprenorphine) to kick their opioid addictions, which they hope will lead to other life changes, including an end to panhandling.
Glenn says that he wants to get back to his Indigenous roots by making art again. (He describes himself as half Mohawk.) And both he and Shaun talked about getting jobs and library cards.
But their eyes shone and their faces lit up with especially big smiles when they talked of getting bookshelves and starting libraries of their own, in homes of their own!
Here’s hoping I will have a reason to give each of them a book-shaped housewarming present very soon.