COVER STORY: A roof over his head - Part one in a five-part series
Life started out pretty good, says Jon quietly, volleying between glances at the window and eye contact, dark sunglasses perched on his forehead.
Hockey in the winters, travelling, church on Sundays — experiences seemingly ripped from the pages of a growing-up-Canadian manual.
Things changed rather quickly for the youngster, however, after he and his sister moved from Calgary to Vancouver to live with his grandmother. His parents had already relocated here, seeking out a life in the Downtown Eastside to support their drug addictions.
At 14, Jon says he began experimenting with pot, as many teenagers do, but not much else. It’s what happened later that year that would propel the teenager into a life of drug dependence and crime that would dictate the next 16 years of his life.
“My mom overdosed in my arms in the Downtown Eastside. After my mom died, everything went downhill,” says Jon, now 30, with a sigh.
“I miss my mom a lot. She was a very caring, loving figure. She was always there for me when I needed her. She didn’t like me doing drugs but she said if I was going to do them I should do them with her.”
Without a mother, absentee or not, Jon was left with few people from whom to seek guidance. His father was an addict. His sister, now recovering and a source of essential support, was an addict. Jon was left to find his own way on the streets of the country’s most troubled neighbourhood.
He’s spent time in jail, watched others in the community critically injured over as little as $40 and, in a disagreement with his father, was stabbed 15 times for refusing to sell him drugs. His thick, blue-plaid sweatshirt and turtleneck cover the scars of the attack, but Jon’s face helps fill in the blanks. With slightly sunken cheeks and almost non-existent eyebrows, his features depict someone much older. Only his blue eyes act as a reminder of his age.
Jon’s also got HIV and hepatitis C and hasn’t seen his daughter for two years. But he maintains he’s in a good place these days, both mentally and physically.
For nearly a month, Jon’s been staying at the North Shore Shelter. He says he’s been clean for more than three months and his focus is simply “secure living.” If he can attain that goal and count himself among the lucky who land a transitional housing space, Jon says he’d like to get his high school diploma and continue indulging in his two creative passions: writing and drawing.
But it isn’t always easy to stay focused, Jon admits. He’s been in a similar situation before. A few years ago, he lost the daily battle to stay clean and left the Lookout Shelter on Yukon Street in Vancouver, bound for the DTES.
And now that he’s back living in a safe place, that battle continues. Only this time he knows if he walks away, it might be the last time he’s ever presented with such a choice.
“You have to think positive. I ask myself ‘do I really want to go back down there?’ It’s hard, it really is. Some days I think I’m just going to go but I think about the consequences and I know I’ll be dead,” he says.
“There are good people here trying to help me, put a roof on my head. I’m just praying to God I get into one of the suites.”
The North Shore Shelter opened in 2004, built with money from the federal government on land purchased and donated by the City of North Vancouver. Its operational funding comes from BC Housing and private donors, while the city provides ongoing tax benefits.
The driving force behind the creation of the shelter was the North Shore Homelessness Task Force, which started in 1998 in response to “visible, outdoor homeless” in the area. The task force is comprised of a myriad of people working with the homeless or those at risk of homelessness, including representatives from Vancouver Coastal Health, the Canadian Mental Heath Association and the North Vancouver RCMP detachment, to name but three.
The shelter offers 25 transitional housing beds and 45 short-term beds. An extra 20 beds are made available in extreme weather conditions. Jon’s currently staying in one of the short-term spots.
Upon admittance, those staying in the shelter are assigned a case worker who’s in charge of learning about each person’s long-term plans and then helping create a housing strategy based on the information discussed.
That strategy plays an integral role in determining how long someone stays at the shelter. According to Masami Tomioka, manager at the North Shore Shelter, the average short-term stay at the facility is 28 days but that number can fluctuate depending on whether or not someone has made housing arrangements for when they leave.
The national shelter-stay average, in comparison, is slightly more than 18 days.
Persistence is key to getting into one of the shelter beds on the North Shore as the facility operates at capacity, year-round. David Newberry, community liaison at the North Shore Shelter, told The Outlook there are people “moving out most days” but any vacant spots fill up right away.
A phone call in the morning and another in the afternoon is needed to stay on top of availability. Those in need, however, may still be turned away, he says.
From the short-term spaces, transferring into a transitional bed is a potential next move. The transitional beds at the shelter, where one can stay for a maximum of two years, are also full year-round. When a spot does open up, it is the tenancy selection committee, a board made up of community members, that chooses who moves in.
“The theory is they decide who best represents the goals of the community,” says Newberry.
“There is no favourite-playing.”
The objective of transitional housing, adds Newberry, is to offer someone a place to stay as they prepare for independent living.
But when one’s transitional time is up, what services are in place to help realize that move? Where does one in that situation turn?
The move from transitional housing, unfortunately, can often prove as difficult a negotiation as finding the aforementioned two-year residences.
The Lookout Society does operate two permanent housing buildings, one in New Westminster and in one in Vancouver. Places there are an option, if they’re available.
Others leaving transitional housing can move into a BC Housing facility, or housing geared towards those in recovery or with various types of mental illness, like a group home.
Both of those options, as well, hinge on availability.
“For us, the short-term goal is getting people some form of housing. But the long game is difficult, too. The goal is to make sure for every shelter bed there is another supportive bed to move to. It’s all part of the same process. You need to focus on the immediate connection, with the long-term goal in mind. We’re always trying to do that,” says Newberry.
“The bottom line is affordable housing. There needs to be more of it now, or very soon and everywhere. We need it all levels.”
So, what is the current housing picture on the North Shore?
Does someone like Jon have a place to go if he wants to call the area home after he leaves the shelter system? What about the teenager, still in high school, whose home life wasn’t what it should have been? Or, for that matter, the senior or the stretched-thin parent, both trying to stay in the place where they’ve spent their entire lives?
Can each of these people feel at all certain they have a place in this community?
Part two next week
*Only the first names of the homeless or formerly homeless are used in this series at the request of those interviewed. In one case, an alias is used.