I Work for the PHS

22 Mar


photo (6)


Yes, I work for the Portland Hotel Society. Yes, I work at Insite, the only legally sanctioned supervised injection site in North America. And yes,  injection drug use, most frequently with illegal substances, occurs there. In fact, many hundred times per day. Yes, I’ve also heard the news about us, and have read our accusations.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. What a place. Make no mistake, this is a community of unique historical importance, no moment so great as now. This apparent gem of a city, ocean, mountains, and this ghetto, not too long ago, known as Canada’s poorest postal code zone. All representing for me and many the collision of all the big questions and big solutions of our culture. The beauty of the mountains and the despair of poverty sharing the same horizon line, obscured only by the division of concrete, glass, and the cranes used to create more, bigger, concrete and glass obstructions. I used to be proud of this place; I literally would get a little rush, like a lover’s rush, when I saw the city’s skyline. I found a place to be engaged in this great conundrum, how can such affluence surround such great poverty? This conundrum, the bedrock of what creates an unjust society, and our struggle to not only answer this question but act on the answers we find, moves us toward justice and compassion as individuals and as a culture. I used to be proud, but the displacement of this neighbourhood is underway. We all lose because of it and no longer can we be proud.

My engagement with the Downtown Eastside was not of choice but of circumstance. I arrived as a newly single father struggling to legitimize home and family life, against many odds. Building from a personal ground zero financially, socially, and admittedly emotionally, the struggle was further challenged by the difficulty in finding affordable housing in this city. I found it. My new neighbours were the poor, forgotten, and outcast. Eccentrics, activists, artists, addicts, homeless, sex trade workers, drug dealers, seniors, those with illnesses both of body and mind, mixed all together often in the same person but certainly in the same community, characters all. All the unwelcome ones were welcome here, including me and my little pink and purple brood.

We, this broken little brood, found ourselves engaging, not ignoring, those deemed the Unwelcomed. Loving. Recognizing, this is our neighbour and friend. Being loved in return, cared for as a human, and esteemed as a father, though struggling, uncertain, threatened, but applauded just for showing up as a dad and implored to keep showing up. All this preceded my employment with the Portland Hotel Society 5 years ago.

Then finally a job where I could thrive. I could be on time for work at night (it took some practice, sorry to those I kept waiting) instead of being late every morning (thank you, ADD). Harm reduction and low barriers to service, these were the principles. The rule book was thin- treat people with the inherent dignity they have as humans. Also, and I quote one of my recently replaced directors, welcome all people into the human family, including the drug addict. (He said something to that effect on Hannity. The Fox News Hannity, whose viewership watches not to be educated nor transformed but rather to entrench ideology. I’m grateful those words were spoken to such a hostile environment, regardless of its receptivity). With my work, and I’m not alone in quickly experiencing this employment to be a vocation and a calling, I was able to further engage the symptoms of a poverty culture. This implies a culture that is organized toward providing the excesses of some to the exclusion and expense of many others. Our vocation is the responsibility to welcome the Unwelcomed and tear down the barriers that deny many people, especially the addict and those suffering with mental illness, the basic dignities that we assert are inherently human. No barriers, not how you get your money, what you ingest, how you look,what past or current trauma you’ve experienced, what your mental health, intellect, hygiene, whatever else I can list alongside the basic human rights, nothing (save for maybe violence, but maybe there’s still that chance…) will create a barrier between us and your dignity, your humanity. What an engaged, radical notion. People of conscience, this is an opportunity to give thanks.

We are/ were led by a few radicals, the radically compassionate, eccentric characters themselves, but driven to overachieve in creating an integrated workplace and neighbourhood where they themselves live. That happened by providing housing, food, inventive health care models (including but not limited to Insite), creative access to employment, banking services, gathering places, identification cards (seriously! the most basic of barriers) but mostly an engaged, uncondescending workforce who laugh, love, bandage, hug, and ultimately mourn, grieve, celebrate and simply be with these, the beloved Unwelcomed. These who we assume will always be a major part of our lives. Yes, I have a crush on all who I work alongside, people who daily commit themselves to providing dignity to our own lives, mine. The dignity that we are a people who do not ignore the Unwelcomed. We are not bystanders. No, we instead love and care and in that way create dignity for all regardless of a broader validation. And we’ve always been willing to fight for that because we consider basic dignity to be an essential service. All this achieved in an environment where there was no pre-existing political will to facilitate these services. Everything in place is in place because the people, led by our recently deposed management, fought for it to be so.

And now we’ve lost a major battle. Many were afraid we might lose our jobs. But we’ve been placated, patted down, reassured in the manner you would the surly housecat whose countenance seems to await the question. But the question can’t be asked because you’re the cat and I’m the human and we can’t even talk, right?. So we regard it as a battle lost, a direct assault on a few people and a greater assault on the plight of the Unwelcomed. With that acknowledgement given, I feel the need to answer some of the accusations levied against our employment.

Yes I’ve been to a hockey game with a resident. It was that thing that happened, the Olympics. Yes, the same event that accelerated the pace of gentrification in this neighbourhood to a jaw dropping pace, the same gentrification leading the current displacement. Tickets were donated for Downtown Eastside residents. I accompanied a young Somali man, never having been to a hockey game himself, with severe post traumatic stress disorder. Getting him through the heavy wall of security with his dignity and respect intact was the objective. And to watch a hockey game. We did both quite successfully. I was there with many other residents and co-workers. I bought the resident a soda. My own money was used, I have since misplaced the receipt. He seemed to enjoy the soda more than the game. I’ve also been to a Cirque de Soleil show, the horse one. Yes, with residents. And my children. Together all pretty happy, sorta like neighbours. I’ve also had a beer with residents on more than one occasion. I was in a pub in the neighbourhood we share, the kind of pub that would allow entry to the kind of people I work amongst as opposed to all those other (read, new) pubs. We saw each other. We were happy. We sat down for a moment to get caught up then returned to our evening. Kinda like how neighbours and humans treat each other.

Rest assured, I’m not a poverty pimp. I’m the working poor. The wage I make is the only income in my family. In this city, while parenting 2 daughters, that puts me near the bottom of any income categories. I wear this as a badge of honour, a gratitude of sorts that allows me to serve the Unwelcomed with a clear conscience. I have no middle class condescencion. No sense that “I’ve come to the ghetto to save you, to help you on your way to a pleasing esthetic, a tax paying vocation, and a consumer lifestyle, God bless”. Rather, I’m among you and need the same salvation as you. I’m frequently pointed to while someone tells another that I saved their life. And I consider myself the least among my co-workers who have far greater stories than mine, and I hear those stories regularly. I hear it generally, about “us” as an integrated organization. I hear it from people in managed heroin programs. My children hear it when we walk down Hastings together in the hugs and high 5s and plentiful laughs and hellos. My daughters are afraid to walk down Hastings with me not because of violence but because it takes too long. That’s called love. People get their lives back when we are on task, which is always.

What of the questions about accounting irregularities and the behaviour of the Directors? Regarding the Directors, mainly Mark and Liz who I consider to be friends in the broader sense of the term.

I’m no defender of excess, I don’t care how you make your money. Anyone who rides in limos or stays in luxury hotels more than once in, let’s say, 5 years fails to impress me. (I have yet to do either in my rather lengthy life and have no aspirations to do so). Those are occasional luxuries at best for people of conscience. Doing it while also being responsible for the public purse makes no sense and is indefensible.  When your friends do it it becomes a “What were you thinking?” sort of gesture. Additionally, executive wages are a tough call, but I don’t begrudge their salaries at all. That is the culture we’re in. They are well within the non-profit wage structure and things would have gone way smoother if we had more bureaucracy in place, which is an undeniable and awful assertion. If I didn’t know the years of sacrifice preceding these wages I might question it more. If I wasn’t aware of how frequently they have cared for employees and residents alike in generous monetary ways, and if I wasn’t aware that they worked at a relentless pace day and night from their home office, which was 4 houses down from mine for a year and a half, then I might be a little bit angry. This was no job for them; it was a work to which they dedicated of their lives.  And consider this.  If they had paid themselves $40K per year more over the 3 years in question (a figure of approximately $500K- 4 people X $40k X 3 years) and paid the controversial excesses out of their own pockets 3 things would have happened. 1. Their wages would have still been lower than the top 4 BC Housing Execs. 2. They still would have been far more effective than any other organization, including BC Housing. 3. Nobody would have cared. But they screwed up and there are enough people in power who hate them for their activism and lack of bureaucratic process that have been waiting, salivating for this moment.

Again, I don’t deny the problem of excesses nor do I defend it. But I do forgive whatever it is, maybe it’s the moment of allowing themselves to believe in their own untouchableness. It’s undeniable that these people are world changers. The world, literally, has come to us to learn about the dignity of care I’ve described above. No exaggeration, the world. Nobody else could have created that. Evidence of that is that nobody else has. The world, again no exaggeration, is better because of these people. Forgiveness, therefore, is readily given.  And forgiveness implies a change in the forgiven, which is my great hope.

With all love and sincerity




42 Responses to “I Work for the PHS”

  1. Bill Tieleman March 23, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    Powerful, personal testimony – thanks for sharing it – and good luck!

  2. Sharon March 23, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    I grew up in the DES. I’ve never ever referred to my neighbours as The Unwelcomed. Perhaps you’re being ironic. Perhaps.

    • ironnieg March 24, 2014 at 4:42 am #

      I was going to react back to this but I think I need to acknowledge the critique. It is awkward to give a title to a group of people. Instead of defining a group of people by their addiction and mental health status I chose the Unwelcomed to broaden it a little and to describe that experience. I feel it defines it effectively for a number of reasons which I feel are valid- I’ve seen people displaced from other social housing environments and “end up in the DTES” with few other housing options, I’ve de-escalated conflicts in pizza shops and cafes outside of the DTES over panhandlers, known to me, being unwanted in their shops, I’ve worked in non-profits in other parts of Canada and have not seen anything to quite parallel the DTES, I’ve worked for other non-profit housing organizations in Vancouver who are not able to house the people we house, I have heard the reluctance of people engaging the outside world, whether it be a hockey game or a hospital, because they’re ashamed of how they might appear or how they might be treated. I get how the term might appear insensitive but it’s generated from a place of sensitivity. Hope you can receive that explanation. And I don’t do irony.

      • Brahmi Benner March 26, 2014 at 10:57 pm #

        It wasn’t hard to understand your meaning. The residents of The Downtown Eastside have been made to feel very unwelcome in Vancouver, to the point of physical displacement around the time of the Olympics. There’s no irony in that. You don’t need to take on every critique. Some people are so eager to dish them out, they don’t even take a moment to think them through.

  3. Melissa Fong aka @InternationalMF March 23, 2014 at 7:48 am #

    Thanks for placing the humanity back into the actions of PHS and providing an honest experience and balanced story.

    “I’ve also had a beer with residents on more than one occasion. I was in a pub in the neighbourhood we share, the kind of pub that would allow entry to the kind of people I work amongst as opposed to all those other (read, new) pubs. We saw each other. We were happy. We sat down for a moment to get caught up then returned to our evening. Kinda like how neighbours and humans treat each other.”

  4. delicioushabits March 23, 2014 at 8:06 am #

    their ‘excesses’ and mismanagement of monies entrusted to them have now put much needed programs at risk. by using those funds for personal use they have ensured that due to dwindled coffers, jobs supporting these programs and the actual assistance offered will have an expiry date. that is inexcusable and unforgivable

    • ironnieg March 24, 2014 at 4:45 am #

      I think the focus needs to remain on the political will of the developer and big business friendly governments at play here. To load the responsibility of the housing crisis in BC solely on 4 people venerates them higher then I certainly intended

      • Superagent G (@Superagent_G) April 2, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

        Kind of interesting compring the hysterical reaction the PLH “scandal” has received in the mainstream media…with the media’s reaction back in 2008/2009 when the banking scandal, i.e. unadulterated greed, plunged the western world into recession.

        The media weren’t nearly as panicky then and, with few exceptions, did not name and shame the banks, corporations and people responsible – most of whom are still paying a pittance in tax – while wealth continues to be funnelled from public coffers to private pockets and income inequality increases by leaps and bounds. Sure, the PHS could have done some things better, they are not perfect, but the hypocrisy on display in the MSM is breathtaking.

  5. Peter March 23, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Hello this is Truly a Great piece it is telling it like it is and I thank you for taking the time to write and print this I will also share many people need to know this to get it out there megaphone street paper has lots of readers

  6. Cindy Birck March 23, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Wonderfully written, “mind-changing” article…

  7. John Twigg (@TwiggJohn) March 23, 2014 at 7:55 pm #


  8. Jennifer March 23, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    Thank you………….this is a tempest in a teapot, over some very poor decision making
    in the short term. Let’s make sure that the bad doesn’t create an excuse to kill off the good

  9. Matthew Redekopp March 23, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Well said, Ronnie. Now I understand. I hope that PHS can rise above this crisis and keep doing the amazing work it’s doing. Thank you for your perspective.

  10. Warren Walker March 23, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    BEAUTIFUL article. I think this post from a worker with Insite is a great read…Thank you.

  11. Roger Albert March 24, 2014 at 12:15 am #

    Reblogged this on Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist and commented:
    Read this without being ‘touched’ and all I can say is that you must be a sociopath.

    • Brahmi Benner March 26, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

      wow, if you assume an “I” at the beginning of this sentence, it has a much different meaning than an “If you can…” Oh, the English language.

  12. ironnieg March 24, 2014 at 4:22 am #

    My apologies for the delay in moderating. I uploaded this from a library on a local island and returned 24 hours later to an exploded reading list. Humbled and shaken somewhat, and obviously unprepared. Thank you so much for the love. It means a lot

  13. I Camp March 24, 2014 at 5:53 am #

    Thanks for posting your POV. I support the work that your organization does. However I do not support the currently accepted management structural policy that allows the kinds of situations that we have seen arise in the various organizations like DERA and the PHS (to name a few). I hope you survive this chaos.

  14. tama March 24, 2014 at 8:01 am #

    really beautifully written, and such an important message. hats off to all of you who are doing that most important work of providing dignity to those who are so marginalized. thank you for writing and thank you for being.

  15. d March 24, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    an incredibly honest and moving testimony.i couldn’t make it through dry eyed. thank you for sharing. thank you for the important work that you do.thank you for being an important part of our community. i am deeply sorry for all of my phs friends who are suffering over the loss of their friends and mentors.

  16. curlypawscandice March 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    Reblogged this on Candice R. Curlypaws and commented:
    I too work for the PHS; and in light of this non profit being taken over by the government; I am feeling somewhat disempowered. I would like to take some time to sort my thoughts out so that I can articulate them into words here, like my co-worker Ronnie has done. More than ever, I do NOT trust the media.

  17. Kerry Rae March 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

    Thank you! Spot on. I have cherished working alongside you and the others who dont quite fit the mold of societal expectations. You do great work that allows such programs to be as world changing as they are. Cheers

  18. Garry chalk March 24, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    No matter how you look at it it’s fraud and misuse of public funds. Despite the ” good works” it’s done. Justifying theft on any level is just plain wrong. This has not just been going on lately but for a few years. Systemic abuse has to be stomped if the social and health issues are to be better served. With money as tight as it is these days these people have negated any good work they have done and that’s sad.

  19. Shelly Smee March 25, 2014 at 2:24 am #

    Thank you..fair, balanced and unlike the journalistic tripe going around, you obviously know whats really going on.

  20. Doug Peterson March 25, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Well articulated, you capture some of the best values and comradery that PHS has to offer. Well done, Ronnie.

  21. Doug Peterson March 25, 2014 at 7:46 am #

    I also believe that when media does not operate with the check and balance of investigative reporting i.e. making sure the sources and statements are accurate, all that is accomplished is selling more papers and giving the public something to react towards, which is what PHS has experienced. Be careful not to give much credence to mainstream media. They are badgered by deadlines and public appeal, not the truth.

  22. A mother March 25, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    May God and the Universe bless you and all the other open hearted human beings that simply love and give . Those that have chosen a profession serving others , I am grateful as a mother that thanks God every day for the safety and services you provide for my loved one !
    Without the PHS I truly believe there would be no hope , all humans need TLC and someone to meet them where they are at and be there when they are ready to make the step back into a productive life .. Until then – I send my heartfelt gratitude !

    • ironnieg March 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

      This is it. This is the most basic and loving understanding of what we do. We hold loved ones in care and compassion in a time and place where others can’t for many complex reasons. Thank you so much for your blessing. I am going to pass your words on to my co-workers. It’s cheque week in the Downtown Eastside and many are wearied by the events of the past few weeks. I think the sense of being valued and cared for at this time would be appreciated.

      • A mother March 25, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

        Ronnie and your work mates:
        I am in deep gratitude to ALL of you, those that are helping at shelters at low barrier housing. Etc , etc…. If these so called people of justice had someone in their lives that was suffering with these diseases of the soul , they might then soften their hearts and realize that for the good of all don’t punish those that had nothing to do with this .. Yes those that perhaps did use money for their own personal use – own it and pay it back ! Face your consequences ! move on in another direction- those accused and can stand in the fire and proclaim their innocence , stand tall stand strong and FIGHT for the rights for yourself and those you have deep connections with in the DTES .. and In those I mean the people suffering and those of you that do give and live your lives to serve and make a difference .. what more can I do to help .. ???? Open to any suggestion! With love !

  23. Gordo March 26, 2014 at 3:24 am #

    Thanks. Great insight (no pun).

  24. malcolm March 26, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

    It should be made clear that the PHS is and was an advocate for the most vulnerable in our society resident’s of the DTES arrive from all parts of Canada, with many challenges, as neighbours we do have an obligation to help and not judge, the PHS started with and maintains a dynamic that is unique at this time to B.C. I for one am proud that we strive to help the most vulnerable in our society, we owe a debt of gratitude to the men and woman whom work on the front line and endeavour to achieve a better life for us when there is a glimmer of hope. Having said that the PHS as lost its direction and should be given help not threats and criticism to put it back on track, all the managers whom did not assist with the audit and did not bring these problems to the forefront, are certainly part of the problem, and one wonders why no one spoke up, maybe the rot started at the top but it leaves one to wonder how deep the rot goes, I would suggest if you received any perks!!!!! over and above your legal entitlement now would be a good time to resign and let the healing begin, the letter. # I work for the phs# excellent observation but my concern was when you said you took your family to a hockey game with free tickets, were the tickets for residents of the DTES were you in a position that was responsible for issuing these tickets or were they given to you by a some one with the responsibility to make the decision on how they would be used, I only mentioned this because perks!! when given should be authorised. Whom should have that authority will be what the PHS requires to move on.

    • ironnieg March 27, 2014 at 4:21 am #

      I appreciate your observations. To clarify the hockey issue, I didn’t bring my family. They were with me only at the Cavalia show. At that time I was working in a supported housing SRO and I was going to bring 8 residents to the hockey game. It’s interesting to note that there was much enthusiasm amongst the residents but the closer we came to go time more and more residents began to back out until there was one left. The anxiety around engaging with that kind of event was visible and not isolated to that event alone. Hence my ongoing understanding of the Unwelcomed.

  25. Tommy C March 27, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    Thanks for saving my life PHS, both in the IR at insite and at the detox at Onsite. Peace love and gratitude

  26. ironnieg March 28, 2014 at 3:27 am #

    Just a note for any trolling that may be going on. I requested the Georgia Straight post my entire essay for a reason. On this site, my doorstep, I will engage and invite constructive criticism. But if. as a stranger, you wish to tell the world who I am there are other venues. Remember, I need to approve any comments posted here.

    • A mother March 28, 2014 at 3:46 am #

      YOU are loved 💙💜💚

  27. Kriss boggild April 3, 2014 at 1:38 am #

    As a resident of a very different neighbourhood than that described so very eruditely and movingly in your essay, i have often admired the tremendous work that those of you at the PHS do for your community, living the lives and walking the walk, as well as talking the talk. I can only hope that my neighbours would epitomize the same values, were the difficulties visited on the people of the Downtown Eastside to appear in our neighbourhood. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for the important work you do – and thank you for the leadership and vision that Mark and Liz have, that has now clearly been handed on to the workers like you.

  28. Alison April 3, 2014 at 7:00 am #

    Thank you for this article and for your work


  1. The facts on PHS scandal & following reactions of critics, boards and Jenny Kwan | Melissa Fong - March 23, 2014

    […] to paint everyone involved in PHS or NDP as flawed.  There are good people who work at PHS who don’t know the difference between their their job and their personal life because their dedica…  (So yes, better accounting is necessary but not every expense is clear cut and […]

  2. I Work for the PHS | struggleondotcom | BOOKMARKS ~* ARCHIVES - March 24, 2014

    […] I Work for the PHS | struggleondotcom. […]

  3. You Never Know What a Day Will Bring | struggleondotcom - March 27, 2014

    […] just feel the need to weigh in and express how deeply moved I am by the response to my PHS essay I posted this past weekend. I had no idea, truly no idea. I started writng last Tuesday but with […]

  4. There is a Movement Afoot | struggleondotcom - March 28, 2014

    […] being done. Everyday there will be a new post somewhere, I think on a blog bearing the title of my essay. I will be posting a link on my blog (it will go from blog, to Twitter, to Facebook) First up, the […]

  5. Action Time | struggleondotcom - April 1, 2014

    […] to give it a kick at the can and I’m doing it again. Some of the feedback I received from my original essay about the PHS (which I’ll only reference for a year or so, promise) caused me to realize that the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: