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So I’m hitchhiking…

12 Aug

I’m hitchhiking to Ontario. There are reasons. Because…

 

  1. I can. This is a base example of white male privilege. I’m a big cis white male. That means I can make decisions like hitchhike alone across Canada. Even if they wanted to, well over half the people I know can’t make that decision so readily because of gender, color, and sexual orientation. Size might work against me (combined with a big beard and long hair) in that some people might think I look a little scary (I’m anything but). But it also keeps me somewhat safe.

 

  1. I want to. This reflects my values I guess. I love being in a family. I have done my best to attend to all the bigs in the life of my family. I was eager to meet all my nieces and nephews as soon as I could after they were born and often had to cross the country to do so. Weddings, funerals, reunions I’ve done my best to attend. And I try to allow my daughters to benefit from being present at as many events in our family life as well. This time it’s my niece’s wedding. I committed to attending a number of months ago and my daughters are already there waiting for me to arrive.

 

  1. I need to. My plans frequently go sideways. It’s sort of this tragicomic reality. I had an economic change that meant I likely shouldn’t travel too far this summer, but refer to points 1 and 2 above. I had a physical change, which was a recurring heart issue induced by working a second job related to my economic change. Then I had an opportunity change, simply meaning an opportunity to drive didn’t work out. Point 2 again comes into play which means I’ve decided to hitch and rideshare while travelling alone so that I can have a more orthodox return trip with my daughters. Woot!

 

  1. I benefit from the kindness of friends and strangers. These circumstances are like my crazy request for alms. There is something beautiful about being the recipient of kindnesses and generosities. It is also an exercise in humility and a means of expressing gratitude for the people I’m blessed to have in my life, whether for a moment or a longer time. About that humility thing. I resisted telling this story because a large part of me expects these types of adventures to be a thing of the past. And there is the temptation toward resenting these circumstances. However, in saying goodbye to the many people who I care for in the Downtown Eastside and Insite I’m reminded that of my privilege to have had many opportunities to travel, and also to travel without the need of the kindness of strangers.

Thank you, truly, for all the generosities so many provide me on a regular basis

Ronnie

@ironnieg on twitter

Catching Up a Little on 2013- 14

29 Apr

I moved into a yurt the weekend before Easter, mid-April 2014. You may or may not be aware but my initial motivation for launching this blog happened when I moved into a derelict cabin in August of 2013. I lived there for 2 months, committing to a heroic nightshift commute (finish work at 4am, wait 2 hours for a bus to the ferry terminal, then ferry, hitch, hike, up to my cabin). I ended up in the most logical place- worn down and sick. Additionally, the owner of the farm that the cabin is on left the country for the winter. She encountered compounding costs in traveling and felt she could no longer afford to allocate finances toward materials for renovating said cabin. Thus, worn down from my unsustainable commute, potentially having to fund my own cabin renos, I backed off, recuperated and re-evaluated. Admittedly it was deflating and I had to give my depression dragon another (yes another!) kick in the chops. That dragon is pretty relentless but as it turns out, so am I. My only problem is I forget this dragon is not totally extinguishable, only suppressable. That temporary amnesia can sometimes derail me a bit  , even still. Sometimes, admittedly, alot. So that is a paragraph written to describe a big gap in blog posts- it’s sometimes tough to take up battle with the depression dragon and attend to… work schedules, setting up home, entertaining daughters,  blog posts, recovering from illness, celebrating birthdays, on and on. No excuses, just descriptions.

I ended up sharing an apartment on Bowen Island near the cabin through the winter, frequently visiting the farm and cabin to luxuriate in the forest. I also eliminated my commute by staying in the city with the best, meaning most tolerant, friends around. I am able to do a weekend couch surf with my daughters in the city if necessary, and can also drag a bunch of kids out to Bowen Island for the recalibration necessary after too much frequency interference from the urban vibrations. Or just for a break.

The owner of the cabin is back. She is hiring someone to replace the roof and she might live in it- I’m concerned she may end up with a rathole with a really nice roof, but that’s not my issue. The cabin is overrun with rat feces (little shudder even just writing this). I grabbed a tote 3 weeks ago and 2 rats jumped out and did a duck and roll. I made another unmanly noise (humiliating vermin).

So that’s my location- fortuitously a new friend put me on to this yurt on Bowen Island. It’s still a place to embark on some homesteading dreams, and it has hydro, water, a composting toilet already set up. And some arable land, although it’s a little steep. The yurt hasn’t been lived in for a while so it needs some scrubbing, and the water systems need some figuring, but I’ll be working on coops and fences before you know it.

Twitter is @ironnieg

 

Action Time

1 Apr

Many people have asked how they can help. I have some tangible and important ways that I feel would be helpful.

Harm reduction as it relates to the addict has been described as allowing the person in our care to stay alive for one more day. One more day provides another opportunity for recovery, health, and the work of wholeness to begin.

The first action is education. As it relates to the harm reduction model of the Portland Hotel Society here are 3 media links that I would encourage people joining or viewing:

The first, the Friends of the PHS facebook group.

The second, the Insite twitter feed

The third, the vimeo group has a bunch of beautiful mini-docs featuring some of the great work done in this community

The second action is my request for support for the speakers speaking to Vancouver City hall Tuesday April 1, hearing begins at 6pm Pacific. I’m one of a few speakers, number 10 in fact. We are  speaking to the amendments of the recently implemented developer friendly  plan intended to guide development of this neighbourhood for the next 30 years. A link to an explanation from the Carnegie Community Action Project is here. There were over 150 speakers who spoke at the original Council hearing a couple of weeks ago. I intend to emphasize the critical importance stable, affordable housing plays in the delivery of harm reduction services. Also, how the current developer climate steamrolling this neighbourhood threatens a global legacy that many in this city, not only the PHS, have laboured to establish.

This can be supported in two ways.  By coming to the gallery at City Hall. Make it fun. Make some noise. Bring 5 friends. Or 10.

The second way is a 24 hour twitter campaign. In a little less than 24 hours the hearing starts. Send tweets to city hall @CityofVancouver with hashtag #Vancouverharmreduction and express your value of Vancouver’s place in the harm reduction realm. I would love City Council to have a broader sense of Vancouver’s place in the advancement of harm reduction globally, and that anything but advancing this model has detrimental effects on people’s lives globally. This is a leap for me- I’m not that savvy with the twitter. Nor with the speeches but I got up there 2 weeks ago 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 de-stabilization of the PHS isn’t only a local problem. I received feedback from harm reduction workers in other cities who expressed their dismay over our destabilization. The establishment of effective harm reduction models globally is greatly affected by the success or failure of Vancouver’s model. This model is grounded in #housingfirst (another hashtag you can feel free to include).

Thanks so much for any support you can muster

@ironnieg on twitter

There is a Movement Afoot

28 Mar

PHS workers want to tell their stories. My story has provided some draft, some hope, and I have thought for a while that staff stories have been underrepresented. These stories break through ideology and reveal that a significant work is 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 PHS Chaplain Al McKay provides a beautiful reflection. Proud to know you Al.

@ironnieg

You Never Know What a Day Will Bring

26 Mar

You Never Know What a Day Will Bring

A worn out phrase in my personal vocabulary. It’s versatile. Sometimes I’ve had to force myself to use it in order to sustain myself, my own little hope formula. Other times, let the amazement flow.

I 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 new information coming out daily and the atmosphere being so tender and anxious for so many right now I ended up labouring quite a bit right up until Saturday. At best I intended it to serve two functions: to hopefully be a little love letter to all the courageous warriors I work alongside, and also to give some context to family and friends scattered across Canada who were beginning to track the media representation of what is transpiring.

It was strange how it came together for me. I posted it from the library in Snug Cove (cutest village name on the planet), BC, on Bowen Island. When I’m over there (which is often lately) I don’t have internet, I have to kind of schedule it into my day. The break from the constant digital demand is giving me my brain back. I made a simple facebook link rushing because the library was closing, my daughters were waiting, and we had diminishing daylight. I confess I was nervous, not knowing how it would be received. We left to visit our friends farm then returned home for dinner. A good friend texted me (roaming, what can I say) a beautiful thank you and I started to feel a bit more confident. Then another co-worker. This one had me wondering. I know this dude doesn’t do facebook. He honoured me so with his text that he made me tear up. I told my daughters I needed to head back into the village to freeload off of the wine store’s internet (I didn’t explain all that, I just did it) and realized that I had received email notices that strangers were commenting on my essay. I started to get excited.

I told my daughters that I might be on to something pretty cool, that hundreds of people might read my post. Sunday had me driving 3.5 hours to drop my daughters off at their mom’s then return to work my night shift. I had a few more updates on our trip and told the girls I would check the number of reads when I get to work and text them later in the week if I reach one thousand views. On my break, a little more than 24 hours after posting there were over 3700 views (I texted, you bet I did). After 48 hours over 5 thousand. Media started making contact and Tuesday afternoon the Globe and Mail posted a link with the headline “Basic Dignity is an essential service”. Feel free to quote it liberally. And it’s been read around the world. The local entertainment weekly the Georgia Straight has reprinted it and I’ve had some other media contact. Now the number of reads are approaching 7 thousand on my blog alone, not counting the Straight.

I’m a little rattled. I wish my blog looked better; that feeling you get when 7 thousand guests show up earlier than expected. But ultimately I’m ecstatic. Mainly I think it has served as a focussing point for frontline workers to confidently say- “What we do is amazing”. To feel what it’s like to stand in a calm center of truth while the tornadoes of accusation and fabrication whirl around us is truly powerful and critical at this time. It feels like our only power. And still, the traction beyond our collective story is most amazing.
The reason for traction beyond us, beyond Insite, the PHS, and the Downtown Eastside, beyond Vancouver, is that I think people want to know that the story is true. Thankfully it is. And I think the general climate around me, in this country for example, is that we value the fact that we can organize together to care for absolutely everyone. We can love them all. Nobody needs to be left out. That’s good news. That’s the world we expected and ultimately wish to create.

The love, honour, generosity of spirit, and respect I have received from co-workers, friends, and family is so humbling and absolutely life changing for me. I think I’m going to insist my daughters read all your posts when they come my way this weekend just to establish my place in any potential future disagreements. I’m so deeply grateful to have encountered each of you. Don’t lose hope. You never know what a day will bring.

@ironnieg

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

@ironnieg

 

Reviewing the past 2 weeks, beginning September 16

30 Sep

 

The week or 10 days that was September 16 to September 26, 2013 in 2 parts, this being part 1

I’ve had an intense couple of weeks. I’ve been in Vancouver, and not on Bowen Island, for a whole week due to the generosity of my good friend Sonya allowing me and my girls the benefit of an apartment sit while she is away. Here goes, going back 2 weeks.

Monday, September 16– Prior to my evening shift at Insite I was walking through the Downtown Eastside and encountered an older man having a grand mal seizure on the sidewalk. I was waiting for a walk light and heard his bike crash to the ground. I ran across the street and he was lying on his side, seizing with his bicycle helmet still on. Kind of perfect as far as first aid protocols go- already lying on his side and no risk of head injury. I have taken on the habit of leaving work with a few pairs of those blue disposable gloves you see used by emergency services personnel in my pocket. Nothing says you know what you’re doing more than being in civilian wear and whipping out the disposable blue gloves. Works better than lights and a siren. Two other men were there, one phoning 911, and additionally one of my esteemed work colleagues Duncan saw me as he was driving by and stopped to lend some much valued support as well. Everything went well, the ambulance attended and took him to the hospital. I took his bike to my workplace to keep it safe until he returned from the hospital and the younger of the 2 men, kind of adrenalized by the rush of being a saviour (as opposed to me, I’m so well adapted to it), wrote him a note with my workplace address and some brief well-wishing. After leaving his bike safe at the back of my workplace I still had enough time to grab a coffee before my shift started. While doing so the same man, quickly back from his hospital visit, retrieved his bike, being helped by one of my day co-workers who was well up to speed as to what had happened. His gratitude was obvious but what was also obvious was his confusion- he still had no idea what had happened. So let’s review- a man has a medical crisis on the street, is helped by no less than 4 strangers at the scene, then by ambulance and hospital, then by another man at an unfamiliar medical facility who helps him retrieve his belongings, walking through it all in a confusing miasma, and understands nothing except that he’s been well cared for. A beautiful metaphor.

Tuesday, September 17– Prior to my evening shift at Insite I was walking through the Downtown Eastside and encountered a man, known to me, beating the shit out of a garbage can. In his pronounced psychosis, the garbage can eventually got tossed into the busy rush hour intersection, him chasing after it. Garbage can and contents continue being abused, garbage strewn the length of the crosswalk. Cars, of course, didn’t stop and barely slowed, swerving to avoid being late or inconvenienced or making an insurance claim. I called out to him by name from the sidewalk and asked him to let me help him (blue gloves to the rescue) and he waved me over. I went into the intersection, grabbed the garbage can as he began to collect the garbage he had just liberated, putting it back into the can and stating that we should just say that we found it like this. Traffic still not in our favour I returned by stating that he’s either going to get hurt or in trouble if he doesn’t get out of the intersection and guided him to the sidewalk. I turned away, leaving him in order to continue on my way to work, and noticed no less than 3 people on various corners of the intersection recording the events on their phones. So let’s review- a medical crisis of a physical nature, people rush to help using their phones to gather help. A medical crisis of a mental health nature people use their phones to… shield themselves? protect themselves? entertain themselves? Mental health, admittedly a huge frightening mystery, could use a substantial effort at demystification. I can’t help but connect this kind of fear and passivity to a teenager getting shot to death by police on a streetcar, among other current tragedies.

Wednesday, September 18– Prior to my evening shift at Insite I was walking through the Downtown Eastside and encountered (I’m not making this stuff up) a police incident. I could hear the escalating voice of a man who was around a corner in a lane. I looked around the corner and saw a young man overly well known to me, handcuffed, sitting on the ground, starting to pontificate about injustice, bleeding from a large gash in his forehead. This one requires some background so this is where I’ll defer to part 2.