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Jack Knox: Amid tales of dysfunction, don't forget need

When encountering some bedraggled figure on the sidewalk, what do you feel? Sympathy? Fear? Resentment? Does your heart hurt or your lip curl?
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Tents and belongings on the sidewalk of the 900-block of Pandora Avenue in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

More tales of downtown ­dysfunction this week.

The latest: Somebody threw hot coffee on a couple of people in separate, random attacks on Douglas Street.

Are you appalled? Yes. ­Surprised? No. Fed up? You bet. Nobody said the attacker was someone from what we broadly call the street community, but that’s the assumption we make these days.

So now, when encountering some bedraggled figure on the sidewalk, what do you feel? ­Sympathy? Fear? Resentment? Do you see an individual, or just the human representation of a worsening wave of entrenched, incorrigible anti-social ­behaviour? Does your heart hurt or your lip curl?

Non-street people tend to dump all street people in the same basket. The homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the girl nesting in a doorway with a pile of damp blankets and a dog, the guy who stole your bike, the guy who had his sleeping bag stolen, the sidewalk ranter flailing at demons as shoppers slalom past as though he were just another obstacle on the ski hill, the lonely old woman in the wheelchair, the couple squirrelled away in a tent in the bushes, trying to remain invisible — they all get lumped together.

And because they all get viewed through the same lens, they all share the blame and indignation when street problems and stranger attacks worsen, as they have in the past couple of years.

That’s particularly true when government is perceived as being more interested in the rights of the violent than in those of the victims. Much has been made of the so-called catch-and-release practices flowing from federal bail changes and the way they have been interpreted in B.C., with those accused of disturbing crimes being spat back onto the streets before the cops have even finished their paperwork. We can’t arrest our way out of what is largely a mental-health and addictions crisis, officialdom keeps saying; perhaps not, comes the reply, but neither can we allow the status quo.

Note that one of David Eby’s first acts as premier this week was to announce — in what looked like a bit of a political Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion — public-safety measures that include a shift in bail policy and a crackdown on violent, repeat offenders.

“Being compassionate, concerned and taking action on mental-health and addiction issues does not mean that we have to accept repeated criminal behaviour or violence,” he said.

OK, but what about everybody else? The violent offenders are like the angriest voices on Twitter, the minority whose extremist ways suck up all the oxygen. Others are unthreatening and therefore draw less attention, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That’s the perspective it’s easy to lose.

One of the things about being involved with the Times Colonist Christmas Fund is that it dispels preconceptions of what needs looks like. In real life, the faces of the marginalized rarely match our expectations. Many of us — OK, I — tend to envision either a Tiny Tim pauper who will accept our seasonal largesse with suitable gratitude, or an objectionable character whom it is easy to write off as a lost and undeserving cause.

I know I am not alone in building these stereotypes. In 2016, all of Victoria’s Christmas charities had trouble soliciting donations following the drawn-out saga of the tent city on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse, when the least sympathetic face of poverty became the dominant one. An inaccurate reflection of the big picture, but dominant.

It’s what happens when we focus on the effect on ourselves, not the needs of others. “The city is going to hell,” we say, forgetting that many of those we’re glaring at are already there.

jknox@timescolonist.com

How can you give to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund?

• Donate online. Go to ­timescolonist.com/donate, which will take you to our Canada Helps page. It is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

• Donate by mail. Send a cheque to the Times Colonist ­Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, ­Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.

• Donate by phone. Use your credit card by phoning ­250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com

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