A commentary by a lifelong farmer, now in supportive housing.
With the current tragedies, the pollution, the storms and the ugliness of war blighting our world, the homeless here in Canada don’t count for much. There is still a widespread belief that we brought it all on ourselves through drug use or “bad choices.”
Some of us have never used drugs or drink, broken any laws or made “bad choices” — unless turning to farming full-time when denied good employment because of rampant sexism counts as a “bad choice.” As for being “lazy” and “not wanting to work”: I did not get my three titanium joints by watching a television set.
A lifelong farmer, I lost my home and my prize-winning herd almost five years ago. I am now one of the fortunate “housed.” I thought some might be interested in what this is like.
The homeless are assumed to be universally dysfunctional, drug-addicted, criminal half-wits; therefore, the only housing I was able to find is “supportive housing” in a former hotel.
A former shift engineer in the powerhouse of a plywood mill here in Victoria (free trade killed that job), I was told that I was not permitted to have a steam kettle for tea, lest I should burn the building down.
Recently this rule was amended so that “responsible” residents may own a kettle or toaster, but they must first present it to the staff for inspection. As a 64-year-old who has lived on my own for most of my life, I declined to present my (illegal) kettle to staff a fraction of my age. The idea makes me choke.
Actually, I do a lot of choking. The door to the room I live in has no weatherstripping, and smoke from cigarettes, drugs and “pot” seeps into the room all around the clock.
It appears that the right of addicts to smoke their drugs trumps my right to clean air, and my COPD, from primitive living conditions decades ago, is worsening steadily.
In good health while out on the land farming, I now cough through the nights.
As these are hotel rooms, the residents cannot cook. We are given two meals a day. Breakfast is usually a toddler’s small box of dry cereal (20 grams) and 200 ml of two per cent milk, a granola bar and maybe a woody orange.
I often pass up the dinner. Yes, I realize that times are hard and that food is increasingly expensive; but as a farmer, I guess I have been spoiled. The work was relentless and there were no vacations, but the eating was excellent.
The walls here are very thin. My neighbour’s television noise comes through the bedsprings and wakens me at night. Worse are the fights and screams that can happen at any time of day or night, often right outside “my” door.
People play loud “music” on their electronic devices, which seem to have astonishing volume despite their small size. There is no relief from the noise.
From time to time the city police see fit to drop off a person suffering from a psychotic break, as if this place were a mental hospital or a 24-hour intake centre.
Actually, the shelter is filled to capacity. Months ago, after work one evening, I went outside to find a hysterical woman of extraordinary vocal power who tried to force her way into “my” room.
(Having dealt with a charging, 2,000-pound horned bull once, there was no difficulty in blocking her. When I tried to find help for her, a staff member told me that the police drop off such people here “all the time.”)
Often the premises are inundated by the unhoused, who set up camp and block the walkways with all manner of impedimenta including prone bodies. Many of these folks strew an astonishing amount of litter, and freely defecate and urinate around the buildings.
The stench is hard to describe. Even “my” closed door isn’t always enough to keep the smells out. When the wind comes from the east, all stenches are driven right in through the gaps all around the door.
Having worked at my two very physical jobs this week and feeling under the weather, I was trying to have a daytime nap today when loud screaming erupted outside, a few doors down.
I dressed and went outside. A large woman, a resident, was screaming at two thug-like men.
“Hey, take this fight somewhere else,” I said. The woman advanced on me, called me a “whore” and a “bitch,” and hit me — not once, but twice!
I did not retaliate (her good fortune). Staff arrived and ushered her away; other staff behaved as if I had started the fight — because I was standing there defiantly instead of cowering or screaming, I guess!
Now it is nightfall, and as usual, there are people talking and laughing outside. The radio does not drown out the sound.
As one who has lived out on the land for most of her life in leafy isolation, the stress of the constant noise, the stenches, the litter, the open drug use, the fighting, the strange men walking right past one’s window, the infantilization, and the complete lack of agency eat at a person.
A future in some concrete and particle-board bunker, cheek-to-jowl with drug addicts and the mentally ill, holds no appeal.
Note to readers: A previous version of this opinion piece was accompanied by a photo of the Rock Bay Landing shelter in Victoria. Willi Boepple does not live in Rock Bay Landing or any other housing facility run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society.