A Girl Named R

canayjun A friend recently told me that people who want to help the homeless are interested in reading more personal stories about those who are experiencing homelessness.  They didn’t know I’ve been posting stories about many of the homeless people we serve at Project417 for several years. It comes with the territory of being a small grassroots organization:  how do you get the word out about the challenges faced by people who are homeless?  If we tell their stories, how do we distribute them to the widest audience possible?  We can blog about them, share them on Facebook, Digg and Reddit and tweet links to the story on Twitter, but there is still no guarantee the information will reach people who have a heart to help.  Some are better at the storytelling than I.  I follow @invisiblepeople on Twitter. He’s travelling across America on his Road Trip USA, telling the stories of the homeless people he meets along the way.  See them at invisiblepeople.tv Me?  I just keep trying to get the word out by writing about my experiences with my homeless friends.  I’m re-blogging and expanding on this story – A Girl Named “R” –  because it is an example of the terrible circumstances that lead many young girls to end up homeless, living on the street.

I first wrote the story after a volunteer blogged about “R” at the CSMurbanupdate.blogspot.com site,  a place where students can describe their inner city volunteering experiences.  She wrote about her identified as “R” only to protect her identity.

I met her on the first afternoon we were there.  I looked down and realized she had prominent scars all over her arms…

It was particularily moving to me because of the young woman the student met – I’ve known “R” for years.  I first met “R” out on the street panhandling with several other homeless youth.  I soon got to know her better at a local Out of the Cold program for street youth.  “R” has been street involved and homeless since she was thirteen,  heading to Toronto to escape the tragedies that befell her in her hometown.  She has endured a youth no one should have to face,  and she bears scars in deeper places than just her arms.

I’ve celebrated birthdays and Christmas holidays with “R”, but she has no home to host her celebrations.  She often conceals the scars on her arms beneath long sleeves,  but even then,  once she gets to know you,  she will push up the sleeves to reveal her pain.  From her wrists to well past her inner elbow,  her arm is a patchwork of deep, parallel and crisscrossing scars,  the result of self-inflicted injury.  “R”‘s life on the streets is one of extreme ups and downs, not unlike many others who experience homelessness.  Sometimes she finds a place to share with friends or a partner,  but it never lasts and she is once again back on the streets.  Her life is ravaged by drugs and her drug of choice changes like the spinning of a roulette wheel.  Morphine,  oxycontin,  crystal meth and crack – they all have carved pieces out of her soul.

She has been in and out of jail,  first youth offender facilities,  and now adult jails and provincial correctional facilities for women.  She has been to well respected treatment and recovery centres.  When she inevitably returns to the city,  (and I have witnessed this now more than once),  “R” is a changed person.  She is clean – she is healthy – the glow is back on her face and her hair shines.  But it’s never more than a few days until she is dragged back under by the street life and the irresistable force exerted by the weight of her painful past.  It is terrible to watch this transformation over and over. On release from jail for example,  she is provided housing – the type of housing governments everywhere reserve for the chronically homeless,  recovering addicts and people with concurrent mental disorders.  Halfway houses they call them, or treatment centers or  “transitional housing”.  Almost all of them are located in the worst areas of inner city Toronto with drug dealers staking out street corners and visiting the houses  to lure back old customers. There are any number of crack houses within spitting distance.  The system always sends “R” right back to the very street that is trying to kill her.

more to life than this?

It is not just a lack of decent housing that causes “R” to fall back to the street. She has taken shelter with loving and caring volunteer families who have opened their homes and asked “R” to be part of the family while she recovered.  The pain runs too deep – her disorders inadequately treated – and “R” has to leave.  That would be a time when she cuts herself again.  She has told me,  “Andy, I just want to feel something.  When I cut myself, I can feel again for a little while, but the drugs…with them I can’t feel a thing…”.

I met a psychiatrist while I was working in New Orleans who works in Chicago’s inner city with troubled youth.  We spoke about “R”.  He told me the significance of scars due self-inflicted cuts:  it is a major indicator of the victims of childhood sexual abuse.  He told me that more than 90% of youth who suffer from “self harm or self-injury” are victims of childhood sexual assault and abuse.  The illness is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a symptom of borderline personality disorder and depressive disorders and described as,  “sometimes associated with mental illness, a history of trauma and abuse including emotional abuse and sexual abuse …”.  A study in 2003 found an extremely high prevalance of self-injury among 428 homeless and runaway youth (age 16 to 19) with 72% of males and 66% of females reporting a past history of self-mutilation.  [Tyler, Kimberly A., Les B. Whitbeck, Dan R. Hoyt, and Kurt D. Johnson (2003),  “Self Mutilation and Homeless Youth: The Role of Family Abuse, Street Experiences, and Mental Disorders”,  Journal of Research on Adolescence 13 (4): 457–474] .

In my recent post, What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part 4,  I wrote:  “A  study by Heather Larkin of the University of Albany – shows the link between Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACE – and homelessness.  From her study –

More than 85 percent of the homeless respondents reported having experienced at least one of 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACE).  Many (52.4 percent) had experienced more than four categories of traumatic events when growing up. … There is a high ACE prevalence among the homeless people in this study.  Individuals with high ACE scores may be more vulnerable to economic downturns and cultural oppression,  a person-environment interaction increasing the likelihood of homelessness.  Service responses focused on identifying and addressing childhood traumas hold an opportunity for addressing ACEs before they contribute to homelessness.

I include this technical background because although “R” is now a young woman,  she has been on the street since she was a child in more than one Canadian city.  Many more people than our organization have become familiar with her.  This would have included coming to the “official” attention of the authorities both while she was a child and as an adult.  “R” is definitely “in” the system that is supposed to help her.  Why has everyone been so ineffective in helping her,  how has she remained homeless for so long?  As a teen, “R” was labeled by society as a “runaway” with all of the negative connotations that carries.  In effect, most people would write her off as the author of her own condition.  Far from it.  “R” is a victim.  She deserves better.  Hell,  dogs deserve better than “R” has been handed.

I met her once on a street corner in Toronto,  Spadina and Queen,  where she was panhandling.  She was in particularily bad shape that day,  very high from her drug of choice at the time,  which was making her slur her words almost to the point of incoherence and made her body twitch uncontrollably like a scarecrow on strings.  When I arrived,  she dragged herself up from the foot of the light pole she was leaning against and,  arms wide,  asked for the only thing she has ever requested of me – a hug.  Not the little, hihowareyou hugs we deliver in polite company, but a great big, bone crushing, head burying HUG.!  It always cheers her up.  Standing to one side were two semi-official looking people with those City of Toronto ID cards hanging around their necks.  One had flashes from a private security company on his shoulders.  He was “protection” for the other – a city worker carrying a clipboard.  They were part of a new task force set-up by the city of Toronto’s Streets 2 Homes program to reduce panhandling and homelessness.  They were trying to interview “R” by asking her a very long list of canned questions.  They seemed oblivious to her state,  as if she could be coherent while jonesin for the next fix.  After our hug,  she turned to them and said,  “I can’t talk to you now, Andy’s here.  He saved my life”.  After we talked for a while and I encouraged her to head for a woman’s shelter down the street,  I left and went into a store at the corner to buy her bottled water.  Her lips were cracked and bleeding she was so dehydrated.  As I brought it back to her,  the city social worker was back at it again, making little check marks on her clipboard survey.  How those little pen strokes were supposed to bring healing to “R”,  I’ll never know.  She certainly deserves better.  I still hear her saying, “he saved my life”,  in the small hours of the night when I can’t sleep,  thinking of the hopelessness faced by my homeless friends.  I hear it and know in my heart – I haven’t saved “R”.  She’s still lost and that hurts.  She recognizes and loves the people who love her back,  but why can’t we save her?

This not "R" - but my friend Crystal too faced homelessness and overcame.
This is not “R” – but my friend Crystal also faced homelessness and overcame it.

I wish I had a happy ending to the story of a girl named “R” to tell you.  But I don’t.  I’ve lost track of her in this patchwork quilt system that serves the homeless.  The last time I saw here,  she visited our Wednesday night community dinner in the Bloor Lansdowne neighborhood.  She was happy to have just got housed in a transitional home for women right across the street.  She showed me a small white bible in a lovely cedar box that she’d just received as a gift.  She was straight – she was clean – she was healthy – the glow was back on her face and her hair was shining.  She was smiling and,  before she left,  she offered up one more bone crunching hug.  The last I saw her she was walking up Bloor Street with purpose and hope.  Later that night,  she got into a fight with one of the other residents of the transitional home.  The police were called and “R” ran before they got there.  I’ve not seen her since.

If you want to help young girls like “R” overcome homelessness, contact me here, or at Project417.com

And join the #Whyhomeless Movement on Twitter. Connect with me @canayjun and send out tweets on homelessness issues with the hashtag #Whyhomeless.  Join us for our next meeting in Toronto – or start your own movement in your own neighborhood.  The root cause of homelessness is about more than just jobs and housing.  There is a brokenness in our communities that only your love can start to heal.

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Private security in Toronto Chinatown sparks safety debate

Homeless at Spadina / College

Homeless at Spadina / College

Excerpt from – Allison Hanes, National Post – For a week now, a pair of private security guards have been walking the beat in Toronto’s Chinatown hired by the local BIA. So far more than two dozen “banning orders” have been issued against disruptive undesirables. Dave Wilson,of Toronto Police, complained that lesser-trained employees lower standards…

“Randy Lippert, a sociology professor at the University of Windsor, has studied the trend of BIAs taking charge of local safety. The phenomenon has been imported from the United States, first catching on in Vancouver before sprouting here in Ontario, he said, as resources for community policing drift to technology and major crime.

“Despite its popularity, Prof. Lippert said there are some compelling questions to consider surrounding accountability and training. “Generally speaking, would most people like to have a private security guard making decisions that dramatically affect people’s lives when they’re only getting paid 10 or 11 dollars an hour?” he said. “I’m not saying that all private security people are like that, but certainly you’re starting to scrape the bottom of the labour pool…. A lot of them are wannabe, as they say
‘wanstables,’ people who in some cases didn’t make it.”

[end of excerpt – source National Post]

This is a very compelling and insightful article, well researched and balanced. The main issues would be – what are the private security firms charging the homeless with? That is, what laws are they breaking that a private security guard is authorized to enforce? Provincial trespassing legislation? The streets are public property, and the ground allocated to businesses very narrow, with the exception of their storefront fixtures and entrances – there is no “trespassing” on a public street or sidewalk – the very reason police do not lay trespassing charges against the homeless at City Hall for example. Loitering similarily is not often enforced by police, an outdated law, and difficult to apply in public areas. Also the arrest process must be equivalent to the crime and loitering has no victim and is non-violent, so police may not justify the use of force or restraint to enforce it. How are security guards above the law here? Other “offences” cited in the article include Petty thieving, public intoxication, drug consumption, urination and/or defecation in public, intimidation, prostitution and aggressive panhandling.  Intimidation and aggressive panhandling are specifically provided for in the Safe Streets Act of Ontario and should not be in the jurisdiction of private security firms.

For an update visit the Commentary page by clicking the tab at the top of this page. It’s important that the rights of the public be protected and that includes people who may be homeless. It’s not against the law to be homeless! And it is our duty to protect and help them.

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Violent Crime, Not Homeless – Real Problem in Toronto Chinatown

Man faces 12 charges – Firearm seized Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue Chinatown

On Monday, August 18, 2008, at 7:40 p.m., 14 Division Community Response officers were on patrol in the Dundas Street West/Spadina Avenue area.

It is alleged that the accused was in possession of a loaded firearm, the accused fled on foot, the accused was arrested and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized. Qoheleth Chong, 19, of Toronto, has been charged with – Careless use of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited weapon knowing its possession is unauthorized, Unauthorized possession of a firearm, Possession of a prohibited firearm with ammunition, Possession of prohibited weapon obtained by the commission of an offence, Carry concealed weapon, Possession prohibited weapon, Carry concealed weapon, prohibited device or prohibited ammunition, Possession of ammunition contrary to prohibition order, Possession of firearm contrary to prohibition order, Fail to comply recognizance, Fail to Comply with Probation.

He is scheduled to appear in court at Old City Hall, on Tuesday, August 26, 2008, room 101, at 10 a.m. Contact: Constable Tony Vella, Public Information, for Detective Izzy Bernardo, 14 Division 416-808-1400 [end of bulletin]

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

Youth gangs tag a new storefront in the Spadina Dundas area.

While the Chinatown BIA and Intelligarde are rousting harmless homeless panhandlers, the police are right there in the neighbourhood in broad daylight and a loaded 9 mm Mac 11 machine pistol was seized from a youth nineteen years of age. He probably started out young with the rest of the growing gangs of neighbourhood teens who have plagued the Chinatown business district with destructive tagging or grafitti. Do you need to ask who is responsible for increased crime and drugs in the area?  This is not an isolated incident and highlights why the Toronto Police see homelessness and panhandlers as lower priority issues.

Visit the Missionlog Commentary page for updates. Click the Commentary tab at the top of the page or click here now.

Intelligarde Security’s Mission: Arrest Homeless, Panhandlers, Referred to as Dirty Bums

A Chinese Gentleman Panhandling on Spadina

A Chinese Gentleman Panhandling on Spadina

Sunmedia, Toronto – Aug.21, 2008 Toronto Sun, by Ian Robertson, Headline: Dirty bum gets tossed

“A panhandler who refused to leave private property after messing his shorts was among 11 rousted at the start of a second week of controversial Chinatown security patrols. The beggar, who refused to stop appealing to passersby for money near Spadina Ave. after he “soiled his silks,” was arrested by Intelligarde Security officers Tuesday, firm founder Ross McLeod said…

Toronto Police Association president Dave Wilson is quoted as saying [private guards] lack the training, dedication and experience of cops. Unlike police, an unarmed uniformed guard can incite people to fight “and we don’t want to be showing up at incidents and having to worry about security guards as well.”… [end of excerpt ]

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Here at Project417, I have almost ten years of experience doing outreach to the homeless on the Spadina Chinatown streets. The accompanying photo was taken by me on Spadina, just south of Kensington Market, to illustrate the growing number of elderly Chinese-Canadians who have been forced by community circumstances to resort to panhandling. Of course homelessness knows no race and the homeless panhandlers in Chinatown come from all communties right across the country, but there are a growing number of seniors in Chinatown who appear to have no visible means of support and have taken to the streets.

The threat to public safety through the presence of hired private security firms is real. As well as the assault on human rights, not just of the homeless, but the public who are being confronted and intimidated by what amounts to uniformed thugs on public city sidewalks. Chinatown BIA President, Stephen Chan claims the homeless are blocking doors, aggressively panhandling passers by and even says they are responsible for thefts from cars. The BIA is blind to the real crime problems in their own community and are misguided in targetting the homeless – my next post will outline alarming crime trends in the Spadina Chinatown as well as first hand encounters with Intelligarde bullies.

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Squeegee and Panhandling

No Violence!

Well I was shocked yesterday when I heard about an alleged assault of a driver in a convertible by a squeegee kid.  I remember the news reporting the details as “the squeegee kid offered to clean the drivers car windows and the driver said No and an argument ensued. The youth climbed into the passenger side of the car and proceeded to assault the driver. Police are investigating”.  So the first thing that comes to my mind is that there should be ZERO TOLERANCE  for any type of violence out on the streets, and no excuses for street people assaulting anyone regardless of antagonism, with the exception of self-defence.  The second is – These are my people, some are my friends, I know most of them by sight and many by name. What are we going to do? It’s like they’re committing hari-kari.

Obviously this is a very large issue and I’m going to be commenting on it extensively over the next few days.  Councillor Casey Ootes is renewing his call for a complete ban on panhandling in Toronto. Do you agree or disagree? Here’s some insight ito the news reports:  Quote”…the driver said no and an argument ensued…” .  Common sense tells us that the driver said much more than “no”,  he probably made good use of the f**k word and may have followed it up with the “get-a-job” epithet or some other pithy and , only to him, witty remark designed to hurt.  He may even have challenged the youth – thats for the police investigation to decide. I won’t say you get what you deserve, because there is no excuse for violence, but who is the first to have escalated the violence?, the driver or the squeegee kid? Is violence and assault only physical? No, of course not. Look into the issues surrounding violence against women and the first symptons are always “verbal abuse”-  Using violent hurtful language is a form of assault. And I can tell you from experience that these street youth face that violence hundreds of times a day.

Panhandling also comes under attack again, with the reminder that a “gang of panhandlers” murdered an innocent visitor to the city just last month. I’ll discuss this more in the next post. Just suffice it to say, the attackers were NOT a “gang” of panhandlers, they may not have even been from Toronto and just in town to visit, party and cause trouble…

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