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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Panhandlers Feeling Effects Of Staggering Economy

A great article and video of many of our homeless friends panhandling and the impact of the current downward economic trend. From that article, they interviewed and photographed our good friend Terry, busking on Queen:

Source: citynews.ca – “Huddled in an abandoned store front stoop on Queen West, Terry is playing the guitar with gusto when I approach him.  He isn’t a panhandler, he stresses, and never begs for money.  But he does rely on the generosity of others to get by.  He’s been busking for 12 years and admits he’s noticed a slow down lately.

“It affects everybody, from the guy who’s making the most money to the guy who’s making the least money.  It’s like a trickle down type thing.  If they’re not making as much money they’re not dropping as much money.  People are depressed, angry, you can literally see it, like when it went downhill with the U.S. stocks, you could literally see it.  People look tired, people look fed up, worried, concerned.

Terry and friend...

“There’s no security anymore.  Those people work really hard and they lose it all.  They invest in stocks and think that it’s going to be good, and it ends up falling through.” [end of excerpt]

I also have a great video of Terry and friends busking in the same spot two summers ago. Click here to see the YouTube video. I used to busk with them myself, and jam at the Knox Out-of-the-Cold youth dinner too – The Knox program (founded by Joe at Project417) starts up again next Tuesday to run through the winter: a great home-cooked hot meal, foodbank, clothing, haircuts and dye-jobs, open mic and more – all for street youth 25 (ish) and under. And don’t forget our Wednesday nite Community Dinner, free to all, over at Bloor Lansdowne. If panhandling takes are down, I expect we’ll see more of our friends at those meals. I know we’re not seeing too much of a decrease in our street friends when we go out distribute bag lunches. We have a team out tonite taking sixty meals and I’ll post an update.

There’s quite a few of us here at Project417 who are involved as volunteers in trying to get an alternative to the current “street” newspapers our homeless friends can sell. It should improve the take, and provide a dignified alternative to panhandling. Hopefully, and here’s the tough part, it will be a real community effort, with top down involvement from our street friends. Come back and check out the Mission Log for updates.
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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.

|| Visit Project417 to Help the Homeless ||

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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.

Message From Mayor to Private Security Firms Harassing the Homeless in Toronto: Let the City Handle It

View north of Dundas on Spadina Chinatown.

View north of Dundas on Spadina Chinatown.

Toronto Sun, Aug.21, 2008 – Let city handle it, Mayor David Miller says:

“Chinatown shopkeepers should let the city do its job — but with social workers not police, Mayor David Miller said yesterday. Miller said he didn’t support the hiring of a private security firm to patrol the streets of the busy Spadina Ave.-area to remove the homeless. — [end of excerpt]

The City of Toronto and the Spadina Chinatown Business association have a much more serious problem than homelessness.  It is a serious oversight on their part to blame crime in the area on the homeless – Chairman Stephen Chan blames the homeless for car thefts and other crime without any arrests data to uphold the claim. He need look no further than the youth gangs in his own neighbourhood – they are not homeless and they are not merely a nuisance on the streets. They are dangerous armed criminals. Refer to the Toronto Police Bulletin below and my Project417 update and commentarty following –

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With all this news recently regarding the private policing by security firm Intelligarde, hired by the Spadina Chinatown BIA to move homeless off the streets, I thought it was important to highlight the real crime issues faced by Chinatown. The following is a Toronto Police Community Bulletin issued August 18th, the same timeframe as when the Sun is reporting on homeless harrassment:

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

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.

What would happen should the unarmed Intelligarde patrols come upon one of the armed Chinatown area criminals during a break-in, drug deal or other crime? The accused Qoheleth Chong is not homeless, but a resident of the same Chinatown neighbourhood.  And yet the business owners have been duped by their representatives that street homelessness is the top issue they are facing worthy of thousands of dollars of private policing.  The presence of those same surly security guards wil actually have a negative impact on their business as the public will react to confrontations between normally unobtrusive panhandlers and the guards who roust them. It’s an accident waiting to happen. The public or perhaps even tourists are bound to get caught up in an altercation sooner or later. Even the presence of those security guards on public city sidewalks is an affront to our freedoms and actually endangers our safe enjoyment of public property. The sidewalks in front of the Chinatown businesses are not private property but public. If they have a concern about the homeless blocking access to their doors, or being drunk and disorderly in public (a small minority),  then they need only call police who will respond. Perhaps they should stop selling Chinese cooking wine at five bottles for five bucks.

If the Chinatown business community was truly concerned about the sidewalks being blocked by the homeless, a far worse problem is the huge number of illegal, unlicenced street vendors (see my photo at the top) who block anywhere from a third to a half of public sidewalks, as well as the huge mountains of garbage and empty boxes from the sidewalk Chinatown markets that are to be at curbside but turn walking the public thoroughfare into threading the eye of the needle. This is all about appearances – Chairman Stephen Chan is concerned the homeless are “unkempt”, pehaps he could organize clothing bank donations from the vendors who block the sidewalk with clothing racks of T-shirts at a half dozen for $7.99 . According to the Sun news reports there were only 12 homeless rousted by security – they could have been clothed for less than twenty bucks.  Community outreach would be much more effective than community policing. The city and the Chinatown business community need to open their eyes to the real problems facing the area – why are your youth armed with automatic 9mm weapons? and where are the weapons coming from? – and stop blaming their problems on helpless homeless people living in crisis.

The Intelligarde Security philosophy towards community policing and some revealing in person insight into how that firm’s president views the public is the subject of another article on my Commentary page. Click on the tab at the top of the page or here to read more about Intelligarde President Ross McLeod.

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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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