Saturday, April 21, 2007

Downtown Victoria: The DVBA vs. the angels who protect me

Over the last few two weeks, roaming in my rented rigid wheelchair, I have noticed a consistency of human behavior. Most people are just too busy and too scared to deal with girl in wheelchair (no matter how sexy her goth style). I include myself among them; while I might have searched my attitudes and confronted internalized racism, struggled with my fundamentalist taught homophobia, learned about the LGBTQI spectrum, studied up on different cultures and learned some aspect of all the major religions to try and show respect to what others held important. I never really got around to disabled issues though. Oh well, only so much time and after all, it isn't polite to pry anyway? When I was in fourth grade, I was asked to tutor a boy whose face had been burned off. Not burned but burned off: no eyebrows, a lump of a nose, a sort of pink and red cotton candy head that had been pulled a bit too long. I tutored him in math for six months. In that time, I never learned what he liked or didn’t, never got to see him as the lonely person beneath the skin, just as "the face"; I was too scared and too busy “protecting myself” – like of the two of us, I was one who needed protecting? At least I learned to look him in the eyes, and to not look away.

However, A group of people have emerged in the last few weeks, protectors who go out of their way to look after me; I speak of the homeless and panhandlers. In my city, which thrives on tourism and is the warmest city in Canada, the “problem” of panhandlers and homeless is a long standing one. The city has banned sleeping in parks and banned sitting down on the sidewalk downtown. A new initiative by the two year old Downtown Victoria Business Association has downtown business owners putting up hundreds of signs stating “Private Property” and warning people (read homeless/panhandlers) not to loiter, camp, cycle, skateboard or deposit "chattel goods." In the Victoria Times Colonist, a picture displayed of lower Fort Street, one of the areas where businesses are tired of stepping over sleeping bodies to open shops and cleaning up “urine, feces and needles.” As the Downtown Business Association said in their editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist, “The thoughtless acts of a relatively few create perception problems for downtown Victoria. This tarnishes our image....Downtown businesses have demonstrated a generous spirit in providing contributions to assist the marginalized,...We have little patience, however, for those who abuse our goodwill and contravene municipal laws.” So, pilgrim, you is uglifying the landscape, an image problem and if you don’t move along, we will be “forced” to prosecute you to the full extent of the laws we just passed. (Please note that the DVBA in their defense stated they hire homeless/panhandlers once a year to help put up Christmas decorations – they do care…annually)

Ironically these signs are also in the atrium of the central library, where dozens of government and other downtown workers loiter through lunch hours, breaks, online meetings and phone calls. But, no transients please, there is an image to think of. As to the sleeping, stopping, peeing and defecating, I think this is likely the rare instance passed off as standard practice (not a lot of people I know will take a dump...where they sleep). Nevertheless I can tell you quite clearly the reason. It is because sanitation, as much as we have come to expect it as a right to ourselves is actually a privilege reflecting social and financial values. In other words, they piss there because they have NO WHERE ELSE TO GO. I know this because before I leave my house, I always go to the bathroom, simply because I have about 1/3 or less accesses to bathrooms now that I am in a wheelchair than I did as an able body. I, like most, can remember some time when I just HAD to go and convinced some store clerk to let me use the store bathroom. Not an option now for me. And I am guessing not an option for the transients with backpacks or dogs or shopping carts of life goods. And when I am home at night with my sanitation, their options become more limited, particularly as Victoria openly acknowledges that there are far more people on the streets than funded spaces at shelters even during the winter. This is why the “church of the street” St John the Divine opened a temporary shelter in their basement during the winter. The Downtown Victoria Business Association proudly list as example number one in caring, their $5,000 donation toward it; though the fact that the church is several blocks from the downtown and moved the unsheltered homeless into a non-downtown location had nothing to do with it. Of course, the non-downtown neighborhood, immediately created their OWN association and successfully petitioned the shelter to be closed down as soon as spring arrived (to get the homeless out of THEIR area). So that shelter is now gone, the homeless/panhandlers are back downtown and the DVBA is putting up hundreds of signs and threatening to lock people up.

Of course, these signs interest me because I often have heart incidents, I am often required to “loiter” sucking down on portable oxygen; sometimes I “camp” in an area to recover; and to get the oxygen off the back of my chair quickly I often will “deposit chattel” all over the place. I have done this frequently in the library atrium. But, some will say, I have a legitimate need. And I guess people without a home to go to do not? Regardless, I do not go to the “downtown” particularly lower Fort Street unaccompanied. This is not because of an image problem and it is not because of the panhandlers, it is because of the businesses. Lower Fort is the worst rolling pavement in all of downtown Victoria, some businesses are “wheelchair accessible” in name only (rolling up a 25% incline while opening 2 heavy doors TOWARDS me is "accessible?"), while many businesses are not at all. Russell Books, besides cluttering the sidewalk I need to wheel on with “chattel” including stands, book spinners and display tables is also completely wheelchair inaccessible beyond the first three feet (not including the bulk of their business up a narrow staircase). The justification for the elimination of loitering is that these people are stopping customers from doing business. In my case it is the opposite (I have often tried to buy things in downtown locations but given up because of the difficulty involved; does crip money not spend as good?). Today, I had to go to lower Fort Street, it was horrid. However, the one panhandler on the street was also the one and only person who smiled at me on the way down and who, twice, asked distinctly, “Am I okay, do I want some help?” as I struggled to push my chair up the cracked and pitted Tar Pit that passes for sidewalk coming back. I can't say she was the only one to notice; but she was the only one to act.

This is not uncommon, indeed, over 60 year old men panhandling outside stores will force themselves upright, and hobble over to get the door for me when I head toward building they are panhandling outside. And they continue to do it when all I can give them is a smile and a thank you. Why these despised members, who society want to pretend are not part of it, are they ones looking out for me, protecting and ensuring my safety and treating me more as a human and individual than the rest of busy, able bodied and financially secure people walking by me I cannot say. But I am thankful. If I had to guess, it would be because they are on the only ones who actually look and watch the people who pass by, the only ones who notice who is struggling and who is not. In Hebrews 13:2 (see, all the Christian stuff not gone yet) it tells Christians to not neglect showing hospitality, kindness and taking care of strangers; for in doing so some have hosted angels, unaware. If I had to pick the angels, they are the ones sitting on the street, for they watch over me. Why then, do both the Downtown Victoria Business Association and everyone else walk on by?


KateJ said...

Your comments about the homeless guy offering to help does not in the least surprise me. I had a similar experiences when trying to negotiate the London tube system with small child, buggy, luggage...
I've worked with homeless people, and I'd say a major problem for them is modern covered shopping centres (Malls) where private security guards make damn sure no homeless people/beggars are able to bother the "public" ie paying customers. Civilisation or what?

Denise said...

The attitudes toward homeless people and the structures put in place to "help" them are similarly "get off my lawn" in attitude here in the states. That's one of the reasons why I don't want Rudy Guiliani as the president: he "cleaned up" New York City by sweeping human beings off the main streets and into back-alleys and jails. Nothing says "we care" like charges of criminal trespass!

kathz said...

I've seen lots of attempts to sweep the homeless and the baggars off the streets in the English Midlands - and protests against the provision of hostels. I've very rarely encountered anything other than frendly politeness - and I don't know how people manage to be polite and helpful in such difficult circumstances. Every so often the homeless people aren't asleep in doorways and aren't begging - I imagine the police have descended and moved them to some unidentified elsewhere. The idea of sweeping up the unsighly poor and keeping them out of sight seems to belong to a totalitarian society.

GayProf said...

The efforts to sweep the homeless off the streets almost never address the multiple and complex causes for their poverty (both individually and collectively). In much the same way, the U.S. has geared up its prison system while cutting most of its social services.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Kate j - yes, it seems most people either don't notice what is happening or take so long to register it doesn't matter - ahhh, no malls here yet.

Denise - yes, I remember when a teacher was arrest for putting books down on a seat next to her on the NY subway

Kathz - against the provision of hostels surprised me but I guess the "not in my back yard" policy prevails - When I moved to Cardiff, I was homeless (couldn't find an apartment) but found out I had to register and remain homeless for three months to get a bed somewhere - so...homeless is now something we register for like disability or unemployment?

Yes, I remember a few years ago they said the entire state of NY would either be in prison or working for them by 2020 at current expansion rates.