A narrow path forward

On the streets of Prince George each day, from downtown to Parkwood, to the Gateway, up to Pine Centre and through the VLA and surrounding neighbourhoods, there is suffering.

People gather in doorsteps to shelter themselves from the elements, smoke crack, hide from the police and the city bylaw. Before they leave, they might urinate on the door or defecate on the step. They will step around the needles and the food wrappers and the condoms left by the people that were there before.

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These people are here for so many reasons but there are common denominators to each of their stories - mental illness, addiction, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, other trauma both recent and distant, abandonment, racism, poverty.

Prince George streets are where they went to escape from where they were before - the family, the neighbourhood, the social workers, the teachers, the foster parents, the town, the cops, the violence. The street is terrible but it is better than going back, facing the hurts received and owning the pain caused.

They need more help. Free needles are not enough. A soup kitchen meal is not enough. A bed in a shelter isn't enough. Lining up for some money at the welfare office isn't enough. Shouts from angry business owners, loud opera music, flashing lights and stern lectures from people in uniforms are little more than annoyances.

That suffering has led to other suffering.

The fear downtown business and property owners feel for themselves and their customers is as real as the needles and the garbage and the human waste they clean outside their doors and along their storefronts. For years, most of them only wanted to stress the positives of downtown, to fight the stereotype, trying to convince themselves as much as other residents that downtown was clean, safe and a good place to work, shop and live. Fewer customers, declining sales, more confrontations with those suffering on the streets and more calls to the cops and city hall speak a different truth, a harsher reality.

Suffering brings with it other ills - anger, resentment, frustration and hate. While some people try to counter this with compassion, conversation and respect, others lash out, equating their outrage with action.

Some self-proclaimed advocates for the street population show their caring on Facebook, by attacking anyone with the audacity to disagree or challenge their worldview, never leaving the comfort of their computer screens to be present on the scene with the true advocates to help with their hands, to share their expertise, to listen to others, especially the ones who disagree.

Some self-proclaimed advocates for the business community believe their difficulties entitle them to peddle conspiracy theories about social service agencies, the health authority and local government and politicians, to pitch solutions that will lead to more suffering of everyone but themselves, to move the street population somewhere, anywhere else, so they don't have to deal with them.

Others feel sorry for themselves, like Prince George city council did last week, each of them wanting to talk more about how they weren't getting enough credit for the work they had done and less about how they needed to use their power and authority to do more than talk and pass bylaws.

Enough already.

It's not just about you, mayor and council. It's not just about you, business and property owners. It's not just about you, disadvantaged people on the street and those who devote themselves to making things better for you. Anyone who spends more time blaming one group or another and less or no time talking about concrete action they are doing or prepared to do with others to make things better is serious about hearing the sound of their own voice and not much else.

Everyone can do more, especially those with the authority to do so.

Street populations are, by their very nature, disenfranchised. They lack wealth, power (the soft power of politicians and bureaucrats and the hard power of law enforcement), social standing and platforms in which their voices can be heard. They can only be called upon to contribute when their basic needs are satisfied - food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and the support network to address the roots of their suffering, not just more needles to numb the pain.

The advocates for street populations, which can and should include business and property owners, senior bureaucrats and political leaders, have far greater means to bring about change but they must be willing to do more, to change, to admit their previous efforts either weren't enough or led to unanticipated negative consequences that must be addressed.

The decision makers - the politicians, the bureaucrats, the managers of the social service agencies and the business groups - need to use the tools at their disposal to listen, to study, to explore, to consider and then to act. And keep acting. Keep working. There is no checklist and once those items are checked off, the work is done, because the work will never be done.

That reality shouldn't foster apathy or ignorance. All the things people want for themselves - peace, safety, security, good health and access to assistance when one or all of those things has been lost - cannot be fully enjoyed unless they want them for everyone else and are willing to contribute in meaningful ways in that effort.

The solutions are there but they come at a cost, some financial, some ethical, some legal, all human.

Zoning social services to a specific area comes with significant benefits (better access to services, easier monitoring of both harmful and vulnerable individuals) and different problems (restricting the street population to a ghetto, where should that be?).

A needle exchange that not only provides needles but requires them to be used on site, in supervised rooms where addicts can shoot up safely, while also offering other forms of assistance, including therapy, costs much more, requires much greater responsibility but prevents far more harm in the immediate and long term.

Long-term care in isolated facilities, such as Baldy Hughes, are expensive. While they take people away from the people and the environments enabling their addictions, they can also isolate people from the family, cultural and spiritual supports that could help.

Perhaps less action is required. Decriminalizing and even legalizing some or all recreational drugs has been tried in other jurisdictions and countries, taking law enforcement right out of the equation, so drug use can be dealt with strictly as a health and safety issue. Significant improvements have been seen, such as reductions in crime and violence, but that has also allowed easier access, across society but particularly for youth, to highly addictive and dangerous drugs.

Almost everyone would agree that the status quo is unacceptable and changes have to be made. That means everyone has to be willing to embrace new ideas and try new things, including the ones they might be opposed to for personal, political or moral reasons. If being wrong, losing face, violating traditions and social norms, thinking and acting in a different way, blaming others less and accepting more responsibility reduces and alleviates suffering, shouldn't we all be willing to put up our hands to help?

There are no solutions here. There are only better and worse ways to manage these problems where everyone - particularly the most vulnerable and powerless - is treated fairly, with respect and dignity.

Let's work from there.

Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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