I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press regarding an issue I feel very strongly about- Winnipeg rooming houses. I worked very hard to make West Broadway rooming houses safer places to live and I fear that the work of this city councillor is setting that work back. Here is the letter below which was published on Monday, September 4th, 2017.

Rooming-house shutdown an error

Re: Rooming houses “death traps” (Sept. 1)

Coun. Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert ward) has shone a spotlight on illegal rooming houses in south Winnipeg, but has neglected the reason for the continued existence of rooming houses in the first place: poverty and a Canada-wide affordable housing crisis. The underlying social issues that surround rooming houses cannot be separated from the bricks-and-mortar, bylaw and zoning issues that create them.

Rooming houses are a legitimate — and much-needed — form of housing that occupy an important space on the affordable housing continuum that is unlikely to be filled by any other form of more “traditional” housing. Lukes’ approach and understanding of this issue are short-sighted and merely address the surface of a very complex situation.

While it can’t be denied that buildings considered dangerous and risky for human habitation should be closed, a mass shutdown of rooming houses is not the answer and would cause greater problems such as displacement of vulnerable tenants and an increased strain on our social systems.

Instead of shutdowns, the city must be proactive and assist landlords to come into compliance with building and zoning standards in order to make these houses safe, while at the same time preserving the city’s affordable housing stock. Our government must think of this more holistically and develop a tailored and understanding approach to ensure rooming houses remain an affordable, safe form of housing in Winnipeg.

Jovan L

Calgary, Alta.

 

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Calgary and the Stigmatization of Poverty, Bodies, and Spaces

My heart hurts. It hurts from reading this article: http://www.metronews.ca/news/calgary/2017/07/07/calgary-community-clashes-with-affordable-housing-project.html

As an advocate for affordable and accessible housing, as a person who has had their life touched by people who are homelessness and precariously housed, as an urban issues nerd, and as a compassionate human… this was an emotional read for me. This short article compelled me to pen this blog post… Brace yourselves, folks. This is a long one.

Quick Synopsis:

Members of the Shaganappi community in Calgary, Alberta are upset that an affordable housing complex which uses the Housing First model is being built in their community. After an open house for the “proposed project”, a group of Shaganappi residents felt compelled to form a committee and start a petition to stop this housing complex from being built. The leader of the pack, Shaundra Carvey, states the reason for the community uproar revolves around safety.

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SIDE BAR:
Safety… that word… it has a very different meaning to everyone depending on your life experience and privilege. Allow me to illustrate this. I worked as a Community Safety Coordinator in an inner-city neighbourhood once nicknamed “Murder’s Half Acre”. The neighbourhood was gentrifying. Middle class families were buying up cheap old lots and dilapidated rooming houses to renovate and move their families in. As an individual with safety attached to their title, I heard it all. I got the well-off community members approaching me about unsupervised kids making them nervous or how graffiti had shown up on their back fence. Then, I heard from the lower income folks which was an interesting experience in itself. They never came to me about safety complaints, I always went to them. I had to seek them out in order to hear their stories of feeling unsafe. When I did, I heard things like “my brother was stabbed last night” or “my landlord came into my apartment while I was showering” and “I was robbed of my pay as you go phone and all the food in my cupboards by someone living in my rooming house”. I fixed door frames and installed deadbolt locks for people living in rooming houses who had none, while I painted a garage door of an especially vocal, middle-upper income couple which had been graffitied. I’m sure you can see the different life experiences and the very different ends of the safety concern continuum of these two groups.

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Carvey wants to know “what measures would be in place to keep [her] community safe.” She says that the block where the proposed site could be erected has 17 children and a park. Carvey is “concerned about what could spill out into it” and that “the people that they were suggesting would live there would be those who had been chronically homeless, many with mental health concerns and also addiction issues.” As well, the committee of concerned residents are also dismayed that “[they] weren’t asked what [they] would like to go there…”

Let’s deconstruct what Carvey is saying here, or at least how I am interpreting it:

  • People exiting homelessness put her community at risk
  • People exiting homelessness are a particular risk to children
  • Parks are sacred spaces not to be contaminated by people living with mental illness and addiction
  • The community wants to define the “types of people” (and the types of lives those people live) that are allowed to live in their neighbourhood

We are witnessing stigmatization of people and place here. This type of stigma is called Socio-Spatial Stigmatization. It is a process whereby stigma attached to people both extends from and extends to the stigma associated with places (Takahashi, 1997; Smith, 2010). Socio-spatial stigma is often attached to the Not-In-My-Back-Yard phenomenon. A NIMBY-ist might say, “I want to end homelessness, but I don’t want to live next to it when we do.” NIMBY-ism has become increasingly prevalent with regard to harm reduction sites.

The residents are using their preconceived notions and judgements of who becomes homeless and their personal characteristics and extending those issues of morality to the space they will potentially occupy.

Housing complex=homeless people. Homeless people=crime. Crime=drugs. Drugs=…. The imagination of a parent in a moral panic can string on and on and on.

Opponents are positioning the housing complex and its potential clients as threats to the social body of Shaganappi, situating addiction, mental illness, and homelessness as a ‘pathology (out) of place’ in their “unique neighbourhood.” The contempt attached to people exiting homelessness results in perceptions of neighbourhood decline and devaluation, and heightened efforts by factions, such as Carvey and the Shaganappi residents, to enforce socio-spatial boundaries between the ‘pure’ and ‘polluted’ (Sibley, 1995). The community of Shaganappi being the pure. The abject body of the person exiting homelessness is cast as an agent of infection that threatens to sow disorder, deviance and disease throughout the social body of the ‘pure’ community.

There is anxiety around people they deem to be out of place. Even before they move in, the community is casting the people exiting homelessness as the ‘other’ and HomeSpace, the developer, and the enemy of their community’s status quo. However, a very interesting piece of this story is the fact that neither a program nor an agency has been chosen to occupy the building. All of this oppositional action sprung from an open house where the phrase ‘harm reduction’ was used (which in all honestly, needs to be used in order to obtain federal funding). The residents understand ‘harm reduction’ as something inherently detrimental to the way of life in their community. They immediately associate the model with a population that will pollute their spaces and make assumptions as to the impact on their community. If Carvey were to think critically about a harm reduction housing program versus dry housing program, she may realize a harm reduction site is in her community’s best interest. In a dry building, using alcohol and other drugs (AOD) is forbidden and an eviction is imminent. Thus, should a resident feel the need to use, they will take that behaviour elsewhere- perhaps to the sacred park of which Carvey speaks. With a harm reduction program, AOD use in the building is permitted. This type of program can contain the behaviour and keep the 17 children on the street away from whatever it is that Carvey fears.

Now, some people might think… “what is wrong with these people? Don’t they care about ending homelessness? Do they not have compassion for their fellow, vulnerable human?” I can’t speak for Carvey or the other community members rallying behind her cause, but… I’m sure if you had a conversation with them they would say that yes, they absolutely do care deeply about ending homelessness and no one should live on the street. I have no doubt these people have empathy and compassion in the right circumstances. However, the current circumstance is a moral panic, fear of properties being devalued, fear of interaction with people who are different than they, fear of their children witnessing something they deem to be immoral, and so on. If you read the article, the argument isn’t entirely rational.

Other people might say… “People are allowed to protect their families and not want undesirables in their neighbourhood.” That’s true. I would not deny anyone’s right to feel safe. But, there is not yet a threat to be concerned about. The building hardly has a plan and is two years off from construction. Also, isn’t it ironic that Carvey is building barriers to feeling safe for the vulnerable people who could be granted the life-changing opportunity to live in this new building?

Unfortunately, this story is not unique to Calgary or to any other place in the country. The stigmatization of persons and places are indicative of community rejection and organized resistance to low income people and/or housing. We can hear this type of stigma when people talk about Forest Lawn- “Don’t go there after dark unless you want to get stabbed.” We are making assumptions of the type of people who live there and how the community functions because of the people who live there.

By othering new residents, there is already a divide which tells them “you don’t belong here”. How can you, as a new resident and a person exiting homelessness, absorb that message and feel good about investing in your community? I don’t think you can. It could end up a bit like the Broken Window Theory- the community already hates you and treats you with disrespect, so why invest and be respectful of it? So, Miss Carvey and friends, you may be causing more harm to your community than you think by campaigning against and othering a population in need of our support and assistance in being socially included. We need to open our minds to the possibility that people who have experienced homelessness are not in anyway different than ourselves. They deserve respect, a supportive community, and a place to call home just as much as the 17 children and the parents on that street do.

 

Informed by:
Sibley, 1995
Smith, 2010
Takahashi, 1997

 

5 Things Learned in the First 3 Months of Grad School

In September, I began my first year in grad school. For me, the experience has been extra hectic having moved far away from my home, leaving my awesome job and friends. Then, just  things that have gone sideways in order to make my life harder than it needs to be.

Before starting school, I was really nervous. I was worried I wasn’t smart enough, didn’t have the experience required, wasn’t passionate enough. I felt like a fraud and it was only a matter of time before someone would find out. However, things are much different that I expected them to be.

So, here we are… 5 things I learned in the first 3 months of grad school.

There is no reason to be scared
The selection process is rigourous and they only select the best into my program. I received my acceptance letter the first week of January, I’ve been told that means I was one of the top picks, since I wasn’t expecting it until May or so. I’m occupying a seat because I’m good at what I do and I’m passionate. I didn’t lie on my application even a little bit, so I should feel confident that I belong there.

The course work is not as difficult as you might expect. But, it could be because I am a different person that I was six years ago when I graduated with my last degree.

What you did before matters, but also doesn’t matter
I say this because you bring your experience and knowledge to the class and can draw upon it to apply theory, assist with learning, and figure out exactly what you want (or don’t want) to do after this degree.

I also say it doesn’t matter because (at least for me), you’re not doing that anymore. I was kind of a “big deal” in the grassroots affordable housing movement in Winnipeg. I was an expert on something and people knew that. People talked about me and came to me for comments. BUT… they don’t anymore. It has been an adjustment for me and definitely a blow to the ego. But, you have to move on and continue forging your career and name, it’s just how it is. And if you’re lucky, that work you did before will catapult you into awesome things :)

The importance of networking
If you’re like me, you don’t fit into the tiny box of what your school wants you to be. This is frustrating and discouraging at times. If your immediate circle of faculty members do not offer you what you need in order to grow and meet your goals… GO OUTSIDE! I’ve connected with a prof who aligns well with my values and goals. She has been wonderful in connecting me to people in the community who can work with me and teach me what I need to know. She has also offered some other potential opportunities that sound promising.

Networking makes for a unique and rich experience. It’s also good for your career. Learn how to do it, then do it. Be professional. Get business cards. Shake hands. Attend presentations. Send cold emails. Ask people for coffee.

Create an excellent work space
I do not have a good work space in my home. My house is very dark and my desk is too small for how I want to use it; up until recently I didn’t even have a proper chair. So, I was doing all my work in my oversized comfy chair with big, flat arms… actually quite handy for working on a laptop. But, not ideal.

I’ve taken to working in our faculty’s student lounge. It is open late and everyone leaves at 5pm. I have access to a fridge, microwave, kettle, sink, giant tables and comfy benches! I couldn’t ask for much more. I spend a lot of time there… I mean A LOT OF TIME.

You’re going to feel like crap, no matter what…
You’re going to have doubts. You’re going to fear failure. You’re going to be hard on yourself and compare your life to others.

If you moved, you’re going to regret it at times. If you have a relationship, you’re going to neglect it. If you have a cat, he will end up hating you periodically… but then forget about it because (let’s face it) he’s a cat. Your apartment is going to get gross… and I mean like really gross. You’ll lack sleep and be jittery from too much caffeine.

If you’re in my position, you’re going to be broke and fight off your depression everyday. You’re also feel incredibly socially awkward talking to your peers (how do I be human, I forget). School work distractions are quite helpful in glossing over these things.

It’s just a fact of grad school life…

BUT!
You’ll also make some good friends you can commiserate with and give you advice. You’ll drink a lot of beer. You’ll also eat too many cookies because your classmates are nice people. You’ll get inspired. You’ll learn. You’ll try new things. You’ll have QUESTIONS and discuss the answers with brilliant people.

BUT!
Best of all, if you’re like me, you’ll build on your skills and…

You’ll change the fucking world.

Whoa, I may have actually changed the world…

…or at least someone’s world.

I’ve come to the end of my contract at my job as a community outreach worker. I spent four years getting to know people, providing them with resources, helping them achieve their goals, and just kind of being a friend to people who may not have a lot of support in their lives.

This past week, it has really started to hit home how big an impact you can have on people’s lives. A group of clients threw me a surprise going away party at their house- BBQ, pasta salad, beautiful cake, gifts. I was stunned. But, it shows that not only do I care about their well-being, they care about me too. We built genuine relationships and that is a hard thing to do with people living in poverty and distrustful of the system or representatives of the systems.

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My work held another BBQ for all my clients to come say good-bye to me. I was shocked to see 30-40 people roll through to say good luck, give me hugs, and pass me very sweet cards of thanks and encouragement.

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I’ve also been getting lovely words from colleagues. Happy for me, but sad to lose me in this fight for social justice.
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So, it has really hit me… I may have actually made an impact- on people, on the community, on policy, on a city. The world, or maybe just someone’s world. That’s an accomplishment and I am proud and grateful.

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And maybe they changed me a little bit too. And I guess that’s what it’s all about. Affecting people, affecting change. Working for a common goal. Working together. Being kind. Loving one another.

Whoa… that’s heavy.

Alberta’s Affair with Deborah Drever

A little background for you:

On May 5th, 2015, there was a Provincial election held in Alberta. The Province has been hit with some tough times recently with the surplus of oil and low barrel prices- a lot of layoffs and a lot of uncertainty for many citizens.

The election brought into power a change in government (the New Democratic Party) to replace the 44 year long, some would say “corrupt” and overly confident, Progressive-Conservatives.

The NDP won by a landslide that night and history was made. However, the morning after the election, some new history was made for one certain 26 year old woman- the new MLA for the Calgary-Bow riding- Deborah Drever (pictured below). Drever is a sociology student at Mount Royal University in Calgary an without a doubt a paper candidate for the NDP. They needed a name on that ballot and she fit the bill as well as any of the other people acting as token opposition.

Deborah has caused quite the stir in the media after several photos of her were dug up from social media accounts as well as those of her friends. A disparaging Twitter account was made, she became a hashtag, petitions were started to remove her as MLA, and the media can’t seem to get enough of this story. I even received a forward email where her lacking resume was laid out for all to see and scrutinize.

The photos and the judgement from the public just keeps coming. The reactions seem to be split- people are either absolutely and unbelieveably outraged by the photos or people really don’t care or see the big deal. Of course those who are outraged have the loudest, most grating voices… can we say squeaky wheel?

Politicians are people and sometimes we may forget that. They have a past, clean or spotted- just like the rest of us. In my opinion, it is better to have a relateable person who deals with the same problems and barriers that I do representing me at the Provincial level. I can’t say a rich, white dude who blames people for their own misfortunes would be able to bring our issues to the Legislative in an accurate and beneficial way. (Besides, MLAs who aren’t in the cabinet don’t tend to do all that much. Senior government staff really do the heavy lifting).

Believe it or not kiddies, there was once a time when social media didn’t exist and if you got into trouble or did something stupid, no one would know about it, just you and your friends maybe. But now, we are able to put our lives on display if we so choose- and many of us do. I have a blog, I’m on display. Five years ago, Drever never imagined herself being in this position. How could she? We are in a digital age and things have changed a lot since Lougheed or Klein were premier. We can expect this type of thing to continue happening with more photos or posts coming out and being judged by someone else’s morals and values.

Deb is who she is. She has no doubt learned the importance of privacy through this whole ordeal that just keeps smacking her in the face. I hope this will give her the drive and determination to prove all her haters and bullies wrong.

I’m standing behind Deborah Drever. Good luck, sister.

The Curious Case of Vince Li

From time to time, I write about my experience with mental illness on this blog. I try to be as honest as possible about my personal struggle and experience of stigmatization. This may be why I am able to express a great deal of empathy for someone like Vince Li. A story known around the world for its intense amount of violence as well as being an incredibly dividing issue.

Hot on the heels of the much-publicized #BellLetsTalk Day, Li’s yearly review is being publicized and opinions are flying all over the internet on whether or not he deserves certain freedoms.

Ok, let’s back up a bit. What is this #BellLetsTalk Day? On January 28th this year, BLT Day promotes talking about mental illness in order to eliminate stigma and promote positive conversation. For every hashtag tweeted that day, Bell donates 2 cents to mental health programming. There were millions of retweets, supposed from people who support the reduction of stigma, promotion of acceptance, and want to see those with mental illnesses do well in their lives and in their communities.

Well, of course, a hashtag means fuck-all in real life (don’t even get me started on internet activism) and when you put beliefs and actions to the test, sometimes things don’t match up. That’s where I have been coming across this disconnect when it comes to actually, truly supporting people with mental illness and just saying we support them.

I’ve come across some truly horrible tweet over the last week regarding Vince Li. Let’s take a look…

That’s a few of the more PG tweets I came across. But don’t forget about the insults and the outlandish claims made by the folks on that same side of the fence. I was called names (yes, called mean names) for my more empathetic opinion of the Li case. Yes, intelligent comments those were. They have since been deleted.

But, I am also pleased to see that some fellow Canadians standing up for Li and all those with a mental illness. These words and actions DO line up. Supporting BLT Day and supporting Li.

Ending the stigma of mental illness means ALL mental illnesses. You can’t pick and choose what you suffer from and you shouldn’t choose which illness is forgivable and which is not. If anything, the extreme illnesses need our support the most. They do not need to be demonized and those who suffer should not be stripped of all human kindness.

I truly am sorry for the McLean family’s loss. Losing a child or family member in such a terrible and publicized way is just a nightmare that no one should have to go through. But, that family also has an incredible opportunity to forgive (when they are ready to) and demonstrate exactly what we need them to do in order to reduce the stigma. Instead of promoting laws that perpetuate hate and the possibility for vigilante violence, I hope one day they will move to a place of peace and forgiveness. Vince Li is horrified in himself by his actions. He lives everyday in agony over what happened that night on the side of the Trans Canada highway. From now on, he is more of a danger to himself than any other who might cross his path.

What would you ask Vince Li if you happened across him in a coffee shop?