Don’t confuse all the homeless with Kamloops’ street menagerie

A few deranged, mentally ill and brain-addled addicts on Kamloops’ streets get a lot of attention. But don’t label all the homeless as troublemakers.

Image: Mel Rothenburger, Kamloops

Kamloops RCMP superintendent Syd Lecky shares in the frustration of residents and business owners who notice the same people committing crimes repeatedly.

“When you have them back on the street in a short period of time, it is frustrating,” said Lecky. “And it does challenge us in terms of being able to manage the risk… whether the risk for these offenders to continue offending, whether it be violence or property crime. It’s really going to create some pressure on us to be able to put an end to that.”

Some of the homeless are just regular folk who choose to live outdoors. I get that.

I first met my neighbour Paul when he was living in a river bank one block from my house in Westsyde. I say “my neighbour” because, except that he lived outside, he was friendlier than some of my neighbours.

Although he lived nearby, Paul was hard to find.

I discovered his campsite when I noticed that the grass had been disturbed down a steep river bank. Curious, I carefully descended the bank and found myself in an almost impenetrable thicket.

A voice came from my left: “Come around this way, it’s easier,” as he welcomed me to his humble abode. Paul, in his forties, had notched a level spot in the river bank and strung a tarp over his shelter; his modest belongings arranged around him. He introduced himself and I sat down to chat.

Years ago, Paul had been a sheltered neighbour just a few blocks away. After his divorce, he lost his house and wandered around from town to town before returning to Kamloops. He was outgoing and happy to tell me his life story. We exchanged cell phone numbers and I left.

When I went back a few months later, Paul was gone.

I understand the appeal of living outside. When I hitchhiked in Australia, I used to set up camp in the bush near small towns. I’d walk into town; my gear stowed in what I hoped would be in an undetected spot.

It was a great way to travel. I’d buy groceries and hang out with locals in the pub.

However, being homeless and living on the street is not so idyllic. It can be a living hell. According to the most recent survey of Kamloops’ homeless, 40 per cent of those surveyed were first homeless from ages 10 to 19. Many of those “aged out” of foster care with few survival skills.

Almost one-half of respondents indentified as indigenous.

Not only do many of these teenagers have few life skills, they can have disabilities such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). That leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous individuals. They become a resource in the quagmire of street life; in prostitution and dealing drugs.

For indigenous street people who have aged out of the foster care system, the loss of identity is debilitating. They are doubly resentful of a system that is rigged against them –stripped of their culture and exploited by a toxic street culture.

If young people weren’t mentally ill and addicted to begin with, the gritty street life will soon make them so.

Regrettably, low-cost housing will not solve their devastating problems. At one time they might have been cared for in institutions such as Tranquille.

Now their future looks bleak.

B.C. denies the mentally ill their constitutional rights

“Unlike most of country, B.C.’s legislation does not provide a lawyer for people with mental illness facing involuntary detention,” says Jay Chalke, B.C.’s ombudsperson (Globe and Mail, September 2, 2020)

Image: In These Times

Unlike other Canadian jurisdictions, mentally ill people can be held indefinitely -B.C. does not have an automatic review of ongoing detention.

That means that people, who may or may not be mentally ill, can be held endlessly.

Detention of people under the guise of mental illness can have political overtones. The Soviet Union misused psychiatry to get rid of political opponents. The term “philosophical intoxication,” a pseudo-scientific term for mental disorders, was applied to people who disagreed with the country’s Communist leaders.

I don’t mean to suggest that the government of B.C. is detaining political opponents under the Mental Health Act.  But systemic paternalism and racism can play a role.

And I don’t deny that mentally ill people who are violent need be detained for their own safety and the safety of others. The forced detention of unstable persons under the Mental Health Act is not the issue.

Given the treatment of Indigenous people as wards of the state, the detention of First Nations persons presents a complicating layer.

Take the case of “A.H.,” a First Nations 39-year-old woman who was wrongfully detained for almost a year.

In a court case between A.H. and the Fraser Health Authority, the Supreme Court of B.C. learned that A.H. had been held against her will and that she was not even found to be mentally ill.

It wasn’t a simple case -A.H. suffers from cognitive impairments and mental health issues. She has a history of substance abuse, family violence and sexual abuse. She was also diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

A.H.’s mother sexually exploited her by pressuring her to drink alcohol and take drugs to make her compliant to sexual abuse. She did not have clean clothes or sufficient food.

After she was detained, authorization to hold her longer than 48 hours under the Mental Health Act expired. Despite that, she remained captive. She asked staff to provide a lawyer but staff said they couldn’t help. She was not told why she was being detained and tried to escape. On at least one occasion, A.H. was physically restrained with mechanical restraints that tied her to the bed. She was forced to take medications, including sedatives.

In her ruling of the case in 2019, Honourable Madam Justice Warren said:

“However, the procedures for Mental Health Act certification were not followed and there is no evidence that A.H. was certifiable under that legislation.

“The detention decision deprived A.H. of her liberty, the most fundamental of her rights.  The consequences could scarcely have been more serious.  It is apparent that A.H. did not understand the basis for her detention or the reasons for it.  She expressed, multiple times during the course of the detention, confusion about her ongoing detention, repeatedly asking why she could not go home.”

The detention of unstable mentally ill people under B.C.’ Mental Health Act is necessary for the protection of themselves and others. But the unjustified detention of people under the pretext of doing it for their own good smacks of paternalism, and in the case of First Nations people, colonialism.