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Down and Out in Abbotsford, BC

Living homeless in this suburb, you're never alone. First in a series on a reporter's journey with the down and out.

Ryan Fletcher 1 Aug

Ryan Fletcher is a British/Canadian writer who recently graduated from UBC with a Master's degree in journalism. He currently lives and works in the UK.

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Tracks near Jubilee Park, Abbotsford B.C. Photo by Jenn Martin.

[Author's note: Where I grew up, there were turf wars. Sometimes I fought, and received my share of blows in return. There are parts of my past that I'm deeply ashamed of, but I wasn't a bully or a thug. I met violence with violence, but in the end, I wanted more. So I adapted, and used what I learned from those experiences to judge how far I could travel into potentially volatile environments and tell stories -- taking risks to expose violence, rather than perpetuate it. I did this to shine a light on people and places cut off from the rest of the world, and it's led me on adventures through some of the most dangerous countries on the planet, including Yemen and Afghanistan. I have learned there are many levels of violence, and they occur in all sorts of places and situations.

In B.C., the deep, multigenerational issues of poverty, addiction and criminality that feed homelessness are so removed from normal affluent life that the human connection between those who are affected, and those who are not, has nearly been lost. To help close that distance, I spent 10 days homeless in Abbotsford, Vancouver and Surrey. Incidents I came across on the streets of the "best place on Earth" were as distressing as some of the worst instances of suffering I've witnessed in war-affected countries. Thankfully, just the same as those countries, the streets of B.C. can be friendly, innovative and beautiful. The following articles give voice to the people I met on those streets, so often reported on or talked about -- but rarely listened to.]

I arrive at the Abbotsford Salvation Army in the afternoon, tired and hungry. I'd spent the night before under a railway bridge in Chilliwack with a couple of drunk hobos bickering like an old couple, and the next morning trudging alongside Highway One, until a guy in a pick-up truck gave me a lift into Abbotsford.

One part of me thinks of this as an adventure; 10 days finding out how to survive with nothing but a sleeping bag in B.C. Another part of me remembers being 18 after my dad died, half crazed on a cocktail of street drugs, family falling apart, and realizing that I either had to run or get chained to the violent drug infested world taking over my life. I managed to escape, but I know how easy it can be for someone to get trapped in a bad situation, and their life to spiral out of control.

The Sally Ann is at the south end of Abbotsford, the soup kitchen and shelter at the back of the main building. To get to them, you have to walk through a claustrophobic passageway that leads to a courtyard with a high metal fence and a basketball net. If it wasn't for the adjoining garden, it would look like a prison yard. The sun is shining, and a man is laying on one of the benches situated against the walls of the courtyard, using his rucksack as a pillow. Nobody else is outside.

I dump my stuff by a bench, go into the day centre and pour myself a coffee. There are four or five large circular tables with every seat taken because a game of bingo is going on. There are old folks and poor folks, and a communal atmosphere that's a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and a nursing home. I take my coffee back outside.

The man on the bench gets up and stretches his legs. He's good looking, stocky, and has a few days' worth of stubble on a strong jaw. He walks through the door and comes back out with a bag of potato chips, which he offers me.

"There's a box of them inside," he explains.

His name is Harry, he is 40 years old, and it's his last night at the shelter before going into rehab. He's been in two programs before, for crack and alcohol addiction, both with limited success. This time he's going to the Union Gospel Mission for help.

"It looks to me like I'm going to need some sort of relationship with god or religion," he tells me. "Last time I was in a treatment centre I lasted five weeks. I'm grumpy when I'm sober and went two rounds with a guy in front of my counselors. They said maybe drinking is not your problem -- maybe it's a cover for something else. They were talking some emotional or spiritual malady."

The bingo game has finished and we stop chatting as people join us outside for a cigarette. They are talking about a BBQ tonight at Jubilee Park. A 10-year-old boy is throwing a ball at the hoop while his mom talks to a group of her male friends. Every so often someone leaves the group and plays ball with the kid. Eventually he stops playing and stands next to his mom, who is 30-ish with short hair and scruffy clothes. The boy, whose fresh-faced innocence contrasts sharply with the rough appearance of the people present, listens to the adults. Although they're totally amicable, there's a lot of swearing and some are obvious alcoholics.

The conversation turns to an ex-girlfriend of one of the group: She's a bitch and got caught carrying coke across the border, somehow she avoided jail time, perhaps because her brother's a cop.

After a while the boy's mom ruffles his hair and tells him that it's time to get going. She tells her friends she'll see them at the BBQ. They unlock their bikes from the bike rack and her boyfriend, who has a black eye and the word "discipline" tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, walks beside them out the courtyard.

The day centre has closed until dinner but the courtyard is still open. Most people leave but Harry is staying until the shelter opens at 6 p.m. He is a high rise construction worker from north Vancouver who got into drugs as a teenager. "I worked in a crew with Italian guys and wanna-be biker guys. We were selling drugs at night. We were young, had to be the fool. Sure enough I began getting high on my own supply. Started fucking up at work, same old story: alcoholic, addict. They didn't want me around so much. Then the only way to pay for a habit is to buy and sell."

Harry's history follows a pattern: patchy sobriety, labour jobs, partying, criminality and addiction. "I did pretty close to 20 years of straight work. I'm good at high rise construction. It's shitty hard work and perfectly suited for alcoholic tough guys -- hard working, hard drinking, spend your evening in the bar afterwards. I'd start supplementing my regular income with a couple of other guys who were failed gangsters. Then at one point or another I'd get holed up with a stripper in some hotel room and start getting high and get another nasty habit."

Harry wasn't able to sustain a criminal career for two reasons. First, he couldn't keep connections in the underworld, because he was unable to keep his habits under control. "The first people to know about it were my badass friends. They know you're high as a kite and loose lips sink ships." The second reason was that he kept getting ripped off by bigger fish. "It happened over and over and over again. If you're not born into it, those sort of connections aren't, you know, natural. I didn't come from what you'd call the 'hood."

Things got worse a couple of years ago when an Okanagan grow-op he'd invested in got confiscated by gang members. Another well paying construction job was trashed soon after and Harry ended up with a fully fledged crack addiction in Mission. "I spent six months bouncing around from campsite to campsite in Mission collecting bottles. I'd get out in front of the garbage truck and pick the bottles out of the blue bags. I was making 70 to a 100 bucks a day."

He put together a mountain bike with a trailer on the back to stay ahead of the refuse workers. "The secret to collecting bottles there is that you collect downhill. A 100 dollars worth of beer bottles is a few hundred pounds so you wouldn't want to be going up."

Despite the money, things began to cave in. "I had at least 50 dollars a day to spend on crack but I don't think I ever spent more than a few hundred dollars on food the whole time I was there." The final straw came when he found himself plotting revenge against his fellow addicts for tampering with his mountain bike. It dawned on him that this was insanity. "I'm a 40-year-old guy living in the bushes. Dressed in black in the middle of the summer, with combat boots on, sharpening a machete up, and I'm going to chop somebody up over a fucking $20 mountain bike tire."

That was a year ago. Since then the attempts at rehab started and drugs and drink have begun, gradually, to loose their hold.

At 5:30 p.m. I leave Harry to go to Jubilee Park for the BBQ. "Good luck," I tell him, "Make it work this time."

After inhaling from the cigarette gripped between his nicotine-stained fingers, he replies: "I've got to. It's life and death."

A night in Jubilee

Jubilee Park is a pretty patch of grass and trees in the centre of Abbotsford and an informal gathering place for many of the town's down and outs. On Wednesdays the Five and Two Ministry, named after Jesus' famous distribution of bread and fish, holds a free meal near the playground on the corner of the park. Out of their van they bring a long wooden table, food, chairs and a gas campfire for people to sit around.

The six volunteers helping out dress completely in black, and at first I thought they were members of a security firm. They're led by an idiosyncratic pastor, Ward Draper, who likes to keep it street. He is the only pastor I've ever heard refer to prostitutes and addicts as hookers and crackheads. His phraseology is down to earth, and would be refreshing if it wasn't for an aggressive and slightly off-kilter world view.

"Five and Two use a military framework to demonstrate our collectiveness," he tells me as a line of people queue for chilli con carne on paper plates. "We operate on the principle that if you throw a rock you know where it's going to land. If you throw a bird you've no idea where it's going to fly."

As he's explaining whatever that means, a pregnant woman named Belinda interrupts us. She's having contractions and needs to go to the hospital. Ward leaves to take her and I join the queue.

It's getting dark and cold, and people are finishing their food and leaving. I eat my dinner around the campfire, and listen as one of the volunteers strums a guitar. After a while a small blonde teenage girl, a member of Five and Two, replaces him. She's speaking about surviving sexual abuse. She's forgiven her family for not believing her. It's uncomfortable listening and the circle of people around the campfire is rapidly diminishing.

Just then Philippe, a rangy middle-aged alcoholic I met earlier at the Sally Ann, stumbles over and demands a cigarette from me. I provide one and he tells me to come with him. I get the feeling he's trying to rescue me from the Christians. He is extremely drunk but friendly, and as the event is coming to a close, I oblige. He's heading back to the Sally Ann even though it's now past 8 p.m. and the shelter stops admitting people at six.

"They know me," he says, "They'll let me in."

Philippe's a big fan of Iron Maiden, and is singing "Run for the Hills" and head banging as we walk across town. Leaving the road we take a small path through the scrub that goes over the train tracks.

582px version of Jubilee Park, tracks, Abbotsford
Tracks near Jubilee Park. Photo by Jenn Martin.

As we cross the tracks Philippe points to a spot on the steel girders and says: "My buddy Clint died right over there. We were drinking and he wanted to fight and then he just lay down. He wouldn't get up. So we left him there."

I ask him if Clint committed suicide.

"What sort of dummy does that? I tried to pull him up."

He's getting increasingly upset, and as we cross onto the unlit road toward the shelter, he starts walking headlong into traffic. I have to pull him back onto the sidewalk.

Farther up the road we come across Philippe's friend Wally sitting on the pavement. He's nodding out on smack. Philippe is concerned and tells him to go home, but Wally isn't listening.

We carry on up the road. Philippe begins to mumble about his dad being a Hell's Angel, but when I question him further, he tells me he doesn't want to talk about it. I decide to go before we reach the Sally Ann so I can find somewhere to bed down.

After searching for an hour to find somewhere to sleep, I make my bed behind a dumpster at the back of a strip mall parking lot. It's clean and dry, reasonably out of sight, and there doesn't seem to be much chance of rain.

After half an hour I notice a group of teenagers hanging out nearby. By now it's near 11 p.m. and, having watched A Clockwork Orange one too many times, I decide to find somewhere more secluded.

Eventually I find a small wood at the back of Jubilee Park and spend the night under the shelter of its branches. It takes some time to convince myself that the dangers of being mauled by a wild animal are remote, but eventually I fall asleep.

Day two

In the morning I head back to the Sally Ann for breakfast. There's a small line up for the coffee, pastries and fruit on offer. I join Philippe, who is sitting at a table taking the tobacco out of the discarded cigarettes he's picked up from the ground, to roll a smoke.

He ended up sleeping on a friend's couch last night because the shelter staff wouldn't let him in. He'd forgotten that last week he had been banned from staying at the shelter for a month for being drunk and disorderly.

"They banned me last Christmas as well so I called the desk and told the girl I had a large cash donation," he tells me. "She put me right through to the top manager. Then I told him -- throw me out at Christmas you mother fucker!"

Over breakfast Philippe informs me that he's from Quebec, and was working construction in New Brunswick when he went to jail the first time for assault. Afterwards he came to Abbotsford, where he has a sister. For a time he worked as a blaster, laying dynamite for a construction company in Nelson. After a drunken mishap where he used too much explosive and nearly blew up the building site, he was fired. "My boss thought that alcohol and dynamite didn't mix."

He's 43, has been homeless for five years, has a seven-year-old son he doesn't see, and an on-off girlfriend on methadone who is 12 years younger than he is. Like Harry, he spent time both as a drug dealer and construction worker before succumbing to destitution.

We stay in the Sally Ann for most of the day, hanging out with the regulars. Philippe is shaking from alcohol withdrawal but is trying not to drink. I meet Cynthia and Tyler in the yard. They have just moved into the shelter after living in the woods for 224 days. They had a wooden platform up a tree, a lean-to and a tent, but the cops cut down their camp last week. Cynthia is small and slim and in her late thirties. Tyler is about 10 years younger with very long wavy hair in a centre parting and a long beard.

"Do you know who he looks like?" Cynthia asks me. "He looks like Jesus. That's because they're close. Do you see the trees are green and it's November? That the geese are flying north and that roses are budding? All impossible. It's because of me and Tyler. We came from Delta. We left the house with only the clothes on our back and walked for five days."

Another couple, Kim and Jerry, are also at the drop in centre. They're both around 50 years old. Jerry lived under the railway bridge for three years before getting with Kim. Kim has dyed red hair and bright red lipstick. In the day room she grabs an old man by his crotch and laughs, "Now you're blushing." Later in the courtyard she follows another guy shouting, "You ever had a lady sit on your lap while on the toilet!"

After lunch, Philippe has a couple of swigs of tequila from a friend's bottle and his tremors relent slightly. We're in the courtyard waiting for the afternoon movie to begin. There's a guy passing through who spent time in prison with Philippe. They're talking about an incident they witnessed in the prison canteen.

Philippe explains: "He came up behind him and hit the guy in the head with a bar. The bar had a bolt in it and it stuck in his temple. When he went to swing the bar back the guy came with it. We were all pissed because we didn't get any soup."

Afterwards we watch the Disney film 8 Below. I realize the only reading material available in the day centre is the bible.

At half past three the centre closes for a few hours and we go out into the courtyard. It's warm and the sky is blue. James, a loud, and aggressively jovial drunk in his thirties, turns up. He's earned enough money from panhandling to buy a bottle of sherry, but needs Philippe to buy it for him because the liquor store attendant has said he's had too much.

They're arguing noisily about what type of booze to buy, so I wait by the train tracks while they walk to the liquor store. A young skinny kid with sunglasses emerges from the bushes nearby and introduces himself as Dan. He wants to know if I'm interested in buying crack. When I decline he goes on to tell me that he's a heroin addict from Langley who is living in a tent with some friends. He takes his glasses off to reveal a nasty gash under a black eye and tells me that he was punched by a guy with HIV and Hepatitis C.

He begins to ask me if I have any money when Phillippe and James come back. They're unfriendly towards him and he leaves.

"Stay away from him," James warns me, "he's BN. You know what that means? Bad news."

"Yeah," Philippe agrees. "Crackheads will steal the boots from your feet, and if they're reasonably clean your socks too."

The view from the log next to the train tracks where they sit and drink is beautiful. Mount Baker rises majestically up in the distance and the countryside surrounding the pretty town is picturesque.

"It's a volcano, you know," Philippe informs me.

"Is your woman at home?" James asks Philippe.

"Yeah I think so," Philippe says.

"Here, just look after my things while I go to her house," James quips.

They laugh and James says: "Shit man, I'd fuck you to get to her."

The conversation carries on in much the same vein, with James shouting abuse at passers by, and becoming more and more lewd.

No time for regrets

There's another free meal tonight -- this time outside of the Sally Ann. It's run by an ex-junkie, Dug, who is doing well in business and wants to give something back. Philippe describes Dug as the "greatest guy." We walk over at 5 p.m. and wait with the growing group of people by the side of the road for the dinner to begin. Philippe informs me that there's a free meal every night of the week in Abbotsford, usually courtesy of the Christians.

An attractive woman walks by, wearing pink jogging bottoms and gold hoop earrings. She's bringing the food from the 4x4 parked on the road to a table on the grass verge. Behind her is an old man.

James shouts at the man: "Hey, stop staring at her ass!"

"What are you talking about?" the woman says to James. "He's my dad."

James and Philippe then begin to laugh indiscreetly at a man who has a deformed left hand, and go on to make comments regarding the sexual history of some of the women present. They are ignored but tolerated by the 30 or 40 other people at the BBQ, most of whom are not drunk.

Later Philippe introduces me to Dug, who is about the same age as Philippe. Dug is dressed in his work clothes with a shaved head. He does his best to convince Philippe to turn his life around, and tells me he's very concerned about Philippe's welfare. "He's already been in hospital with his liver."

Philippe expresses nothing but admiration for Dug and clearly views him as a role model. "He's the greatest guy," he tells me again.

As the meal begins to wrap up, James leaves and I embark with Philippe on a sorry and fruitless quest for alcohol around the streets of Abbotsford. We walk to the stadium at the other end of town, a haunt for local street drinkers, where there might be someone Philippe knows.

As we walk he reminisces about his debauches with gusto, and at first it's as if he's regaining the drug and alcohol fueled energy that helped propel him through his years of depravity. But each tale gets sadder and more horrific until he tells me about a mother and daughter who, desperate for the heroin he was selling, put on a lesbian show for him. The girl he was dating at the time arrived at his apartment during the performance, and started taking her clothes off to join in. He stopped her because he "didn't want her getting into that." We carry on walking and Philippe's head falls to his chest.

"I've done some things that I regret," he says, "but hell, I don't have time to regret what I did last week, never mind 20 years ago."

Philippe grew up helping his biker dad sell drugs. "I learnt to count to a hundred because that's how many bennies were in a batch." In this environment Philippe says women were commodities to be bought and sold. "I've seen women traded for bike parts. You could ask a girl who's bitch she was and she'd say I'm so and so's bitch."

At 43, Philippe is still scared of his father. "He's out of the game but he's still got reach. If he knew I'd been in the drunk tank, he'd have me beaten."

When Philippe looked at me, I was reminded of a 16-year-old boy I'd interviewed for a newspaper I worked at in England. The boy had been in government care most of his life and was in and out of trouble with the police. His father had been in jail for violence and the boy wasn't allowed contact with him. His mother was an addict.

We spent a few hours together as we went over his experiences in children's homes. It was important for him to let people know about what he had gone through, but it seemed to me that what he really wanted was someone to look up to, and to guide him. I could see it in his eyes when he looked at me. I had exactly the same impression from this confessional middle-aged man, walking around Abbotsford, late at night.

There was no advice I could offer Philippe that would help him deal with the compounded traumas and intractable habits of his life. What made the situation sadder was that Philippe knew that about me, and he knows it about other people that present a way of life he aspires to, but is unable to achieve.

After getting to know Philippe a little I didn't think there was very much deliberate bad left in him, which is at least something of a redemption.

As we reach the stadium, I shake Philippe's hand and tell him that it was a pleasure to meet him. I head back to the woods to rest up -- tomorrow I have to convince the bus driver to give me a free ride to Surrey because I'm penniless. The advantage of spending three days outside is that I'm beginning to look the part.

Tomorrow: Living homeless in Whalley, Surrey: "Beat-up, grey and intimidating."  [Tyee]

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