“Jim” doesn’t handle frustration well.
And on this April morning, his frustration is threatening to cause him big problems in First Nations Court in New Westminster, where he’s facing two charges of assault and one for uttering threats.
Jim, a 44-year-old man no taller than five foot six, with spiky black hair and a deflated double chin, had already pleaded guilty six weeks earlier on March 10. (While Jim agreed to speak with this reporter over several months, we have chosen to change his name to afford him privacy.) He showed up in court expecting to start on his healing plan under the court’s restorative justice model.
Now the judge, addressing Jim from his seat behind his raised, altar-like bench, was telling Jim he might get bounced out of First Nations Court.
The judge was concerned he wasn’t a good fit for the alternative program, which requires offenders to accept responsibility and participate in programs to improve their life circumstances and deal with personal issues – like Jim’s anger.
Jim had failed to show up for a court-ordered interview for his pre-sentence report, a detailed history that would look at the circumstances that contributed to his crimes and help shape the healing plan. His failure to complete this step did not bode well for his dedication to following a future healing plan, the judge said.
Perhaps, the judge suggested, Jim might do better at Downtown Community Court, where he had already appeared twice before his file was transferred to First Nations Court.
Jim wasn’t having it. He spoke, loudly, from his seat at the defendants’ table.
“I will have a trial in First Nations Court!”
No one is surprised. Jim has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. He’s quick to anger and acts impulsively. His personality, decision-making, thought processes and reactions are all more like those of a 10-year-old boy than a man entering middle age.
When the judge discusses rescheduling the interview, Jim digs in his heels.
Not unless the court covers his train fare, he says.
After the hearing ends – with Jim eventually agreeing to the pre-sentence report interview, to be completed before the next hearing on May 19 – Jim and I talk as we take the SkyTrain back to Vancouver. A short man in a baggy t-shirt and jeans, Jim resembles the petulant child he’s been channeling inside the courtroom.
Why can’t the court use his 2012 pre-sentence report, he wonders. Anything he’s done since then should be “none of their business.”
But anyone would be frustrated by the situation Jim found himself in that morning. While April 21 was only his second appearance in First Nations Court, it was his sixth court visit since he first appeared on the charges on Feb. 26.
Delays on both sides, transfers from Downtown Community Court to Provincial Court and back again, and then to First Nations Court, hearings over a month apart because of courtroom shortages, and Jim’s own refusal to co-operate dragged out the legal process.
On top of everything, Jim had been homeless since January, bouncing between shelters, floors of family and friends, and benches in Crab Park. Despite receiving $351 every two weeks in disability payments and working with three different organizations to find housing, Jim’s outbursts and violent episodes made it hard to find any place for him to live.
Jim sounds unsure of his future. He’s been staying at the First United Church shelter for the past month, but wants a permanent home.
“I hope everything works out and I find housing sooner than later,” he told The Tyee. “Because January and February I was out on the benches and I think that’s how I caught pneumonia.”
Less than 48 hours later Jim will be behind bars again, this time for assaulting an employee at the First United Church shelter. The charges will be dropped two months later.
Violent outbursts bring mission ban
Jim’s courtroom outburst was nothing compared to the violent episodes that had landed him in trouble in the first place.
On Feb. 19, after being asked to leave Union Gospel Mission’s East Hastings Street building twice for arguing with another person, Jim threw coffee at an employee and threatened to stab the staff member.
Less than two weeks later, when his Compass card did not work on the No. 20 bus, the driver advised Jim to call customer service.
He punched the driver in the ribs.
As a result Jim has been ordered by the court to stay away from the people he assaulted, the No. 20 bus, and Union Gospel Mission.
“I’ve been using crack lately on cheque days and smoking a lot of weed,” Jim said as we talked outside court. He was intoxicated when he committed the assaults. Research from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control links the province’s once-a-month welfare cheque distribution to excessive drug use and overdose deaths. Because of his tendency to spend all his money at once, however, the Elizabeth Fry Society, which distributes Jim’s cheques, gives him money once every two weeks instead.
“For the past four years I’ve been dealing with a lot of anger issues and stress. You know how I spit out the words and I talk back to people, sometimes I can’t help that but it happens anyways,” he said.
Fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, commonly referred to as FASD, is under-diagnosed compared to other mental disorders because doctors often miss the clues, says Dr. Julian Somers, associate health sciences professor and director of the Somers Research Institute at Simon Fraser University.
Jim speaks openly about the sexual, physical, and mental abuse he says he suffered as a child and the stress of surviving the murders of his two younger sisters in adulthood. He acknowledges years of drug and alcohol abuse, housing insecurity and violent fights. It’s hard to tease out what behaviours reflect FASD and what is the legacy of a hard life.
Somers says it’s a not uncommon story for people with FASD, which makes it so hard to diagnose, especially later in life.
“Clinically it’s a mess,” he says.
In recent years Somers has dedicated his research to people like Jim who are no strangers to either the justice system or the services of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
Inspired by a Vancouver Police Department report estimating that 300 people in the city had mental illnesses so severe they were a danger to themselves and others, Somers and his team identified more than 300 people from Downtown Community Court who had the highest number of offences and were the highest users of services like income assistance, community doctors, prescriptions and hospital stays. While they didn’t necessarily live in the Downtown Eastside, the court is located in the neighbourhood.
It’s not a problem unique to Indigenous people. Jim may be a First Nations man who grew up on a northern B.C. reserve, and his traumas and developmental issues are clearly linked to Canada’s colonial practices past and present. But while 17 per cent of the people Somers identified with similar criminal, mental health and service usage patterns identified as Indigenous, almost 70 per cent identified as white.
Most were male, diagnosed with at least one mental disorder and abused alcohol and street drugs like meth and crack cocaine.
Together they cost the public $26.5 million in direct services from 2007-2012 – roughly $168,000 per person who served community sentences, and $247,000 for those in custody.
And that doesn’t even count their police, emergency medical or shelter costs, or the estimated $1 million pumped into more than 260 service and social housing organizations in the neighbourhood every day. The funding helps 6,500 people at an average cost of more than $55,000 a year, according to a Vancouver Sun report.
All that money hasn’t made much of a dent in the problem: last February a staff report to the Vancouver Police Board showed arrests under the Mental Health Act exceeded 3,000 in 2015, up 700 from 2010.
Somers said the centre’s research shows the problem isn’t just gaps in services.
“There’s an absence of necessary services, and there’s a delivery of services that actually results in suboptimal and sometimes even injurious or negative outcomes,” he said.
Mental illness and crime
This isn’t Jim’s first dance with B.C.’s justice system. Provincial court records show he has been charged with 11 different offences since 2000, from the innocuous, like riding a bike without a helmet, to the more serious like violent assault and uttering threats.
That too is typical, as relatively few offenders commit a large number of offences.
In 2008, the Vancouver Police Department sounded the alarm about the proportion of the calls they received that involved at least one person with a mental disorder – 31 per cent city-wide, but almost 50 per cent in northeast Vancouver, which includes the Downtown Eastside – at an annual cost to the force of $9 million.
Jim has been receiving support from Community Living BC, the Crown corporation supporting adults with developmental disabilities, for most of his adult life. Eligibility for CLBC support requires an IQ of 70 or below – Jim says his is 73.
Ideally Jim would have a place to live with round-the-clock support services to ensure he takes his medicine – he has early-onset diabetes and takes antidepressants – goes to his appointments and has healthier activities to engage in than drinking and doing drugs.
But all the supportive housing programs in the neighbourhood have long waitlists.
And even the most supportive housing has its limits. When Jim moved to Vancouver in 2011 from northern B.C., where he had been living for almost 20 years, he connected with the John Howard Society. The organization, which works with ex-offenders, provided housing and supports that allowed Jim to come as close to autonomous living as he could manage for almost four years.
But when Jim threw a wooden picnic table at a window in a society building in an alcohol-fuelled rage, he was evicted.
Today Jim is trying to reconnect with the John Howard Society; working with the Carnegie Outreach Team, the city of Vancouver’s housing outreach team; and meeting with Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit, also known as VISU, which partners mental health workers with probation officers to keep re-offenders like Jim out of trouble.
Keeping much of this support requires Jim to make repeated phone calls and attend meetings on time. It’s a tall order for someone with a short fuse and even shorter attention span.
An unlikely champion
What Jim needs is a support worker to help him keep track of his appointments and obligations. What he has instead is David Beattie, a South African-born journalist struggling to start a Downtown Eastside magazine while in between jobs, and Jim’s self-appointed, pro bono advocate.
It was one of Beattie’s many emails to the media, court officials, MLA Melanie Mark, MP Jenny Kwan and DTES organizations expressing frustration over Jim’s treatment in the courts and neighbourhood organizations that first introduced The Tyee to Jim.
Beattie first met Jim at New Way, a CLBC-contracted supportive housing development that Jim moved into in spring 2014 after he lost his spot at John Howard. Beattie was volunteering in the kitchen.
“It’s clear from anybody to look at him that he has special needs, and I saw a number of examples of his completely ungovernable temper,” Beattie said.
Yet Jim told Beattie he was happiest when living at New Way. “There’s no question, it was the best arrangement for him that he’s ever had,” Beattie said. “He had his own big room, he had the run of the place.”
But the pair didn’t become close until fall 2015, after New Way lost its CLBC contract and Jim had moved into a private SRO, followed by a basement apartment in Surrey, and then back to the Downtown Eastside at the Chelsea Hotel.
“I kept bumping into him at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, and he looked particularly forlorn,” Beattie said. “And one day, I was with a friend of mine and we saw him just hanging out, looking hopeless at a bus shelter, and I just said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to make a project of this.’”
Beattie went to every court appearance Jim had this spring and accompanied him to appointments with his probation officer, the John Howard Society, housing agencies and other Downtown Eastside service organizations trying to find someone to help him.
Beattie admits part of this “project” is to expose what he sees as the ineptitude of a government-operated system that not only fails to help Jim, but reduces community safety by keeping him angry and on the streets. It’s a key theme in The Crows, the publication he hopes to launch online and in print this month.
He believes Mount Pleasant MLA Melanie Mark has done nothing for Jim, despite being repeatedly contacted for help by Beattie and others.
But Mark, who first met Jim earlier this year through his involvement in her election campaign, says it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“The people called me about [Jim] and said, ‘What can you do? How can you help?’ she said. “And trying to connect with [him] was the hardest part.” (Mark’s ideas for helping Jim and people like him will be featured in the second part of this series, running tomorrow.)
It was important, Mark said, to establish a relationship with Jim “so that I wasn’t being paternalistic to go down and start advocating for him when I don’t even know exactly what he particularly wants.”
When talking about Jim, Beattie is irreverent and sarcastic, using language describing Jim’s developmental state that’s at the least politically incorrect, if not downright offensive.
But he’s the only person dedicating a large amount of his time – for free – to help Jim to navigate the system. Beattie isn’t the first to try, but he is the last bridge Jim hasn’t burned among family and friends who’ve tried to help him.
“Being born with fetal alcohol syndrome is clearly not a person’s fault,” Beattie said. “I could relate to his anger. I could see that he had this seething fury... Every single day that man goes out, his dignity is impugned further. He never gets any affirmation.”
Back to court
It’s June 28. Jim never did show up for a pre-sentence report interview, and eventually his case is transferred back to Downtown Community Court. It’s his tenth court appearance on the charges, spread over four months. And he’s back where he started.
The Downtown Community Court was established specifically to help repeat offenders with chronic mental illness and addictions issues, offering them access to resources in the community to help them overcome the underlying reasons for their crimes.
But Darlene Shackelly, executive director of the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of BC, says the court is falling down on the job, in large part because the needed community supports don’t exist.
“The court needs to go back to its foundation of getting the resources to support that particular court, particularly around issues like mental health,” she said, adding it’s “extremely hard” to find mental health resources in the neighbourhood. If you want Indigenous-specific services, it’s even worse: there’s only one Indigenous mental health liaison worker in Vancouver, Shackelly said.
“The justice system is not there to deal with mental health,” she said. “I just find that they’re not able to make a judgment on a person who does have a mental health disorder. I had really hoped community court would have designed more specialty programs to support mental health.”
Before his final court appearance, Jim sits with Beattie and me on a row of blue metal chairs in the basement waiting room; a nature mural on the wall makes it feel more like a children’s hospital than a courthouse. Jim is telling us how he had spent four of the last five days high on crystal meth, not sleeping or eating, just walking around the neighbourhood. Technically, Jim has a bed at a Lookout Society Shelter on Alexander Street, but he’s reaching the three-month limit and he says they want him out.
In court, the judge gives Jim a suspended sentence with recognition of three days he served in custody, and probation for 12 months. Jim has continued to work voluntarily with Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit, which lets probation officers and mental health support workers combine their efforts to provide a high level of supervision and support for clients, including ensuring they take their meds and make their appointments.
Jim was barred from the unit’s office – more anger issues – but the ban will be lifted later in the summer and he continues to work with the team.
Jim’s work with the Intensive Supervision Unit and his commitment to taking his antidepressants are good signs, the judge says, which are saving him from serving jail time.
As conditions of his probation she orders him to report to his probation officer and stay away from the people he assaulted, as well as First United Church and Union Gospel Mission – two of the biggest service centres in the neighbourhood – and the blocks they occupy on East Hastings Street.
Outside the courtroom, waiting to sign documents before he can leave, Jim says he feels OK about the ruling. He’s also glad it’s finished because he has a chance to go on a fishing trip in Smithers and spend some time with family, though how he’ll get there and whether his probation officer will allow it remain to be seen.
As for what’s next, “I hope I find housing,” he said.
“Up in Smithers I used to live in this old shed. So I put ‘The Heartbreak Hotel’ on it.” He erupts in giggles.
‘How am I supposed to survive?’
A month passes before I hear from Jim again. We lost touch after he and Beattie had a falling out because Jim failed to show for a meeting Beattie had set up with his landlord to get Jim housing. But in late July he calls me out of the blue from the phone at Oppenheimer Park. He isn’t planning on going up north anymore, saying he thinks he’ll “just stay here for the summer.”
Jim’s change of plans could be partly because the Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit has finally found him housing, a supportive housing SRO managed by Whole Life Housing. Not that he’s overjoyed about it.
“I’m paying $450 and there’s no hot plates allowed. Shit, how am I supposed to survive?” he said. The night before, Jim added, he was robbed of more than $300 – all the money he had to live on for the next two weeks. “Some people were waiting for me outside the bank, like four in the morning, and I got jumped.”
So far Elizabeth Fry won’t agree to give him his next cheque early, and he’s got no friends to call. But he doesn’t ask me for money and I don’t offer any, just some feeble suggestions like going to the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood house for food, things he already knows.
Jim can’t depend on the Vancouver Intensive Supervision Unit for help, either. “I kind of lashed out at them,” he said, adding the unit has put him on a week’s probation. “I’m going through a really hard time.”
As our brief conversation progresses, his voice becomes sadder, tired. He doesn’t have a phone of his own, so it’s unlikely we’ll talk again anytime soon.
Finally, after almost eight months, Jim is housed and connected with several service organizations that know his history and challenges. But without supports to keep him off drugs, on a healthy diet and out of trouble, his struggle to live independently and safely is far from over.
Tomorrow: What could be done to help people like Jim find secure, long-term housing?
So what can be done to house our most vulnerable residents? It isn’t lack of knowledge or politics that holds us back, say experts; rather, it’s logistics. Read part two here.