Friday July 2, 2010
The 74 Club
Where do you go when there's nowhere you're allowed to be?
Craig Hill/Voice photos
Ron James (R) talks about what it's like to be homeless on Chilliwack's streets.
he homeless are sleeping everywhere from bushes to bank lobbies. At nights they aren't visible, they don't sleep in plain sight. But in the daytime when they surface they are seen and because they don't have place to live, they tend to sit in one place. To city bylaw enforcement staff and police officers, sometimes they overstay their visit.
Each day they're woken by a curt slap in the face from life. They crawl out from under the shrubbery and trudge over to the nearest liquor store. They all drink for differing reasons but the common denominator seems to be to dull the pain of losing their dignity.
It's the cheapest booze out there and packs a punch at 18% alcohol. It's called 74 Bright's Canadian Sherry and is the beverage of choice for a group of vagabond tipplers in Chilliwack who are affectionately dubbed "The 74 Club."
The stuff is rotgut, but at least it's not Ginseng Brandy (rice wine for cooking) which ate jagged holes in the social fabric of the Downtown Eastside before being banned in the early 90s. At the peak of it's popularity, corner stores could barely keep shelves stocked. It was cheap to buy but the price the community paid for it was dear.
When not out on emergency calls, ambulance drivers prowled the alleys of the DTES on the "bum run." The sirens started in the early morning as they picked up the remnants of people lying on sidewalks with their heads cracked wide open still clinging to bottles of ginseng brandy. Their prone faces, more like kneaded bread dough, barely distinguishable from years of falling down. No eyebrows, just a thick mass of scar tissue. Eventually, if the concoction they were drinking didn't kill them, then a drunken tumble would.
James and Gordon look after each other on the street.
It's mid-morning in Chilliwack and Main Street is quiet. Two figures sit silhouetted on a sidewalk bench across from the museum. They discretely pass a bottle and one takes a quick slug, replaces the cap, and tucks it back under his jacket.
Ron James, 46, and Jack Gordon, 64, are part of a group who are perennial fixtures along Main Street at or around the old Telephone building, or on the benches nearby. For them it's a four-mile walk to get a bottle of sherry. Sometimes they stop for a drink before crossing under the Charles St. pedestrian tunnel.
Its cold out still but the shakes they have are from an addiction to alcohol not the weather. They try to drink the $7 sherry early in the morning before the police pour the bottles out at about 11am or 12 noon.
They don't bother people by panhandling or asking for anything, not even a smoke. They're what could be described as "friendly drunks."
We chat and they pass me the bottle, I hesitate for a moment but my curiosity gets the best of me and trying also to be friendly, I take a swallow.
A few minutes later, they insisted I take another hit of hooch which I did. So now, I know that it's not something I would buy.
Web photo of a bottle of 74 Canadian Sherry.
James is an ex-con. He did time at Okalla prison in Burnaby where he said they made prisoners remove things like formaldehyde and asbestos insulation during renovations. He's also spent time at the Fraser Pre-Trial Centre but feels it's better to be out and drunk then to be locked up.
James has been homeless for six-years. A startling revelation is that he says he has a degree from UFV in biology and criminology. So how does a guy with two university degrees end up homeless?
When James' mother died from cancer he eventually turned to the bottle and ended up having to move out of their Cultus Lake home.
"My mother died and and I stayed sober for eight-months but couldn't handle the stress so I started drinking," said James. "I ended up in the psyche ward, I tried to hang myself, I didn't care."
"He's lucky he knew his mom, I never knew mine," said Gordon.
To understand the plight of homeless people one must first consider the person's dignity. When they relinquish it, there's not much else a street person can give up because they don't have anything else.
They lose their self-worth and any motivation to stop being homeless. As a result of losing their dignity, they experience anger, depression, and feelings of worthlessness.
James feels the city's vagrancy laws are unfair and do more harm than good.
"I have a university degree and I don't care about the political bullshit," said James. "Did you know that it's the political people who harm us? City Hall harms us because we're homeless."
Gordon's "love" and "hate" jail tattoos.
James and Gordon are Squiala First Nations members but don't stay on the reserve. They sleep downtown in nooks and crannies but have a hard time doing that now. "They cut all the hedges down so we cant sleep," said a misty-eyed James adding that "it's getting crazy."
"So we get ourselves drunk to kill the pain. The cops don't care, the political people don't care. All they care about is getting their money and we can't even afford to get a place." said James referring to $375 they are given on welfare to pay for rent.
Things happen to them that undermine their dignity daily. They stopped going to places like Ruth and Naomi's or the Sally Ann for a bed because they get yelled at or insulted by staff who they say sometimes use the rules in an excessive and arbitrary way at the shelters.
Additionally, bylaw officers invoking vagrancy laws, keep them moving non-stop and James says he's lucky to get two-hours of sleep at a time.
"We walk and walk all day now because they won't leave us alone," he said. "Too many people were sitting at the telephone building and there are people who come and hassle us to move on. They (City Hall) hire people to hassle us."
The police also have little tolerance for them. James says bylaw officers and police slap them around and try to provoke them into an assault charge with an occasional punch in the face. If they react by fighting back they can be cited and put away in jail.
Contrary to what one might think, the drunk tank is not always a hospitable place to be.
"Sometimes they take our clothes and leave us in our underwear in the cells," said James.
In this way, he says, City Hall gets rid of them. Like doing some street cleaning. And the system for them is a revolving jail door that eventually spits them back out into the community where they end up sleeping on the street again.
Street people in the Downtown Eastside play the "help" circuit well. There's not much need for food money. The day after Welfare Wednesday they're broke again and just drop in to a soup kitchen in the mornings at 8am and get a cup of something hot. Then at noon jump in line at the sisters for a sandwich. By 5pm, they swing over to the United Church for a hot meal.
There is food help for homeless in Chilliwack but the two men say they don't use it.
"Squiala helps us sometimes, they give us muffins and coffee," said James.
Detox beds have been eliminated. More people coming from Vancouver are taxing the system and James says because they are coming to Chilliwack it is making it harder to get help.
"Sometimes the Christian church people they help us," he said.
If there is a Harm Reduction Program in Chilliwack, James and Gordon haven't heard about it.
The Harm Reduction philosophy teaches people to use drugs and alcohol substances in a less harmful way. Critics argue that abstinence is almost non-existent and the program is based on emotion and ideology rather than on facts.
In 2001, Toronto's Seaton House introduced a harm reduction program that dished out five-ounce drinks fourteen-times daily to severe alcoholics. The booze was, you guessed it, 74 Canadian Sherry.
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