North of South

Neil Godbout is managing editor of The Prince George Citizen.

Editor’s note: The following comes from our friends at the Prince George Citizen, but applies to almost every B.C. community, including the ones in our region.

On the streets of Prince George each day, from downtown to Parkwood, to the Gateway, up to Pine Centre and through the VLA and surrounding neighbourhoods, there is suffering.

People gather in doorsteps to shelter themselves from the elements, smoke crack, hide from the police and the city bylaw. Before they leave, they might urinate on the door or defecate on the step. They will step around the needles and the food wrappers and the condoms left by the people that were there before.

These people are here for so many reasons but there are common denominators to each of their stories – mental illness, addiction, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, other trauma both recent and distant, abandonment, racism, poverty.

The street is terrible but it is better than going back, facing the hurts received and owning the pain caused.

They need more help. Free needles are not enough. A soup kitchen meal is not enough. A bed in a shelter isn’t enough. Lining up for some money at the welfare office isn’t enough. Shouts from angry business owners, loud opera music, flashing lights and stern lectures from people in uniforms are little more than annoyances.

That suffering has led to other suffering.

The fear downtown business and property owners feel for themselves and their customers is as real as the needles and the garbage and the human waste they clean outside their doors and along their storefronts.

For years, most of them only wanted to stress the positives of downtown, to fight the stereotype, trying to convince themselves as much as other residents that downtown was clean, safe and a good place to work, shop and live.

Fewer customers, declining sales, more confrontations with those suffering on the streets and more calls to the cops and city hall speak a different truth, a harsher reality.

But it’s not just about you, business and property owners. It’s not just about you, disadvantaged people on the street and those who devote themselves to making things better for you.

The decision makers – the politicians, the bureaucrats, the managers of the social service agencies and the business groups – need to use the tools at their disposal to listen, to study, to explore, to consider and then to act.

And keep acting. Keep working.

There is no checklist and once those items are checked off, the work is done, because the work will never be done.

But perhaps less action is required. Decriminalizing and even legalizing some or all recreational drugs has been tried in other jurisdictions and countries, taking law enforcement right out of the equation, so drug use can be dealt with strictly as a health and safety issue.

Significant improvements have been seen, such as reductions in crime and violence, but that has also allowed easier access, across society but particularly for youth, to highly addictive and dangerous drugs.

Almost everyone would agree that the status quo is unacceptable and changes have to be made. That means everyone has to be willing to embrace new ideas and try new things, including the ones they might be opposed to for personal, political or moral reasons.

If being wrong, losing face, violating traditions and social norms, thinking and acting in a different way, blaming others less and accepting more responsibility reduces and alleviates suffering, shouldn’t we all be willing to put up our hands to help?

There are no solutions here. There are only better and worse ways to manage these problems where everyone – particularly the most vulnerable and powerless – is treated fairly, with respect and dignity.

Let’s work from there.

Neil Godbout is managing editor of The Prince George Citizen. He began his career as a reporter with The Penticton Herald. This column appears on a recurring basis.