Tag Archives: Mumford House

Staying the Course in Ward 2

It’s hard to give opinions on other ward races.  I have several friends on campaigns who are either running or helping run them and you end up picking sides, even between people you respect so I tend to stay out of them.  I have a passionate connection with Ward 2 since 2006 when I found myself working in a homeless shelter in the ward and that has stayed with me as I have moved on. 

I had known of Pat Lorje going back to her time on council in the 1980s and later as a NDP MLA when she was elected in 1993.  I wasn’t a fan because as long time readers of this blog know, I am amongst the last two remaining defenders of the Grant Devine administration (okay, I may be the last remaining one) and I was occasionally (and unsuccessfully) campaigning for her opponent.  Later I unengaged from politics and Lorje became a cabinet minister (those aren’t really connected).

When I found myself working at a shelter in Ward 2 and working with poverty and homelessness issues, Coun. Lorje and Randy Pshebylo made some statements questioning the concentration of services in Riversdale.  I emailed Lorje and asked to meet with our management team and we had an excellent exchange of ideas between her, Pshebylo and other managers.  While Lorje and I disagreed on the issue, her viewpoint was well thought out and backed up with some pretty interesting academic policy discussions about concentrations of service (in Ottawa and Cinncinnati) and what it does to neighbourhood.  It set a pattern even when I see Lorje (and Pshebylo) today.  We may not always agree but we are always looking for ideas to solve and improve poverty and homeless issues.  

The first time that I worked closely with Coun. Lorje was on the opening and rezoning of Mumford House.  It was another service in Pleasant Hill but Lorje saw the big picture on the project and knew that we needed a shelter for women and children in Saskatoon.  She was an effective advocate for the community but also with us and served as an effective “power broker” between us as a service provider and the community association.  It was a project that would have been delayed without community support and her support was crucial in getting it open in a timely matter.  It’s always hard to think what it would have been like without Lorje’s support but I have seen home based child care rezoning efforts have more difficult time than what we had.

As an outsider, I enjoyed watching the politics of the wind turbine and the new development in Montgomery.  Lorje has been a passionate defender of Montgomery and while I didn’t agree with her stance (especially on the wind turbine), she did an excellent job of representing their interests both publicly and to me privately.  She has also been an advocate for things in Council that she feels are right for citizens across the city, especially for those that are marginalized.

Finally as someone that loves the culture of Riversdale, I love the changes that have happened with the revitalization of the neighbourhood as a result of the efforts of the Riversdale BID, entrepreneurs, and the City of Saskatoon’s investment; investment that Lorje champions for at every opportunity.

Ward 2 can’t be an easy ward to represent with perhaps the largest income gap between neighbourhoods in Saskatoon but Lorje has done a good job over the last six years. While I can’t speak for the ward, I can speak for the work that Lorje has done and I think she has done an excellent job for both Ward 2 and for all of Saskatoon.  I can’t take a lawn sign but I’ll make my thoughts known here.  Pat Lorje should be re-elected on October 24th.

Column: Prostitution a complex issue

This week’s column for The StarPhoenix.

logo_saskatoonstarphoenix At work we deal with a database that has been developed by the federal government to help shelters such as ours to keep accurate statistics.

Like anything designed by bureaucrats, it’s unwieldy, crashes a lot and doesn’t really do anything that’s very useful. It publishes inaccurate reports that need to be manually checked, thus eliminating the efficiency that should come from its use.

Despite my dislike of the software, I realized that it could be useful in helping us understand and track the contributing factors to homelessness. To implement these ideas, I needed input from others on what we wanted to track and the best ways to do that.

During this discussion on contributing factors, the issue of sex trade workers arose. Staff pulled 20 random files of self-identified sex trade workers. A glance at the files showed 19 of the 20 had mental health problems. All 20 spoke of substance abuse issues. Many spoke of significant ongoing health issues such as HIV/hepatitis C or recent miscarriages.

Within hours of coming off the street and getting some food and sleep, the women were back on the street, looking for their next fix or hooking up with their pimp before they were missed. I see in the women who come in for meals the toll the sex trade takes on them.

One woman who has been coming in for years has started to lose a lot of weight, around 60 pounds on a frame that to begin with didn’t have any to lose. She is skin and bones, except for the parts of her body where she’s injecting the drugs.

When she comes in for meals, her limbs are often flailing uncontrollably. She seems to struggle with her body control as she gets some food before heading back out to work at a nearby restaurant parking lot.

The other day I watched her for more than an hour as she tried to score drugs, sex and even coffee in a parking lot.

Panhandling, prostituting and drug dealing – she’s doing whatever it takes to get through the day and the next bit of drugs. Eventually it is off to the Salvation Army or the Friendship Inn for a meal, and then it’s back to what she needs to do to survive.

How does one get to this point?

Last year, I sat in on the Salvation Army’s john school. It’s an alternative sentencing program for men who have been charged with soliciting. Staff occasionally sit in to better understand what life is like for the women on the streets and one of the first things I learned was that they weren’t women but girls when they started.

Many lost their virginity to johns when they were as young as age 11. I had a conversation with a researcher last week who spoke of a parent saying, "I put my girls on the streets because that is what my parents did to me."

An April 2002 StarPhoenix front page story spoke of girls recruiting girls into the sex trade, with pimps as young as 12.

I keep hoping we’ve made progress, but a recent conversation with City Centre Church’s Chris Randall confirmed that it’s still happening; they are seeing preteen girls come in from the streets.

Last year I gave countless tours to Catholic school division elementary school teachers and heard the same stories from them: Parents who don’t care, siblings using younger children to advance their own standing in gangs, or families living off the money their daughters bring home.

If that is how it starts for a street worker, how does it stop? This question has haunted me over the past few weeks.

Any extra money will go to drugs. Food will go to her pimp. If she is charged and incarcerated, what’s even 90 days in a provincial jail going to do? It’s not enough time to get the mental health care she needs or time enough to deal with the addictions. When she is back out, where does she turn?

Statistically, the chances are it will stop with her death. If it’s not the drugs that kill her, it will be a trick gone bad, a sexually transmitted infection or a beating from her pimp that goes too far. These women are treated as disposable human beings and, when their lives end, it is often attributed to "a high-risk lifestyle."

The truth is a lot sadder and complicated, but that is of little comfort to those trapped in it.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

What’s Next?

A couple of weeks ago now I resigned by job.  Like any life decision like that there are a lot of reasons but in the end I was feeling really tired and in some ways burned out.  Wendy’s depression is worse now than it has ever been and that takes a toll on the entire family (she’s making an ugly, ugly transition to yet another stronger anti-depressant without being weaned off the old one right now).  While the job wasn’t burning my out, life was taking a toll on all of us and we have a very hard time getting treatment in Saskatchewan, heck, we can’t even get her old clinic to transfer her medical files to the new doctor

After I made it public that I was looking for a new challenge, several serious job offers came in and we looked at some opportunities that would change our financial position substantially and one in particular that would give me and the family an opportunity to travel and live abroad.  Another offer was a great job in a particularly evil company.  Not quite big tobacco or working for the GOP but evil enough that I am sure that all go for supper together.  I have lived in the prairies my entire life and the opportunity to raise Mark and Oliver in a different culture and worldview was something that I wanted to do since Mark was born.  I am also getting to the age where I think a little more about retirement each year and this would give us a chance to retire with a little more money in the bank.  While the Salvation Army treats me quite fairly, as a non-profit, it can’t compare to the compensation of evil publically traded companies.  Whatever my job decision was going to be, I had planned to wrap up work here last Wednesday and start at my new job in late September.  I was asked to reconsider my decision and stay here as well but at the time, I was at peace with moving on to new challenges.

It wasn’t a easy decision to make as we balanced Wendy’s access to treatment, what was good for the boys, what our goals were as a family, and also some pretty strong ties to Saskatoon, particularly the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon.  During this time of evaluation, there was a murder (more) that bothered me deeply.  I know both the victim and the accused from work and while I was processing that death, we had a death at work.  After hours of questioning by the police, crime scene investigators and major crimes (don’t worry, it was a death from natural causes), I drove our former chaplain up to St. Paul’s Hospital as he was off to see a dying friend.  While I tend to drive up 19th Street to avoid the traffic on 20th, I drove back down 20th Street that night.  I have never seen 20th Street like that.  I counted 14 girls clearly working the stroll.  Three of them looked to be underage.  Guys were on the street corners as I watched 2 drug deals go down.  I know that isn’t typical for 20th Street and was like that because the Saskatoon Exhibition was in town which brings in a lot of out of town customers.  As I left the Centre that night around 10:00 p.m., I turned back up 19th and as I was turning the corner, I watched a taxi complete a brazen dial-a-dope transaction at the phone booth across the street from the Centre.  Of course the prostitutes were on 33rd Street that night (Wendy later told me that there has been as many as four in the Safeway parking lot on shift).  I got home, grabbed a Diet Coke, grabbed my Moleskine and started to jot down some notes for how things had changed since I started working at the Salvation Army in Riversdale and on the west side.

What we do at the Salvation Army Community Services is both really simple in concept and really complex in how it is executed.  The concepts are pretty easy.  We provide meals, food, budget management help, and emergency assistance to those that need it.  The nuances of distributing those goods, paying for it, being paid for it, determining need and the appropriate response is what is so complex.  It takes a lot of staff, volunteers, officers, and money to make it happen.

The operational side I have a firm grasp on, it is that simple stuff that was troubling me.  The Centre does a really good job at doing what we do but what haunted me as I went to bed that night was, are we doing the right things?

I came in and talked with some other managers about what I was thinking.  I think the Salvation Army Community Services does a lot of really good things but Riversdale has changed.  While getting the Mumford House ready for it’s opening, I drove a lot between the two locations and on every corner around the women’s shelter, there are girls working on the corners… at 8:30 a.m.  Even during the opening of the Mumford House I watched girls on the corner.  While I have been complaining night and day about prostitution in Mayfair, girls are working the streets in Confederation Park and even as far west as Pacific Heights.  90% of the girls on the streets are being trafficked by a variety of sources.  They are moving out of the stroll (women can be as territorial as the men and if they don’t come up with a new territory, they get beaten if they don’t bring him the money).

It’s just not the prostitution.  It’s the drugs, the increase in violence, and the sense of hopelessness from not being able to get ahead.  13.2% of residents in the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon don’t have a grade nine education.  (including 21.0% of those in Riversdale and 18.4 of those in Pleasant Hill).  While 11% of Saskatoon is made up of one parents families, 24 % of Riversdale households are single parents families.  Not to get all Dan Quayle on you or anything but Wendy and I have a hard time raising kids on two salaries and very little child care costs (we work opposite hours).  How much harder is it to go alone?  A sign of disenfranchisement many households feel, only 13% of Pleasant Hill residents turned out to vote in the last civic election (vs. 50% of voters in Briarwood).   Of course one doesn’t need to channel the spirit of Thomas Homer-Dixon to realize how problems can be even more complex than the combined statistical analysis… and believe me, the stats show a complex problem.

We are left with two alternatives.  During this time, I finished up an internal proposal to go to the Salvation Army for a new facility.  It’s no secret that Saskatoon needs more shelter beds.  In addition to more beds, it redesigns how we accommodate our residents so they are more comfortable and guys can have a better rest.  More youth rooms, more mental health rooms, a wing for grumpy old men, transitional rooms, a small half gym, computer facilities, a coffee shop/drop in space, and lots of green space for our guys.  It’s not perfect, I couldn’t figure out how to slide a go-cart track past the bureaucracy but will we see.

As I finished it up, I realized that what we were proposing a dam and levy system for many of our residents.  While they were at the Centre, they would be safe and secure and maybe even get ahead of the game but when many left, they get swamped by what is outside of the Centre.  There is value in creating safe spaces but eventually you have to leave and go out in the real world.  Too high of rent, too low of income, stuck in a flophouse, surrounded by drugs, forced to take a bad roommate, mental health and addiction problems and trapped in poverty.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that life should be hard at times but the obstacles confronting our clients are considerable.    So I was left with an architectural solution (increase the size of dorms to X number of dorm beds and even more private rooms for grumpy old men and then keep building and building and building) or we figure out a way to help our clients live back in the community amongst the alcohol, drugs, violence, and exploitation.  By doing so, we would also be changing the character of those neighbourhoods.  Of course of the two, the second option is a lot harder to do.

As I was thinking about this, I was at the Front Desk the other night when a women came in.  The Emergency After Hours worker was swamped with other clients and the women was upset and crying.  I took her into a room off the office, left the door open (and it’s on camera) and started to see what she needed.  She needed accommodation and I asked a couple of questions which she was quite forthcoming in answering.  The details aren’t that important but drugs, acquired brain injury, prostitution to make ends meet, a couple of bad tricks.  As the staff found a place for her at a local women’s shelter, I had two thoughts.  One this women in someone’s daughter and secondly as her face and neck had the signs of being beaten up by a john, will she escape this cycle first or will she end up being another statistic?

So what can I do?  What can we do?  I’ll get into this in a lot of detail later but there is a lot that we can do about this.  I think that is what kept me here, there is stuff that I can do as an individual, I can do within the organization, and we can do as an organization of other community based partners.    As Margaret Mead once said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.