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The homeless experience in North Perth, Part 3 – encounters with the police

Harm reduction packages containing sterile drug paraphernalia are available in Listowel through Huron Perth Public Health, It Takes A Village and Pharmasave. Harm reduction strategies are effective in reducing the spread of diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections and reduce the number of needles discarded in the community. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

‘Talk to me first. Ask me to leave. I will pack up and I will go. Please don’t just jump to the cops. Please, please, please because I end up in cuffs every time.’

This is the third installment in a series of articles allowing local homeless people to discuss their experiences in the community. For their protection, aliases are being used. This article discusses their experiences with policing in North Perth and contains language some readers may find offensive. In the final installment, sources will give some of their own suggestions  and discuss initiatives being engaged to help them out.

As the population of North Perth grows, issues many residents associate with urban centres are starting to be noticed close to home. Homelessness is an issue which is not new to Listowel but until recently it was easier to overlook. It is now a visible aspect of the community, even if some of the homeless living here wish they could remain invisible.

Andrea Charest, executive director of It Takes A Village, the free store in the heart of Listowel, arranged a gathering of some of the people dealing with homelessness. Sitting around a large table in the back of the store, they enjoyed pizza and talked about their perspective of what is referred to as the “homelessness problem.”

All of the people sitting at the table who are dealing with precarious housing and homelessness also had stories to tell about encounters with the law.

Josey grew up in Stratford but it’s not a place she likes to return to. Even if she is living outside in North Perth she said it’s better for her here.

“Stratford is Bad News Bears for me,” she said. “Every time I go back I end up back in jail. It’s where my roots are. It’s where my street life started. I’ve got all my connections there.”

When she is in Stratford she ends up being around crime and drugs, and then she ends up back in jail.

“The last time I was there 19 days and I was back in jail,” she said. “I had been out of charges for over a year, out of jail for over a year and I went back not even a month and I was back to jail.”

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Josey did not wake up one day with plans to be a criminal.

“One night I was this woman who went to bed and I had everything I ever wanted and needed and could dream for and the next morning I woke up and it was all gone,” she said. “My ex-husband kicked me out of the house with my six-year-old son and we started living in hotels.”

A friend took them in but eventually, she kicked them out, giving them only one day’s notice.

“I was going to be homeless again with my son so I called my ex-husband and I begged him,” she said. “I said  the Children’s Aid Society is going to come and take him from me and I’m not going to be able to stop them so you need to come and you need to take him and save our son.”

She told her ex-husband she did not care what happened to her but he needed to save their son.

“So he came and got him and I’ve been struggling ever since,” she said.

It’s been nine years since that night.

“Every time I go to jail I come out and I have even less than when I went in and less than I had the last time so I get scared and I don’t go… I feel like I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t at this point.”

– Josey

“I always said I could not live without my kids and this is just proof of that,” said Josey. “I’m slowly, slowly just trying to snuff myself out I guess. Sometimes you go so far you don’t know how to go back.”

Josey doesn’t know where the threshold is and she feels it’s different for everyone but there is a point she has arrived at and now it’s hard to go back to living inside.

Less than a year ago she had a place to live, a job and she had her kids back on weekends.

“I was doing great then I had to leave town to go to court,” she said.

With the court decision that day, she ended up losing everything and was homeless again.

“I was just trying to do the right thing,” she said. “Normally I’d jump court because I don’t want my life to twist upside-down when I go. Every time I go to jail I come out and I have even less than when I went in and less than I had the last time so I get scared and I don’t go… I feel like I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t at this point.”

Josey said she feels lost every day in North Perth.

Charest asked if that works for her.

“It does and it doesn’t,” said Josey.

“She cries a lot,” said Ichabod.

Just because she feels Stratford is bad news for her, it does not mean she hasn’t had her share of run-ins with the police here.

“I’ve been arrested in this town almost more than I’ve been arrested in my home city and I lived in my home city for 31 years,” she said. “I came here knowing I had nowhere to go but I left (Stratford) having nowhere to go. So no matter where I was, I was going to be homeless in a tent somewhere and I had people here, so I came.”

When she first arrived she had her tent set up in an area they call the ‘Frog Bog.’ To get there you have to follow the Maitland River out of the northeast side of Listowel.

“It’s back out of the way,” said Ichabod. “People have to specifically come to find you there.”

“Talk to me first. Ask me to leave. I will pack up and I will go. Please don’t just jump to the cops. Please, please, please because I end up in cuffs every time.”

– Josey

The police were called by a private citizen who was concerned because a homeless woman was staying out in the bush alone.

“I got arrested out of that,” said Josey. “They came to help me but I left in the cruiser. So my thing is, if people are worried about us, talk to us.”

She emphasized she does not mean that if they are seen wielding a knife or otherwise being a danger to people, that people should just walk up and talk with them. If that is the case she said people should “call the cops.”

“But, if I don’t see you unless you come to see me if I keep to myself and I keep up my area and I am just surviving, please don’t call the cops on me,” she said. “Talk to me first. Ask me to leave. I will pack up and I will go. Please don’t just jump to the cops. Please, please, please because I end up in cuffs every time.”

Red said there are a few police officers who, since Charest started sharing stories about the homeless community on the internet, have changed their attitudes somewhat. He has had incidents where they will do something nice for him such as offer him a Big Mac and fries recently.

“I never get this,” said Ichabod. “I’ve got to get out and walk around more.”

Red said that is not the way it always is or has been in the past. It used to be if he saw the police he started packing because he knew he was going to get kicked out of the spot he was living in or he was going to be arrested.

“A little bit has changed but if they can charge you they’ll fricking do it,” he said.

Just before Christmas last year Ichabod received what he referred to as ‘a nice set of shiny bracelets’ as a present from the police.

“It turns out I was on somebody’s land who had a problem with it,” he said. “I was literally on the furthest back corner of unused land. I had no idea it was their land.”

He said he was woken up and when he came out there was a gun pointed at him.

“Shit got hairy,” said Ichabod. “It was a bit of an uncomfortable moment.”

“Just don’t be dicks. It’s a really simple concept. Treat us the same way you treat the guy in the three-piece suit. Just be fair, be impartial and don’t come at us with prejudice.”

– Ichabod

Concerning this subject, Charest said she received a call from a woman last year who told her she has a reputation as the woman to call in these situations.

The woman said one of her neighbours was driving by on his tractor and he thought someone was camping in the corner of her property. The woman didn’t want them there because of liability if they hurt themselves.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to tell them to leave because what if they come to my house and what if they come after me,’” said Charest.

All she could tell the woman to do was to make the best decision for herself.

“So you guys are on the receiving end of a service the municipality pays for which is policing,” said Charest. “For that, give your feedback on ways they need to improve their policing concerning people living in precarious situations.”

“Just don’t be dicks,” said Ichabod. “It’s a really simple concept. Treat us the same way you treat the guy in the three-piece suit. Just be fair, be impartial and don’t come at us with prejudice… I still feel like there was very little reason to come out of my cabin with a gun pointed at me. I get uppity when people point guns at me. It’s rather uncomfortable.”

Charest said if people see someone they think is in a crisis they call the police because they don’t have anyone else to call.

“A lot of them are scared of that kind of stuff, defending themselves, they are scared of what is going to happen,” said Red.

“The police?” asked Charest.

“Yes,” he said.

“So they get these calls, they respond to these calls, but they don’t have the tools,” said Charest.

“Respond to the calls like it is a distress call,” said Josey. “Don’t respond to it like it’s…”

Ichabod cut her off mid-sentence.

“This isn’t Die Hard,” he said.

“Right,” she said. “This is someone who needs your help… you are going to someone who needs to be helped, not someone that needs to be policed.”

Charest asked if any of the people sitting at the table would feel comfortable sharing any experiences where the police came to them based on a mental health call.

“What I’m wanting to find out is if you have any first-hand experience of how they respond to a mental health crisis?” she asked.

“Handcuffs,” said Ichabod.

“Always, clear across the board especially in small rural communities like this one,” said Josey.

“Their agenda is safety first,” said Red.

“Not even,” Josey disagreed with Red.

“It’s a big misconception – protect and serve,” said Ichabod. “They are there to protect and serve the best interest of the governing body that’s in power at the time.”

Charest said she has received an email from a woman who has been hired by municipalities to survey about police services.

“What I want to understand is if you sat on the board to advise policing of what is needed for the community, what would be needed?” she asked.

Ichabod said he’d sit out this question because of biases he has developed through his experiences.

“I don’t know,” said Red. “I’m nice to the guys out here and I’m telling you I haven’t been beaten down by them in years. Honestly, after they stopped arresting me every couple of weeks I was nice, cracking jokes.”

He said when he gets anxious he starts joking and it has helped him deal with police. “If I can get them laughing they can’t laugh at me,” he said. “I just put on the salesman, the salesman goes on, you know what I mean? I’m telling you since it’s like that there are so many times they haven’t even arrested me.”

“They arrest me every chance they get,” said Josey.

They started a frenzied discussion about a particular police officer who has retired from the North Perth Police detachment. They allege that officer was particularly bad for harassing members of the homeless community.

Charest said she gets a little edgy and protective when she sees names printed in the police briefs of the Listowel Banner or on the Wingham Free Press website. It stigmatizes people and affects their opportunities to change their lives.

“One of the things I think people have a misconception of is someone who uses meth is synonymous with someone who sells it,” she said. “From a policing perspective tell me about that. Do you feel that the police see that differently?”

“Most of them all see it as the same,” said Red.

“We’re all painted with the same brush,” said Josey.

According to Ichabod, most of the people who “deal” in Listowel are not predators looking for kids to sell to.

“A lot of the time it’s just they happened to have a little extra money so they bought in bulk that time,” he said.

“They just help a couple of friends out,” said Red.

“It never goes outside the circle,” said Ichabod. “It gets dangerous anytime you try to go with someone you don’t already know.”

Charest changed the direction of the conversation, letting one of the people sitting at the table know she had sent an email to the Crown attorney on their behalf to support them while they deal with a recent warrant issued for their arrest for missing a court date.

In the email, she told the Crown attorney about the work It Takes A Village does with folks who are navigating addiction, mental illness, precarious housing, profound poverty and food insecurity.

She encouraged the individual to turn themselves in at the North Perth OPP detachment and told them to advocate for themself because of the psychological weight of time management, lack of transportation, mental health and substance use support when one is living homelessness.

“I have to believe these social determinates have to be considered when looking at the reason why someone may fail to appear,” she wrote in the email. “On this side of the fence, I see (them) on an almost daily basis and regard (them) as a (person) who reflects with remorse on (their) past but has great potential with the appropriate supports to forge a life (they) will be very proud of.”

She offered to appear in support of them as they move along through their most recent charges, and suggested It Takes A Village would be a good supportive environment for any court-ordered community service hours.

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.