“Shelby told me to e-mail the B.C. Housing Society,” says Diana, a woman with schizophrenia. She sits on a bed in a studio apartment, amid old Christmas decorations and toilet paper rolls. Lawrence Olivier serenades Vivien Leigh on a small black-and-white television, and an orange jacket covers a large object to the right.
Heidi Klassen, a Homelessness Outreach Worker, stands in the middle of the room. Through all Diana’s talk about living next to the late Gary Coleman and marrying “her own son”, Heidi hardly blinks an eye.
Patiently listening and visibly imagining a way to get the conversation back on track, Heidi’s petite features are set in concentration.
“Who’s Shelby?” asks Heidi.
“Cindy is a B.C. Housing Society support worker.”
“Okay, and who’s Shelby?”
“I’ve known Cindy for a while—”
“Where’s your bird?” Heidi lifts the orange jacket, revealing a canary in a cage, trying to draw Diana’s attention to something concrete. “Oh, there he is.”
As Diana repeats “B.C. Affordable Housing” in a rising tremour, Olivier starts yelling, the bird starts chirping, and Heidi fetches the canary a drink of water from the overfull kitchenette sink.
Heidi works for the Lookout Society’s Downtown Shelter at 346 Alexander Street. Funded by donations, the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development, and HIV programs, The Lookout Society is a non-profit organization that helps Vancouver’s homeless find homes and keep homes.
“One time, Diana evicted herself. She thought she was evicted even though she wasn’t and moved all her stuff out,” Heidi says when back outside the Lux Apartments, run by The Lux Transitional Housing Program. “But fortunately they took her back.”
She’s known Diana for a long time. Says Heidi, “Some breeze in and out of [the Lookout roster] in weeks, but some stick around as long as 15 years.”
Heidi’s day starts in a small room overflowing with forms, coffee, and people, much like any office. Except this office deals not with white-collars, but no-collars—people who live on the street or have just come off of it.
Beginning her career by completing the Langara College Social Service Worker Program, Heidi, who has been doing this for 15 years and is now 45, started working in youth detox.
“Then a friend of mine said the Lookout Society was hiring, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just work here temporarily.’ And then I started working here and I thought, ‘I quite like it here.’ Now, I love it.”
“One of the reasons I started doing outreach work is because it’s kind of nine-to-five. More stable [than youth detox], and in the daytime,” she says.
But, how stable it is is called into question by Heidi’s description of just the office itself.
“You’re answering phones, there’s people right in front of you demanding stuff, somebody else is threatening suicide, and then a fight breaks out. And you have to juggle all those things.”
The kinds of people who visit the office are often fresh out of prison and sometimes fresh out of a different country altogether.
Heidi’s clientele often have drug problems, as well. The Lookout Society treats addicts with respect.
“I try to meet them where they’re at. If they’re ready to get clean, I find as many services as I can for them. If they’re not, we just try to house them somewhere they can do that and it will be tolerated. Because there are places, for example the Ford building, [that] wouldn’t tolerate that at all.”
“So you have to know where to refer people. You don’t want to set them up for failure,” she says.
Despite Heidi’s professional word choice of “clients”, upon leaving the office, she displays a heartening familiarity with them.
When Heidi makes a house call to Viana (not to be confused with the aforementioned Diana), a woman with schizophrenia living at Lookout’s Kiwassa shelter, they use each other’s first names and Viana asks Heidi if she’d like to come into her apartment.
The Kiwassa is cramped and the rooms are tiny. It’s reminiscent of a dollhouse gathering dust in an attic, and the windows highlight not much besides the cigarette smoke fogging the air.
Still, all 18 rooms are occupied, each costing $365 a month. Viana finds the environment to be pleasant overall.
“Most of the people in the building are really respectful and nice to me. One guy came over last night, knocked on my door, and said, ‘Hey, do you want a ham sandwich?’”
When driving Viana to the welfare office, Heidi describes her experience of the neighbourhood.
“I have never felt unsafe walking around here. There is a lot of violence, but it’s mostly between drug dealer and user, and if you’re outside of that you’re usually okay,” she says.
“It’s a bit of a community for workers. I don’t know that that really happens in other areas of work, but you do get to know a lot of the people around here.”
A mere minute later, Heidi honks her horn and waves at a former colleague on the street.
A few more minutes later, Heidi waves at another man.
“I know this guy here! He’s actually really interesting. He was a stowaway, from Africa, and you know those ropes they have going up the ship? He climbed up one of those, and ended up being a stowaway for two weeks before the captain found them.”
“There are lots of interesting stories down here,” says Heidi, “a lot more interesting than your average stories.”
After dropping Viana off at home, Heidi heads to an apartment building she hopes can accommodate a man in a wheelchair with very specific housing requests. People in weather-beaten overcoats, their skin stretched tight across their bones from malnourishment, shuffle past us.
On the way, she talks about Percy, a man who sits outside the Downtown Shelter’s door, watching the cars go by.
“He sits there all day. Rain, sleet, snow, wind: No matter what, he’ll be sitting there, even though he has a room upstairs.” The Downtown Shelter houses longer-term clients on the second floor, people with some of the more extreme disabilities.
“Percy is quite mentally ill. And he’ll just sit there, with his little umbrella.”
A “good percentage” of the people Lookout help have mental or physical disabilities. “Mental and physical disability, drug and alcohol abuse—it all goes hand-in-hand,” says Heidi.
Heidi keeps hope that she and the Lookout Society are making a positive impact on Downtown Vancouver when all is said and done.
“You aren’t always,” she says, not bitterly, but with a sigh. “And you feel like you usually aren’t most of the time. But there are those success stories that make it worthwhile.”
Results do happen. One example is a woman who still calls Heidi. “In fact, she called me yesterday and the day before,” Heidi says.
“I met her when she was 19, and she’s now 23. She had a lot of problems, stuff where I’d feel like washing my hands after being with her, for my own mental well-being. She became HIV-positive, and had hepatitis. Places that people don’t even get evicted from, she would get evicted from.”
“Then she got pregnant. She said she’s keeping the baby, and we [the Lookout Outreach team] said, ‘Okay, you’re keeping the baby, but there’s no way any ministry is going to let you keep the baby.’”
“She would never follow through on appointments,” Heidi recalls, “but suddenly, she started to. She wasn’t using as many drugs, and she just changed: She started taking things seriously. We were all in shock. Then she stopped using for good. The ministry closed her file before she even gave birth, and now she has a daughter who’s over a year old, and she’s living with the father.”
“She used to say, ‘I’m gonna die down here,’” says Heidi. “And you could tell she didn’t want it. But she just couldn’t figure out how to get out of it until that point.”
Heidi’s last stop in the neighbourhood is the Yukon Two-Year Transitional House. It houses 37 rooms and 72 beds, open all year-round due to high demand, according to Heidi’s fellow Lookout employee Corey Phillips.
“Outreach is cool because you can find your way,” he says. “It’s not as structured as shelter work—you just find your niche and go there. You build relationships with people, whereas shelter workers do intakes and it gets to be like mass production.”
Says Phillips of his clientele, “I have a lot of life experience that relates to addictions, so clients with addictions tend to gravitate towards me.”
Heidi agrees fervently. “You don’t even have to look for clients, it’s true. We all have our own specialties,” she half-smiles, “whether we want to or not.”
Back at the office, one of Heidi’s colleagues is talking on the phone. His voice is resignedly stern, like a high school teacher’s.
“The file is not part of a friendship, it’s part of a working relationship that you and I have. I can’t tell you how to live your life. I can’t tell you to get off drugs if you want to keep on them.”
He hands the phone to Maureen, another Outreach Worker. “It’s Richard. He wants his file shredded.”
“Richard asks for his file to be shredded like every week,” Maureen says to me.
As Heidi puts it, “The clientele is so colourful, it’s always new. People talk about burnout a lot with this job, but I haven’t experienced it in any real way.” She pauses, glancing up for a moment. “Maybe just in small doses.”
“But it’s fun,” Heidi concludes, watching people stream in and out of the room. “You never know who’s going to walk through the door.”