While living in Montreal I made the acquaintance of an old panhandler popular amongst downtown residents. Speaking with Brian over the last few years it became evident that his situation was worsening. He no longer had access to low-income housing and his physical condition was deteriorating under the strain of the harsh Montreal winter. One day Brian disappeared from Montreal’s streets.
Shortly after my arrival in Vancouver, I was shocked and relieved to find Brian panhandling outside of the Broadway Skytrain station. Brian told me his story and explained the conditions that motivated him to leave the city he had grown up in for an uncertain future on the West Coast. While his story is unique, it highlights the western migration of many of Canada’s poor and marginalized.
Born in 1948, Brian grew up in Montreal and graduated from Concordia University with a degree in civil engineering in 1969.
He became addicted to Dilaudid following the death of his mother in 1984. Brian’s life spiraled out of control after he moved on to heroin and he eventually found himself living on the street.
Convicted of theft, Brian spent two years in Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison. The infamous penitentiary is dubbed the “Bordeaux Beach” because of the regularity of inmates drowning each other in the prison’s swimming pool.
Brian left Montreal after living in the city for 58 years. He said that the winter had become unbearable. He explains that several of his friends have frozen to death. “People pass out unprotected and they’re gone in half an hour”.
While Brian came to Vancouver in search of more hospitable weather conditions, he discovered that Vancouver’s streets host a whole new series of challenges.
He explains, “A lot of guys come out here because you can sleep outside and food is pretty easy to get. But things are really hard here”.
Brian explained the difficulties of panhandling in Vancouver, described the lack of solidarity amongst the homeless and complained about unscrupulous drug dealers.
“The public is more desensitized here, they’re more suspicious and less inclined to give money”.
“There’s camaraderie amongst the homeless in Montreal. They are more inclined to help you there. Here they are more inclined to rob you. I’ve already been robbed twice since I got here”.
“They cut the heroin with anything here. It’s immoral and dangerous. If dealers tried to sell that bullshit in Montreal they’d be dead in hours”.
Even the weather conditions are not as he had hoped. “I’m not going to freeze to death but the humidity is a big problem. My arthritis is really bad and I’ve had pneumonia twice”.
While Vancouver may be an attractive destination for many of Canada’s most marginalized citizens, “The world’s most livable city” can be a dangerous and inhospitable place.