Blair shows us the power of support and the way it can change someone's life.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about supportive housing in the City of Penticton, in particular what it does not do. Community members and politicians alike have lamented the lack of addictions treatment provided and the lack of enforcement against residents with the belief they are to blame for all the city’s woes. Let’s talk about what it does do. In particular, let’s talk about what it has done for Blair Balch who has been a resident at Burdock House for the past year and what him being housed has meant for Penticton.
In years past, Blair may have been the guy you would see stealing from your local Wal-Mart to get something to sell to buy street drugs. You may have passed him on Main St. while he was sleeping during the day and called a By-Law officer to have him moved along. You may have seen him trying to find a warm place to get somewhat comfortable when the temperature was below freezing and all the beds at the shelter were full. Today, he doesn’t steal to feed his addiction, and you won’t see him sleeping on a city bench or in the snow, all because he has a supportive housing bed and has been engaged with the staff who work at Burdock House.
Now forty-nine years old, Blair grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, with his mother, father, and his older brother. Addiction and trauma played a large role in his life from an early age as both his parents battled alcoholism. At the age of eighteen, he began having run-ins with the law, and it was the beginning of a pattern that has plagued him for many years.
“Spent the majority of my adult life in jail,” he says. “17 years and 46 days to be exact. And I’ve been an addict more or less since I was 16. It’s progressed from weed to coke to meth.”
While he was in jail back east, the rest of his family moved west and settled in Penticton in 1990. He completed a lengthy sentence in 1995 before following his family west in hopes of a new start with the support of his family. While for some, a change of scenery can lead to a new path, new choices, and new outcomes; for Blair the move only led to more of the same.
“Constantly in and out of jail and when I wasn’t in jail I was couch surfing or living on the street,” he recalls of most of the two and a half decades he has spent in Penticton. “But that never really lasted all that long … no more than four months and I was back in. That’s when I was harsh into crack. So, I’d get out and start boosting so I can get my dope, then next thing you know I’m back inside.”
His crimes were mostly those that continue to fill up the Penticton RCMP statistics ledger today: property offences, drug dealing, and thefts. When he looks back on those early years when he first got to the Okanagan and as he continued the cycle of addiction, homelessness, and incarceration, what he feels was missing is the same thing we hear from politicians, the police, and service providers today.
“Support … somebody to talk to,” he says. “Peer pressure is pretty bad too, right? So, when you get out and you’ve got all your buddies and they’re still partying it up, stuff like that, you jump right back into it. As much as while you’re inside, you’re sitting there thinking ‘I’m going do things different’, as soon as that gate opens you’re back into your old lifestyle. Might take a day or two but generally you jump right back into it.”
Though he has been in Burdock House since October of 2019, this is not his first kick at the can, as it were. Blair was given his first chance at supportive housing in 2016 when he had a unit at Fairhaven, which, at the time, was operated by BC Housing. He admits he didn’t make the most of that opportunity, and he was exited from the program back to homelessness.
“At the beginning they say you’re only allowed fourteen guests per year and I was way past that,” he recalls. “They accused me of selling drugs too but they had no proof. I was, I’m not going to deny it. But the main reason was because of my overnight guests.”
He says because of that experience and becoming homeless again as a result of his actions, when given a second chance with a supportive housing unit at Burdock House, it made him approach it differently this time around.
“I’m definitely not doing that again,” he says. “You only have to tell me once, sometimes. There are some rules that are Mickey Mouse in my eyes, but if I want to stay here I need to follow them, right? [Burdock]’s a good place and I’m glad it’s here because it’s saved my life. I would either be on the street using and committing crimes, or in jail, even dead, so I’m glad I’m here.”
Not only has his time remaining housed at Burdock led to better outcomes within his housing, he also hasn’t had any issues with police or by-laws during this time.
“I do have a past so it’s come back to nip me in the bud a few times,” he says of his past criminal charges. “Other than that, I have no intention of going back [to jail] or doing anything that would put me back.”
Another major scuttlebutt of the supportive housing model is a lack of forced sobriety. There is a belief among detractors that if a person is still embroiled in their addiction they are still a problem. Admittedly, Blair still does use methamphetamine. However, without making the conscious decision to use less, and without being involved in any programming specific to battling his addiction, he has noticed a change since becoming housed.
“I use a lot less for some reason, I don’t know why it’s just going down and down,” he says. “I have no intention of quitting fully … but I’ve gone from an eight ball of meth a day (around three and a half grams) down to maybe half a gram. I’m a needle user, so I went from doing ten or fifteen shots a day down to maybe two.”
Of course, Blair is just one example, and he may even be an outlier when it comes to the decrease in the strain on community resources that has taken place by him being housed. So what about those who aren’t yet housed? He notes that for some, even if there was an infinite amount of supportive housing, it still wouldn’t help.
“I’ve mentioned this place a few times to some of them,” he says. “But, they’ve been on the street for so long it’s almost like the way they live now and what they’re used to. There’s just no getting through to them. They could be on their death bed and they won’t come to any kind of support they’re just used to living on the street.”
“I don’t know if you can call it a community out there,” he continues. “They got all their friends and stuff like that, but there are some that are screaming to get in a place like this but there is no availability.”
So, what comes next for somebody like Blair? He has gone from being homeless and excessively using substances while committing crime to feed his addiction, to being housed with reduced drug use to the point he no longer needs to commit crime and is no longer a strain on resources like the RCMP. But where does he go from here? As a forty-nine year old man with the history he has and living on disability for his income, where does a community expect him to go in order to make room for the next person who needs the kind of support he has received to get him to where he is now? These are the questions a community like Penticton needs to be working towards answering.