A greeting fit for a Syrian: are homeless men 'internal refugees?'

Charles Neil-Curly and Jeremy Roy received a greeting fit for Syrian refugees when they hopped off a Greyhound in Vancouver this week: TV cameras, smiling politicians and job offers. Advocates say it's too bad that's not the way it normally works for aboriginal men.

Advocates say plight of homeless Saskatchewan men underscores need for compassion

Charles Neil-Curly and Jeremy Roy hopped on a Greyhound bus from North Battleford to Vancouver after they were unable to secure a spot at a shelter.

Charles Neil-Curly and Jeremy Roy received greetings fit for a Syrian refugee when they hopped off a Greyhound bus in Vancouver this week: TV cameras, a smiling politician, even job offers.

The two Saskatchewan residents might well have thought they'd landed in Disneyland as opposed to British Columbia. That's not the way we normally welcome homeless aboriginal men.

'Internal refugees'?

No — the way it usually works is a sad trudge into the poverty of the Downtown Eastside, followed by a search for shelter, services and sustenance as part of a struggling population which is nearly invisible to most people.

It's a pattern only too familiar to Ernie Crey, the president of the Northwest Indigenous Council and ALIVE, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of aboriginal people in Vancouver.

Northwest Indigenous Council president Ernie Crey says many homeless people could be considered as 'internal refugees'. (CBC )

Crey says Canadians should open their hearts to Syrians. After all, they're desperate people fleeing circumstances beyond their control.

But why not view the homeless through a similar lens?

"I'm very much alive to the fact that there are internal Canadian refugees. And many of them are aboriginals especially men," Crey says.

"They're throw-away people. They can damn well look after themselves. And no one's going to be greeting them anywhere to help them do anything."

A one-way ticket to B.C.

Neil-Curly and Roy's odyssey has been well-documented.

The two out-of-work men boarded a Greyhound bus on Tuesday, armed with tickets from Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services.

One of them has family on the Sunshine Coast. And one appears to have a medical condition.

But neither had any kind of plan in place for arrival in B.C., which has led the ministry responsible for sending them out west to promise a review.

It was only the homeless shelter manager's concerns, relayed by media, which ensured the men a warm welcome as they stepped off the bus. 

Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang was on hand to meet the pair, along with Jeremy Hunka from the Union Gospel Mission.

Neil-Curly and Roy arrived just in time for Vancouver's homeless count. And according to last year's figures, they'll fit right in.

In 2015, aboriginal people represented 32 per cent of the homeless population as opposed to 2.5 per cent of the city's general population. Nearly three quarters are men. And 81 per cent have one or more health conditions.

Not the way it normally works

By all accounts, the situation is an anomaly.

Don McTavish, the director of residential services for Victoria's Cool Aid Society, says homeless people don't usually show up from out of province without a plan. Agencies communicate with each other.

He says he has also been struck by the outpouring of support for Syrians: church organizations and groups of friends banding together to sponsor families.

Jeremy Hunka, right, with the Union Gospel Mission and Coun. Kerry Jang were at the Pacific bus terminal to welcome the two homeless men from Saskatchewan. (CBC)

McTavish wonders what difference it might make in the life of one homeless person to have the same kind of support network dedicated to their needs alone. 

The social workers he deals with have caseloads in the dozens. 

He calls the embrace of Syrian refugees "heart warming." 

"Why can't we do that for our folks here that are kind of living in refugee-like conditions, in tents in a park that have to be picked up and moved every morning?" he asks.  

"Whose health is declining? Whose life expectancy is 18 years less than the general population?"

Two birds with one stone?

The Saskatchewan government says we're not returning to the days when former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein gave welfare recipients one-way passes to B.C.

At the same time, the homeless shelter the two men left has warned that provincial cuts may cause it to close. So not a policy per se, but the ripple effect of budgetary decisions. 

Those people have to go somewhere, and with B.C. boasting a booming economy, why not out west? B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman says it's a free country, after all.

Jang called the decision to send Neil-Curly and Roy to Vancouver without any kind of support "inhumane".

Crey believes intense attention on the two men's unfortunate situation has allowed the public to see them as individuals, as opposed to part of the mass of 'internal refugees' that are Canada's homeless.

He thinks people see external refugees as victims of circumstance, whereas they tend to attribute the suffering of aboriginal homeless people to moral failure: "They are poor and suffer because they made the wrong choices."

The two Saskatchewan men arrived in Vancouver just as the city released a report on another perennial problem: empty homes. One in 10 Vancouver condos sits vacant. 

The city has promised to tackle both empty condos and homelessness. 

Perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone. Test the limits of our empathy for 'internal refugees' by offering empty condos to the homeless. Which problem would be solved first?

About the Author

Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.