Thursday, December 25, 2008

New mayor is familiar face to Victoria's homeless

Dean Fortin photographed by Deddeda Stemler


By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 24, 2008


VICTORIA

The mayor strolled along familiar streets in search of the homeless.

Snow crunched underfoot. Crisp air reddened ears, the chill demanding gloves, scarves and warm overcoats, at least for those of us who owned some. The mayor's bootlaces slipped loose and he seemed in no hurry to remove his gloves to retie the trailing strings.

Dean Fortin, 49, stopped on the sidewalk in front of the Streetlink Emergency Shelter. Men huddled in knots, some whispering, others shouting.

“Not a good time,” the mayor pronounced. “It's the time of day when they're looking for a fix. They're planning and scheming the next score.”

He returned through Chinatown, cutting across Centennial Square on his way to a soup kitchen a few blocks to the east, when he bumped into a man pushing a cart.

“Hi, Mr. Mayor,” Darren Douglas said.

“How're you doing?” the mayor asked.

“As soon as I find a place to live, I'll be okay.”

Those words, or variations thereof, have been part of Mr. Fortin's working day for much of his life.

He is soft-spoken with the looks and manner of a vicar. A lawyer by education and an elected official by the voters' choice, he does not present himself as a boisterous, backslapping politician.

His face – round like Charlie Brown's, offset by stylish eyeglasses, topped by a laurel wreath of well-trimmed hair – is familiar to passersby. He sees in their eyes that they recognize but can't quite place him. For some politicians not to be recognized and afforded the proper respect would be a small death. Not so for Mr. Fortin. He's in this game for other reasons.

Although new to the mayor's chair, he is only too familiar with the city's most pressing issue. For 17 years, he worked as a community organizer in a poorer corner of the city. The locals included homeless families, two generations living in a car, or couch surfing until the welcome ran out.

One lad who sticks out in memory was a Grade 2 student who had already attended 20 schools. Twenty! The boy lacked a peer group and the only adults in his life were his parents, far from perfect models. The Burnside Gorge Community Centre offered hot meals, a warm place, and structure in a young life sorely in need of some.

“Homeless children,” Mr. Fortin said. “That will break your heart. Wonderful, amazing children.”

In his inaugural address to council earlier this month, the mayor told the gathering his daughter was aware of homelessness, a circumstance he thought unfair for a seven-year-old to contemplate, let alone live.

“I want to be able to tell her that we're doing everything we possibly can to find homes for those in need,” he said then.

The city's previous two mayors, both the choice of the business community, failed to stop downtown streets from turning into drug bazaars. As the situation deteriorated, residents and tourists alike began to avoid sidewalks taken over by those struggling with addictions, mental-health issues and poverty.

Where his predecessors were frustrated, Mr. Fortin says he can deliver results in as little as six months. It is a bold statement. The goal is to first get the hardest to house off the street, since they prey on other homeless folks.

A looming concern is whether Vancouver's homeless will migrate across Georgia Strait if Olympic planning forces them from metropolitan streets.

Mr. Fortin has never lacked for a home himself, though he notes he was brought after birth to a home that was a converted chicken coop at Kamloops. His mother was a nurse, his father “a cowboy, a builder, a miner” who prospected for gold.

“Did he have much luck? Nope. I'm sure even though he's dead he's out there looking still for his lucky strike.”

The boy inherited a sense of social justice from his mother, who took him to a political rally at the height of Trudeaumania.

The future mayor worked the green chain at a mill before moving to Victoria to attend university. He articled in Whitehorse, then joined a Victoria firm. Instead of building a career as a lawyer, he became executive director of the community centre, where he found he could directly help improve the lives of local residents.

After two terms on city council, he made an early announcement of his intention to run for mayor. The move convinced other councillors not to risk losing their seat by challenging the labour-backed candidate, though as it turned out, novice politico Rob Reid, a runner who owns stores selling athletic shoes, nearly scored an upset at the wire.

The short walk, bitter in the cold, at last brought Mr. Fortin to the entrance to the Our Place soup kitchen. The mayor had to introduce himself twice before the staff realized who he was. Usually closed on the weekend, the drop-in centre, with the city's help, had secured extra funds to operate during the cold snap. Inside, about 25 people snacked on oranges, bananas and muffins. Some slept on benches, their bindles beside them.

Mr. Fortin was invited to join a table where sat people who did recognize him. He asked after their health, listened intently as they talked. Karley Smith, a young woman whose shock of red hair seemed all the brighter for the paleness of her skin, told the mayor she is looking for a place to live. Pregnant with her fourth child, she is due to give birth in five weeks. Two of her children live with her mother, while a third has been placed for adoption. She is 22. He took her details and said he would do what he could.

He left the table. “Bad decisions,” he said with a what-can-you-do shrug. “She looks healthy, though. That's good.”

Earlier in the month, his wife, Donna Sanford, the daughter of former NDP MLA Karen Sanford, and his daughter, Sophie, joined him in serving turkey dinners at the annual Mustard Seed family Christmas dinner held at the Armoury.

The mayor believes the homeless situation will be solved by incremental change, one program at a time, one person at a time.

The man with the cart in Centennial Square said he was slowly working towards getting a room of his own. The cart he pushed, decorated by red tinsel found in the street, included brooms and brushes with which he cleans the street.

Mr. Douglas, a logger for 17 years until a falling tree injured his back, is paid $10 an hour by the Downtown Victoria Business Association. His route includes Douglas Street, which, he said, cracking a smile, is his responsibility because it carries his name.

Mr. Douglas told the mayor he was having difficulty getting an apartment because he did not have the extra money needed for a damage deposit. As it turns out, the mayor knows of a program that can help.

“You know where to find me,” the mayor said.

The street cleaner swung an arm, pointing to the red building behind him. “Mayor's office,” he said.

They shook on it.

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