Organizing the Unorganizables

Conversation with Ann Livingston

About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. On March 27, 2018, they talked with Ann Livingston about her pioneering work in the movement to eliminate harms associated with drug use. Some of the questions they explored were:

  • How did you come to get involved on the Eastside of Vancouver, the home of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU)?

  • Tell us about the nature of the neighborhood and its people.

  • How did you go about organizing the people?

  • What are the key elements of a harm reduction policy?

  • What has VANDU achieved?

  • Any advice on the opioid crisis?

For more on Ann’s thinking and work, see the list on her author page. Go here to see her Principles for Organizing the Unorganizables and recommended follow-up reading.

Download or listen to John and Peter’s March 27, 2018 conversation with Ann Livingston. Ann invented the movement to eliminate harms associated with drug use. In 1998, she co-founded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a group of users and former users who work to improve the lives of people who use drugs. Through user-based peer support and education, VANDU helps people who use drugs to live healthy, productive lives and ensures they have a real voice in their community and in the creation of programs and policies designed to serve them.

Running time: 01:02:16



Maggie: We are pleased to be joined by Ann Livingston, who is a long-time community organizer and invented the movement to eliminate harms associated with drug use. In 1998, she co-founded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which helps people who use drugs to live healthy, productive lives, and ensure that they have a real voice in their community.

John: Welcome, everybody, and welcome, Ann. Ann Livingston is an old friend, and I think she brings to us some great insights into the world of organizing. In fact, if I had titled this, I would say, “how you organize the unorganizable,” or people that are thought to be unorganizable. Ann has been a principal in the development of an organization of drug users in Vancouver. It’s a particular neighborhood in terms of its focus, it isn’t city-wide. Ann, I wonder if we could begin by your telling us how you first got involved in the neighborhood and with the concerns of the people there?

Ann: Yes, I moved to this neighborhood in 1993, and it’s a very old part of Vancouver, and it’s full of single-room occupancy hotels. But there was a family-centered housing co-op two blocks from what they called “ground zero” at Main and Hastings. I knew you from having a child who, I think he was 10 or 11 at the time, has cerebral palsy and autism. You certainly rocked my world in terms of understanding what was the best parent I could be for a child like that, and what were services and those kind of things. It was very noticeable that there was lot of people dying. We had a very high rate of drug overdose in the nineties, which again, we have again recently.

People were outside and they had nowhere to go, and I thought that the smartest thing we could do was to have them come together and, well I guess, form an association. I don’t even know if I was thinking that. I thought we could just approach the politicians, and tell them, they could fix this problem. Which is humorous now, but that’s how I got involved. As a busy mom …

John: How did you think the politicians could fix the problem?

Ann: Well, it was so, and it’s still very obvious to me, but they’re a very stubborn lot, politicians. Social services, which is the welfare, which gives out a monthly check for people who are destitute, and then the health department, they have clashing; they’re working at cross-purposes as well. Then the police are really working at cross-purposes with those two ministries. Then the courts, they are not understanding who they’re sentencing, and the jails are holding people in such a way that they’re damaging their health.

For some reason, I see how it could not be so terrible. That’s the kind of thing I thought we would be able to have a discussion about policy, and basic principles of good, just good planning. What should we do when someone is destitute and on the street and has reached their low ebb, what would we do with them? What they’ve done in my neighborhood, and I think many neighborhoods is add more and more police to the neighborhood.

John: So, you thought if people got together, they might begin to come up with a way of making their lives better. Tell us, I know you have some thoughts on how it is you organize people. If I’m going to be an organizer, what are the kind of principles you followed as you engaged folks in that neighborhood to begin to try to change their lives by defining it themselves?

Ann: When we first started, we had no money, and I had quite a big apartment with three bedrooms. So the living room and dining room were quite large. I know that there was a number of meetings that were held. I was actually approached by people who were in the Rave scene, and Raves at that time were illegal. So they were a bit sort of edgy, and I don’t even know the right subculture, but the Raves did become legal and they sort of dropped away. They envisioned a number of drug user groups, people fighting for the rights for people to smoke marijuana, and people who were working to stop overdose deaths. That’s a very different group. Then people who do ecstasy at Raves. There is some unity, but I got to work, and the other groups didn’t get to work the way I did.

We didn’t have any money before we started VANDU. I invited them to my house for the sort of board meetings, and then… I’d always been around this. My mother is a community organizer. But some of the interesting things that I realized about that, I guess later (you’re just busy and you don’t think a lot), but it was very surprising for some people that I invited to my home. They had never been invited to someone’s home, like me.

We were poor as dirt, but we weren’t as poor as them. People were complimented and encouraged very much that it was going to be a very personal thing, that I knew them and they were my friends, and they had my home number, that kind of thing, was a very good principle to begin.

John: Then, what the, you began to get active in public life, and what kinds of principles guided you there?

Ann: In the earliest days of this terrible trouble, where so many people were dying, and I thought we, you make every effort all the time. That’s a kind of thing; try every door, lift up every rock and look under it. Look for allies in the places you’d expect them, and look for allies in the places you wouldn’t expect them. That constant hunt. I ran for city council at one point, just so I could say, I did it; three times altogether. The first, and I really focused on this…they give you three minutes, and then the microphone goes dead, and there’s 20 other people lined up. So I’d say, “There’s 19 murders and there’s 22 pedestrian deaths, and there’s 250 people who died from drug overdose in our city last year.” Then I would link it to their houses being broken into.

People really sort of were startled, as I was, too, when I found these things out. I never won the election, but other people who did win the election, they’d say, “What about what she said?” I was revealing something that was concealed. I’ve made a list of principles of organizing, because I think once you get funded, which we did after a few years. So from ’93 til ’98, we had no funding, really just this scroungey, little bits of funding. We were very bold. It was the people I worked with who were more bold than me, but their boldness was very surprising.

We rented a storefront and we invited users, we had a meeting every week to govern the storefront, and then we had a meeting every week to schedule it. We had so little funding that you got a $10 stipend for being there for 12 hours and a little packet of tobacco, so if you were a smoker, they didn’t take all of your cigarettes. Then coffee. Then it was kind of a drop-in, and it quickly became a, what would be called an illegal or unsanctioned injection site. We were shocked at how much the police state left us alone for a period of time anyway.

That was surprising. I think that when we do civil disobedience, we learn to do it in a way that’s as civilized as we can, with as much information as we can. One of the great techniques was to have the drug users know everything that certainly I could find out. Some of the other people I was working with were more academic than myself. They’d say, “There’s these things called drug user unions in Europe. Do you know the Swiss, they prescribe pure heroin to people who are addicted to heroin?” These were things some of the people in the group knew, but many didn’t. These were very interesting things to them, as they were criminalized and couldn’t get the drugs they needed. It was a kind of behavior modification approach, that if people punished them and made like I guess it’s tough love, if people made their lives just so horrid, they might see the light and then they would stop using.

That’s, there’s a lot of that going on, which wasn’t resulting in much more than a big pile of dead bodies. We were learning these things about other places, what they did, and talking about them, really was a… you’d see people change so completely that they didn’t belong anywhere. They were not welcome anywhere. Then they could join a group, that the very thing that had them kicked out of everywhere was the criteria for belonging. It would take people a little while to let that settle inside themselves, to say, “I belong here. I’m a member.” That’s a tremendously powerful motivator for people who have had nothing. They get a fierce kind of ownership of the group, which is good, I think.

John: So you have a kind of meeting process I know that’s emerged. Could you describe that?

Ann: So the meeting process is, what issues do we have? It’s kind of that bitch session or moaning sessions, as people call them. The beauty of it is, you say you’re doing research, and you actually are. You want to hear this. I could never know in my three bedroom apartment what was going on in their lives. I could hear the sirens, I knew there was trouble; it’s a complex and difficult situation that they’re in. People would say they were picked up and released on their own recognizance, or they were put in remand. I didn’t know what any of these phrases meant. It took a lot of work to get people to slow down enough, so we really started to understand how the criminal justice system worked, what their interactions with the police were, what their interactions with the hospital emergency room, what their interactions were, somewhat with each other. The healthcare they were able or not able to receive, and the housing conditions were terrible.

My guidance was, what would a middle class person do about this problem? The second part of the thing is, first you get the issues, and best as you can, understand them and lay them out. The second part of the process to then do that research. Who would know about tenancy, tenants’ rights in these single-room occupancy hotels? Then we would, the action could sometimes be as humble as we would have the tenant advocate come. Of course, at the beginning of this project, they were a bit horrified. They said, “But there’s crime taking place in those hotels.” I said, “Yes, the landlord is doing illegal things to these people.” It took a while to really have what you think of as the advocates.

Anyway, the question will come up, “The police came into my building and they kicked in every door with one warrant. Is that legal?” Well, of course, the landlord eventually doesn’t want to repair every single door in the building, so they come and open the doors. This would create an interesting question for the tenants’ advocate, who would be quite puzzled. We would often not get the reply for quite a while… Boy, if that was happening to us, we would say, “You can’t kick in my door.” This sense of what’s fair and what’s just and how our system works was revealed to the people.

We would have guest speakers come and often in response to one of these questions. You know, what are the symptoms of endocarditis? Or what are your rights at a hospital? Do you have patient’s rights, and is the patient advocate there? How could you file a complaint, that kind of thing? These people would come, and there were 100 drug users sitting on the floor in this room. There was no furniture, but someone was doing a blanket drive, so everybody had these blankets. They were piled up to the ceiling. It was a very humble and disarming sort of group. They’d give their speech and people would ask these questions, and they’d always say to me, “Boy, these people are so smart.” I’d say, “Yes, they are.” It was kind of a surprise.

I mean, after a while, I realized I wanted people to come and speak to the group, because I wanted them to see who these people were, and have that experience, have an experience of those people. I think they initially thought I was having them come because they were so smart and we were so stupid, “we need your information,” that kind of thing. It went on and on. This is the thing about it. We had Saturday meetings at two o’clock. Nothing else is on at Saturday at two, not a doctor’s appointment, you know what I mean? It was a very engaging, and it took a long time within a culture that’s been underground and criminalized for a very, very long time, it took a long time, I think, for what you call the opinion leaders to say, “Yep, they’re not cops, they’re not Christians, and they’re not crazy, miraculously enough.” Because they get approached a lot, too, by Christians and cops, and I don’t know about people that are crazy, but I think we fell into the crazy category.

Then they realized that we weren’t going to go away, and we weren’t going to create a career for ourselves with high pay, so we could have them as our sort of cohort or something. It was a lot of work. Our group is very old now. It’s 21 or 20 years old now. The real principles of organizing that I might have to share were the structuring of a group so that it doesn’t wrench itself apart, either by having too much conflict or no conflict. Both of those are a problem. Then also the temptation of imitating their oppressor, which is to become a service provider and have the other drug users be their clients. These bubble up from time to time. It’s the strength of your wording of your mission statement, and calling people constantly back to, why are we meeting here?

That was I think two more things on my list were, open every meeting with a reminder of why we’re here, and read the mission or the purpose, and ending the meeting with reverence. They did the moment of silence. I never put this in. The organizing that I learned was from Nicaraguans, and they said that every group of people has their kind of spirituality, and you have to really listen for it. You don’t want to bring yours. I mean, you could try that. You listen for their language, and you listen for their contradictions. Being a drug user didn’t mean you weren’t racist or you weren’t sexist. It’s in fact, I don’t know if you have more of those problems, but I would always try not to panic and just keep thinking of, I wonder how we can bring that to the group and have the group be thoughtful about why 100% of our board is men, and there’s no women in here?

Which wasn’t bad. At one point if you look at the nonprofit volunteer sector, it’s almost all women. So, I’m not apologizing for getting these men all excited about doing work for free in the community. I didn’t put on the list, very early on, we created a system where our budget was revealed for what it was. “This is how much money we have.” I had a temptation to keep them in charge of things as much as possible, so I wasn’t constantly fighting with people. You know, if you’re my pet, you’re going to get more privileges than someone who isn’t my pet, and then I’m going to get anger from the people that I’m not privileging. Turning things back to a group process of fairness was actually a survival technique for myself, but it’s also a very good way to have a group not fall apart.

Peter: Ann, you made a very powerful statement. You didn’t want them to imitate the oppressor by, I thought you meant, helping each other. Could you say more about that? That just kind of jumped out at me.

Ann: I think that many of the people that I meet have been clients of a system while they were in their mother’s uterus. They have not, they’re the underclass. It’s often very foreign then that this citizenship exists and this membership in a group and this caring can occur and actually be powerful, not just be, well, and of course, I don’t know, caring can always look quite pathetic. Sometimes I think the more pathetic it looks, then the more subversive you can be, because no one will want to turn that into a service.

Peter: So funny, Ann, you really are. You really kept them from servicing each other, which is an instinct, like you say, that’s all around us.

Ann: The service provision is tough, because, and I did have to say this. It’s what I’m really grappling with on a sort of daily basis, is the work that we do in alleys for free, to do this caring, and we’ve been in a very, hopefully most neighborhoods aren’t, well, actually, many neighborhoods are facing this now, because these overdose deaths are so huge, and all through the States. Having taken this on, there’s not a lot of leeway. We can be quite serious-minded while we’re doing our caring. You need to know CPR, you need to care, you know what I mean? It can get quite fraught.

Peter: Lives are at stake.

Ann: Yes. It’s, so we’ve worked and worked and worked, and then money rains down from heaven, the government. They’ve now given it to the very agencies that turned their backs while you were pleading for help in that alley. They say sentences like, “We can’t be seen to having anything to do with your project, because it’s illegal or it’s unsanctioned.” Or you know, whatever word.

John: Not legitimized, right.

Ann: Now it’s legitimized, and they are just right in there, no apologies, or wink, nudges. I have to think to myself sometimes, how would this not feel so terrible? Because you might as well instruct them how to do it. It’s sort of embittering and they can lose the plot, and that’s why you guys’ work, abundant community, ABCD is so important. It’s exactly what goes wrong with services if they can’t remember what they’re doing. It’s so important to know that you’re saving lives, not building an empire, that you’re saving lives, not making a living, that you’re saving lives.

You can build an empire and make a living and do all those things, but you need to lead with this other part, or we create an industry … where my upset is, the place I spent a tremendous amount of work on is now operating with no [inaudible 00:25:35] or transparency and is not being guided by a principle of caring, in that, “Come in here, do your drugs, overdose, I stab you with some Naloxone, your life is saved, I call 911, the ambulance comes,” or whatever. You know, the great heroism of the emergency. Then just basically, you go back to the alley. You have no welfare, no housing, no belonging. I view my work always to build onto the next thing, because surely we’re not here just to save their lives over and over again while they live in an alley, and then, we lobby for higher wages for ourselves and better working conditions and counseling so we don’t get trauma.

These things are now the great diversions away from what I thought, and I just have to say, I think what I have is a gift, and I think, so do you guys. There’s a gap, and it’s a very difficult and awkward one to try do, those are important human things, making a living and being a hero.

John: Have you seen systems or care organizations who you feel do lead with genuine care and are committed to creating a community around the people they’re there to serve?

Ann: In our neighborhood, what’s occurred, and this is a historical thing in our province, and it may have occurred across Canada, it may have occurred across the U.S. When I was a smaller child, I remember that we had a government, and they had social workers, and there were places you went to for help, and then there were counselors. They were all employees of the government, and if you had trouble with any of them, you certainly knew where to go, because you always know who their boss is. It’s a hierarchy. At some point, someone thought it was a great idea to have what they called community groups do these things on contracts from the government. What’s happened here is if you look, these community services now are $30 million a year, $60 million a year.

The executive directors, into $200,000 pay, or even if it’s $100,000, it’s quite a lovely thing to have, six, ten weeks holiday off. Their board of directors is never voted from a group of members. It’s appointed by the executive director who has social contacts. “We need an accountant.” This is how you make a board. Where I think that, and I actually was a bit taken aback when this was really in its expansive phases in the nineties, and I’d go to the government and say, “We haven’t got any way to hold this group accountable.” They say, “Oh, it’s a community group.” I go, “Then what the heck are we?”

I think the most uncomfortable work is constantly feeling like you’re criticizing a not-for-profit, who fancy themselves to be asset-based community developers. They really do; they really think, and it’s not much I can do about it, other than to just keep plodding forward and try not to lose the plot of our own group, but also to keep thinking, how can we build these groups so right in the constitution and by-laws, you create an ability for any member or any 10 members or any faction who’s starting to feel like the group has gone off the rail, and it’s not keeping the mission in mind, that they can upset the cart and demand a general meeting and challenge the board.

I mean, the board meetings of our groups, VANDU then became five other groups as well, where each group has its own very specific, they had to basically break off, because you couldn’t have meetings that long. So the people on methadone have their own group, and the people who drink nonpotable alcohol. So anyway, those groups all form to keep being advocates for that group, and they meet every week. They meet twice a week. They’ll often have a general membership meeting and a board meeting, and so they’re very much immediate, very in touch with their members’ issues.

Peter: Now some of them are giving back to the community, aren’t they? Could you say a little bit about that?

Ann: A person who uses drugs is often a very demonized person and criminalized. I don’t know if I need to go into any details. What our group allowed people to do, and I didn’t notice it at first. What I like to do is keep a really tight structure at one end and just allow chaos to take place, because you’ve got such a tight structure at one end.

What I realized happening to people was, they would go in terms of social status from being someone who had no social status at all to a volunteer who was making the community a better place, and that is a very well-respected person, certainly in Canada and in Vancouver.

Peter: What did they do to make the community a better place, the neighborhood a better place?

Ann: The first things, and that’s where you negotiate these projects, like how are you going to structure them? First it was simple things, like picking up needles in alleys, or going down alleys and looking for people in trouble and helping them. The advocacy stuff, if you can get little service provisions, there’s always a danger that a drug user group becomes a project that does nothing but pick up garbage in alleys that are too dangerous for regular workers to walk down. You’re always on the cusp of, are we being exploited or not? But I think the other things that the users did was they attend endless meetings about Hepatitis C and HIV and needle exchange, and then community meetings about litter and lack of toilets. You just become a citizen who’s engaged in whether your neighborhood is a better place.

Then there’s national work, there’s provincial work, national work, and international stuff going on when they talk about drug policy. There’s certainly a tremendous amount to do. They’re in VANDU 40 hours a week, and they came because they found out they could get $3 (I didn’t put that in the rules for organizing). People who have nothing really, we have this ongoing, raging debate often about the money, so it was $3 at first because it was $1.50 to take the bus in Vancouver. I convinced the funders that we had to have this money allocated as bus fare, and then we called it a, oh, gosh, I don’t know, we’ve called it an honorarium. We’ll call it whatever the government tells us to call it.

It’s $5 now, and then if someone comes to a City Hall meeting, what do we meet with City Hall about? Oh, they’re always doing, a lot of these structures, I think the drug user groups made the whole topic of this palatable to people, and everyone wants to be seen to be reducing harm, so the city has committees they form, and we show up and have the discussions….

Peter: It’s a full-time job.

Peter: Did it have an impact on their use, their usage, their addiction at all, in addition to harm reduction and giving them a sense of community?

Ann: We couldn’t ever really get anyone to study this. I used to think to myself, how could this be? But it reminds me of some study, and they take these unhealthy people who smoke and drink and eat too much, in two communities. One has a high amount of community associations and activities, and the other one doesn’t. Well, everyone in the one lives longer, but it isn’t because they improved their health habits. I started to realize that might be what we were observing, because just so you know, I don’t end up knowing very much about drugs, other than by accident.

One of the things that drug users do all day long, every day, is talk about drugs. In VANDU, they don’t talk about that. They talk about the next meeting. How’s our funding? What’s going to be the topic, and who’s going to be the guest speaker? Who’s taking the trip to Ottawa? Who’s coming here? You know what I mean? What’s the latest overdose? We’ve got line-ups of research. Their heads are full of all this other stuff. In terms of saying, do you think they’re consuming less drugs? I would say, if they’re consuming the same number of drugs, they’re doing it in a much more efficient way, because they have so much other stuff they have to do.

Peter: That’s a great point, because it’s a great distraction from talking all the time about drugs, to talking about what are we doing, where are we going to meet, what are we going to do.

Ann: Yeah, we’re citizens, what do citizens do.

Peter: It’s not a community talking about drugs, it’s a community talking about action.

Ann: Early, early on.

John: What you’re really doing is talking about moving away from a focus on self to a focus on the civic, on the collective, on “us,” rather than just me, right?

Ann: Yeah, it’s a wider perspective. You see someone hanging off a street corner, and the weight of the world is on their shoulders. For sure, the reason they grow poppies in Afghanistan is because they are using heroin. This kind of real scapegoating that’s gone on and blame. When they start to see themselves situated in a broader picture of society and who’s who, people can stand back from their lives. Just saying, some of this work is tough, and I’ve been discouraged by lack of training for people who are organizing the unorganizable, and also the lack of emotional maturity people can end up with in these positions. Because I had to train myself so that I’ve got someone who’s just angry and just letting it rip. They are right at me, and they’re saying, “You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us.” Because I was actually a paid worker. At first I wasn’t. What I have to in that moment not think is, “You know, that asshole,” you know what I mean, what you might think.

John: Have to defend yourself.

Ann: Or “I’m out of here, I quit. This is abuse.” There’s a thousand things you’re going to think, but what I trained myself to think was, “I am doing a great job. That guy is not afraid to tell me that.”

Peter: Yes, that’s right.

Ann: He’s sort of right. I say, “Maybe we should broaden this discussion, and we can talk about how many other people besides me have jobs because of your misery.” You know what I mean?

Ann: It takes a kind of a, I don’t know what you call it.

Peter: It’s almost a distance.

Ann: But it’s training.

Peter: It’s like a clinical distance so you don’t take it personally and you realize that …

Ann: Well, having an autistic child helps, I can tell you.

Peter: Let me ask one question, and let’s open it up. I feel a little selfish being able to ask you the questions and other people want to also. What’s your, so the opioid addiction, that’s widespread now at least in the States. How do you think about that? Do you have any way of thinking about what’s going on, this so-called epidemic in the southern territories. I don’t know if it’s true in Canada also.

Ann: Oh, yes, yes. It’s a coping strategy. Very early on, I think there was less addiction generally. I read these stats that say one in four women in North America or the U.S. is on antidepressants or something. That’s a very large number of people who are medicated by drugs that are legal. It’s not just this part of it. I just have to say that as background. But I think it was Bud who kept saying that at the beginning, that people are admired for their coping strategies, except drug users. “People use drugs because they might kill themselves if they don’t. It’s their way of getting through and getting by, day after day after day.” Once I could see that, it helped me a lot, because they cost a lot of money, they’re so hard to buy, and you’re going to get arrested. It’s a huge headache.

A lot of sacrifices are made to make that the main priority of your life. Very, very puzzling to someone who doesn’t put oblivion-seeking above all else. I just came to just respect that I don’t put oblivion-seeking above all else, and they do. But what I started to say was, people use drugs or they don’t. When you can come to that place, then it allows you to work with people who use drugs and people who don’t. You start to just be more comfortable. It’s like a foreign culture or something.

Because this is also true. People use drugs, and then they stop using drugs, and then they start again. This is very common. There’s a sort of abstinence based, and some people are lucky enough, they just say that one thing, they quit once, and they’re done. If you look at data and research and finally we’re starting to get science on this, most people who have two years without using drugs have made 11 attempts before they got that two years. Of course, they don’t design services around this. I would, if I was going to design a service for something someone was going to have a go at 11 times, I would make it accessible, easy to get in, very encouraging, “Oh, it didn’t work out for you this time.”

Peter: Get your 11 times over with, right?

Ann: Yeah, to some extent. But to also, many of our deaths, and I think in the United States, this is, it’s true. Because we’ve got this prevalence of addiction, we’ve also got a model that isn’t working well, and it’s, “Work these 12 steps,” or “Take Jesus into your heart, and you’re done, you’re good.” What is now being said all the time, it’s a chronic, relapsing condition. For anyone who’s ever stopped smoking cigarettes, when you are at that party and you have a drink and then you decide to bum a smoke off someone and smoke again, you don’t announce to all your friends that you’re now back to smoking. You just sneak that cigarette and you get right back to that nonsmoking business. I think that goes on with everyone who deals with addictions. It shouldn’t cause shame. The problem we’re having now is with Fentanyl in these drugs, they have that one little sneak and now they’re dead. They’re found dead. We’re in a very difficult, and it seems irreversible

Peter: Just so you know, I did list the principles in the chat box, so they are there. [Go here for Ann’s organizing principles.]

John: Ann, let me ask another thing that I wondered about way back. It seems to me that a lot of the things that as an organizer came about because you approached people as though, that your concern was not that they be cured, or fixed, that almost everybody that I run into, when they think about addiction, the issue, period, bottom line, is how can we fix them, get them cured? It seems to me that’s a huge barrier to get over for most people, and that you came into this world with a different way of thinking about it. Can you say something about that?

Ann: Dealing, my son’s autism; he repeats himself and he has behaviors. I remember everyone thinking that, my family especially, thought I had this syndrome where I’ve made up that he has a disability but he doesn’t really have one. It’s just that I’m such a terrible mother, that’s why he behaves that way. It’s humbling, and I think the simplest way to put it was that what we value about people isn’t necessarily that they’re using or not using drugs. There’s arguments about this in drug user groups. Some drug user groups say, “We won’t let anyone in here unless they’re an active user.” They would never have had a non-user like myself as an employee. This kind of, and my sort of joke is, we’re not going to test their pee on the way in here.

That’s another point I make. If the only way you can tell that someone has taken a drug is by testing their pee, then why is it any of your business what drug they’re on? I mean, most people are on something, unless they’re like Seventh Day Adventists or something. They’re drinking coffee; there’s all kinds of things floating around in our bloodstreams, and we get terribly puritanical when it comes to certain drugs. It’s very upsetting. I think for people who’ve never been around people who, like I said, make seeking oblivion or being high one of the priority of their life every day. I don’t know if VANDU changes that. I don’t know how many people reduce their drug use. I don’t think they do, necessarily. I just think that they have a whole bunch of other stuff that’s their priority, and they perform awfully well given …

If you look at what happens to drug users, usually the thing that’s frustrating you is that it’s something that’s happened because the drugs are illegal. Like that they keep stealing your stuff, and that they’re not telling you the truth, or they’re … You know what I mean? These things happen, and these are artifacts, these aren’t how the person is, this is what happens to them….

Maggie: We have someone here from Illinois.

Elizabeth: Hi, this is Elizabeth McGrath. I was an economics major in college, and so my first thought it, how do you make money? How do you sustain your family? How do you make sure that your family is taken care of, when you’re dealing with people that there’s not a lot of money around?

Ann: Oh, my goodness, you struck at the heart. Right now, I’m living on welfare in Vancouver, and it’s very humbling, or humiliating. I haven’t always had that. I’ve sometimes been employed. If a drug user group gets funded, then there’s enough funding for someone to be the organizer. But what, it [inaudible 00:47:47], not everyone is willing to do what I’m doing.

Yeah, it’s tough. I guess it’s like missionary work or something, like to say, we’re setting aside all material possessions in order to do this work.

Elizabeth: Right. [inaudible 00:48:05] corporation, they make sure that you have your black slacks and your white shirts, and that you’re provided food, so you might be making lots of sacrifices, but you’re in some degree, supported by something larger, and it sounds to me like you’re not supported by something larger. And yet you do it.

Ann: Like right now, on my personal level, what I do to make money is, I’m on welfare, but there’s, I’m trying to instigate, there’s now a number of these initiatives that are going on. The problem is to have someone who does the job of an organizer and then doesn’t turn it into service provision. That’s what I feel like is difficult.

Peter: Thank you, Elizabeth. We keep getting more calls. Maggie, can you give us another caller?

Speaker: Yes, thank you. In Ohio, statewide, we have a recovery ballot initiative being organized for the fall election, to decriminalize possession, small amounts of drugs and to get people into trauma care and drug treatment, for example. I’m wondering if you have contact with people working on reform that might be parallel to that?

Ann: The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Project in Seattle … I’m trying to get them to come to Vancouver, because despite Vancouver having a reputation for having lenient police, we do not, actually. We have a very high arrest rate. When someone is not been arrested and rearrested and rearrested because they might the first time have a drug charge and then they miss court and then they’re released on their own recognizance, or they’re released on bail, they violate their bail conditions. We end up with people with hundreds and hundreds of charges. They spend time in remand prison, which means they’re waiting to see the judge. I assume that’s why the project you’re talking about it is to disentangle people with addiction, so they can get on with addiction treatment, without the interference of this constant jailing. Is that what the purpose of your project is?

Speaker 7: Right. That’s one of them.

Peter: Thank you. Let’s go to the next caller.

Peter K: Peter Koestenbaum here. The guests that you have on this program need to know that they have their witnesses and their own supporters in their audience, that there’s a circle of people who are listening in and listening in periodically, and so they are the supports of the people who are doing this magnificent work. You do the work that we who listen in should be doing ourselves, and you do it for us, so that organizers have their own helpers and their own supporters and they are the people who are in this audience. This program has been going on for a very long time and does the job for the organizers, that the organizers do for their own clients. She deserves some recognition and some tender loving care from your audience as well. Thank you.

Peter: Thank you, Peter.

Maggie: We have a caller from Illinois.

Phil: This is Phil from Illinois, or Indiana. I had the good fortune of being with Ann and John in Vancouver. One of the things that Ann taught me, among many things, was that harm reduction is also for the community and not just for individuals. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about that, Ann.

Ann: Yes, the harm to the community is, for one thing, a pit that any of our children can walk into. The more expansive and lucrative and available illegal drugs are at a cheap price everywhere, the worse our communities are, in that they’re obviously operating under a criminal gang system with either people producing or importing illegal drugs. There’s violence for people competing for money from drugs, there’s robberies between two drug dealers. Then there’s the real harm to people who get involved in this, and find that they are poisoned by drugs.

Our hospitals are full of people who are ill. There’s diseases being spread, there’s a tremendous amount of harm. I think it’s interesting that you point that out because I often forget that people will interpret our project as coddling these people who are just ruining our communities. I call it floating the ships in the harbor. It will be a far better community for all of us, if we don’t step over people on the street, or look at another group of people as undeserving of care.

Peter: That’s amazing. You know, we’re near the end of our time. Any final thoughts, John, or Ann?

John: Ann, if people, I think you have so much experience and knowledge, in an area where everybody is concerned but very few people have moved in the effective directions you have. If people wanted to get in touch with you, how would they do it?

Ann: Well, I’m on Facebook, because I do the Facebook pages for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, I do it for the BC Association of People on Methadone, and Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. I call Facebook “poor people’s email.” I don’t know if it’s really true. That’s an easy way to get ahold of me. If you go to my Facebook page, and you press “about,” it actually has my cell number on there. I’m pretty easy to get ahold of. If you’re not on there, my home phone number is listed in the Vancouver telephone book. We can just post my numbers somewhere. I’m easy to get ahold of. My email:

John: There’s recently been a book about the effort there in Vancouver, and I’m having a little trouble recalling its name. Do you know the one I mean?

Ann: It’s called “Fighting for Space.” Author is Travis Lupick, L-U-P-I-C-K, I believe. [Go here for links to the books Ann mentions.]

John: Would that be a pretty good way for people to learn in much more detail about what’s been happening in terms of harm reduction in Vancouver?

Ann: Yes, it’s very descriptive in terms of the long haul of what occurred. It’s the story of some of my work, which is much more, you know, we do the illegal work.

Because that’s the other, the other reason to not be employed. There’s a number of reasons. I know what people on welfare are treated like, it’s really deteriorating. So I always say, I’m mystery shopping the welfare system. But no one can fire me for doing something that’s unsanctioned or outside the law or whatever. Anyway, that does tell that tale, and it also tells the tale of the, one of the big NGOs here that got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s still here, but the leadership has now moved to New York City, and they’re working at Washington Heights.

John: So people could follow up with that book and you’re very significantly involved in it, in the story, so I can commend it to other people as well.

Ann: If there’s, if anyone out there in Internet-land knows how to train and fund this, these social movements need people to know how to do this work, and do it and take the high road. We might as well build on what each other has, can teach each other rather than having to feel like you’re alone and you’re starting over in every community.

John: Absolutely. One other reference. There was a book some while ago that you gave me, there are three co-authors, and it’s got a lot of information about things that have happened in terms of the neighborhood harm reduction. There are poems, stuff about your co-worker Bud. What’s the title of that book?

Ann: I think it’s called “Raising Shit.” It has this swear word in the title. It’s never going to make it a best-seller. There are three authors, but I think if you just put that in. There are no other books with that title, so it’ll come up…That’s what one of the old organizers told Bud, he said, “Raise shit, Bud.” [Go here for links to the books Ann mentions.]

Peter: Ann, I just want to thank you so much. Your spirit and your commitment is just stunning. It’s just like no other. I just so appreciate what you’re doing and the way you talk about it is so compelling. I just want to sit and listen forever. Thank you so much for giving us a little bit of time. I’d like to do this again. You’re just so generous, even in this moment, you’re just generous, Ann. Thank you so much. Final thoughts, Ann, you’d like to say?

Ann: No, just that I look forward to this movement of organizing in neighborhoods is really, no matter what we’re facing, there’s no way around it. It is the only thing we can do. We can do it free, we can do it. There’s a lot of discouraging news day after day, but I think the solutions are the asset-based community development and the neighborliness and kindness we can show one another.

John: Lot of wisdom, lot of wisdom.

Peter: You’re proof of that, Ann, thank you so much.

Maggie: Right, right. Well, thank you, this has been just an incredible conversation. Peter’s word of generosity is what was coming up for me, Ann. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today, and thank you to our callers and to the people writing in the chat. Our next conversation will be on Tuesday, May 8th, with Thom Allena and we’ll be talking about how restorative justice takes place in the neighborhood.

Home page image: h. koppdelaney




About the Lead Author

Ann Livingston
Ann Livingston
Ann Livingston is a pioneer in the movement for harm-reduction and affordable housing for people who use illegal drugs. In addition to co-founding and leading VANDU for more than a decade, she co-founded the Pivot Legal Society in 2000, and was a founding member of the Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society board in Vancouver, BC. Ann was instrumental in the opening of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site and the only one of its kind in North America. Her work was featured in the documentary film "FIX: The Story of an Addicted City," which follows a group of street addicts in their fight to open Insite. She now speaks and works with community groups around the world to set up provincial, national and international drug user groups.

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