Meeting Murray on the street in Hedley stirred my interest in homelessness. He was making adjustments on his heavily laden bike when I approached him.
Learning he was homeless, I invited him for coffee and Linda’s cookies. “I was married and we had two children,” he told us. “I haven’t seen them or my 94-year-old mother in a long time. For about five years I’ve lived in a shack I built along the river in rural Cawston. I don’t want to live in a house.”
The media frequently carry accounts of incidents fueled by homelessness, drug addiction, mental health issues and related problems. Recently CBC reported that addicts were routinely throwing dirty needles out of the windows of their high rise apartments. We want to believe these problems exist primarily in large centres. Even in Hedley though, we have a drug house and individuals who frequent it on a daily basis. Drugs, mental health issues and homelessness are a growing blight on our society.
In an extended conversation with Rob Turnbull and Tracey Harvey in our home last week, Linda and I gained some understanding of how deeply entrenched the blight has become. We also learned what their organization, Streetohome is doing to combat the cocktail of issues related to homelessness and addiction. “It’s a multi-faceted issue,” Rob asserted. “We can’t just build our way out of homelessness, expecting this will solve all problems.”
Streetohome is a Vancouver based organization with connections throughout the province and beyond. It began almost 10 years ago with a mandate to provide housing for homeless people. Since that early beginning their understanding has expanded. “We’ve had considerable success in leveraging funds from the private sector, and we’ve provided a lot of homes,” Tracey said, “but we have come to understand that homeless people are often grappling with multiple bewildering issues. When they are given a home, these issues rarely go away.”
I was reminded of our friend Sophie, deeply addicted and always on the verge of homelessness. When Linda and I initially met her, she was 40, gorgeous, with gleaming white teeth, an ability to express herself succinctly, and a figure to inspire lust. After her boyfriend died of an overdose, her life spiraled downward. Her parents several times paid for stays in costly treatment centres. While there, she excelled. Out on her own though, her resolve faltered. I have often wondered why this beautiful, talented woman was so tightly bound by addiction.
Rob seemed to read my thoughts. “There are gaps in the continuum of care. Wait lists for treatment are too long. Often there is only a brief window when someone is ready. Also, 30 to 90 day treatment programs aren’t long enough to deal with feelings of isolation from society, lack of social and work skills, low self esteem and the need for meaningful activity.”
Do they have an effective response to this wily monster with its tentacles sunk deep into all levels of society? “We’ve brought a lot of people in from the cold,” Tracey said. “Now we’re working toward a promising new approach that is being used in the U.S. The Addiction Recovery Community concept will offer a safe place where individuals can participate in programs and support each other. Much of the program will be led by people who are themselves in recovery.”
“Live in treatment programs rarely address employment and vocational needs,” Rob added. “We consider these key, along with having a home to go to when they are ready.”
I was impressed by the emphasis on a continuum of supports. “We are looking for ways to stretch program engagement up to two and half years, with life long, peer supported after care,” Tracey said.
Streetohome readily shares its experience and knowledge. In Farmington, north of Dawson Creek, the North Winds Wellness Centre is aware of this model. In a telephone conversation executive director Isaac Hernandez said they have plans for an Addiction Recovery Community in Pouce Coupe, It will offer a two and a half year program emphasizing life, training and work skills. “We will use indigenous cultural healing traditions and best, non-indigenous practises.”
Rob, Tracey and Isaac are disciplined, passionate and committed. They know it will not be a skirmish, but a prolonged all-out war. To avoid being overwhelmed by this festering scourge, our nation will need to become just as committed.