Research Matters Blog

This is an excerpt from the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Recounting memories of homelessness and trauma can be very difficult for some people. As a result, Joe’s story has been written by Jesse Thistle and Ernie Talda based on conversations with Joe.

This is the story of Andre Robert Joseph Motuz, or ‘Old Eagle Eyes’—a Métis elder (Woodland Cree and French) from Victoria, British Columbia, who is, to many of those who know him, a modern-day hero. Few people can say that they have lived a life with purpose and meaning, and even fewer can say they achieved it against insurmountable odds; Joe can. He has created meaning in his life where once there was none, he continued to try in the face of hopeless circumstances and he loves a world that had abandoned and forsaken him. Joe does these things every day.

After being homeless and addicted for many years, Joe pulled himself off the harsh Canadian streets and into permanent residency in a Victoria apartment. By blazing a pathway out of homelessness and addiction—he has been sober for 30 years—Joe has shown that it is possible. His example is a beacon of hope to his brokenhearted “brothers and sisters” still left in the cold. Perhaps the best way to describe Joe’s impact on those around him is heard in the words of his dear friend and confidant Ernie Tadla: “Joe is a light; a beacon shining forth in what to many people is a dark, cold, lonely place…[He is a] citizen of the streets, caring, giving help and assistance to his brothers and sisters on the street and in the shelters.” Kind sentiments can be allotted to any person, but when these words are contrasted against the many hardships of Joe’s life, the true value of Old Eagle Eyes’ heart can be understood and fully appreciated. 

Even the farm animals were treated better, according to Joe, because at least they could rest and they weren’t beaten.Joe’s painful life story begins on March 6, 1949, in Saint Boniface, Manitoba. Joe never knew his father; unfortunately, he would not know his mother either. She rejected him, as his father had, leaving him abandoned to the care of the Children’s Aid Society. This tragic beginning took on much darker tones when sexual abuse, perpetrated by a babysitter, began at his first foster home at the age of four. Stripped of his innocence at such a young age, Joe’s life seemed perhaps doomed before it really ever began. Unfortunately and sadly, this was not a one-time incident. At nine years of age, while living at his second foster home, Joe was again sexually abused, however this time it was inflicted by a Catholic priest at Bible camp. What little remnants of Joe’s broken heart were left to him after this horrendous incident were completely crushed by the ogres at his third foster home. They did this by subjecting Joe to a grinding regimen of forced labour. Day in and day out, Joe was working by 4 in the morning, followed by school, dinner and farm work until 11 at night. This was all much more than any grown man should bear; let alone an 11-year-old boy. The dehumanizing, near slave-like environment did not end there: vicious beatings were inflicted with predictable regularity and forced confinement in the basement was frequent. Even the farm animals were treated better, according to Joe, because at least they could rest and they weren’t beaten. Finally, after enduring three years of this constant torture, Joe was placed in a home where he was at last given a chance to recover from his traumatic childhood. He was 14 years old. 

The elderly woman at his fourth foster home took good care of him. She was a warm and loving soul who was keen to treat the damaged adolescent like a human being. She did this by rebuilding his health and nurturing his confidence. Despite this, Joe still yearned to know his family of origin. He needed to meet the mother he never knew. The kind old lady who cared for him, as nice as she was, just couldn’t give him the pieces to the puzzle of his past. So at 17, Joe decided to look for his mother. Mustering up all his youthful courage, Joe bravely set out to get answers to the questions that had burned inside him all his young life, and in doing so left the foster care system once and for all.

Joe found his mother in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The reception his mother gave him was not the reception he’d expected. She wasn’t interested in knowing him like he was in knowing her. In fact, she outright rejected him, just like she had done years earlier. It was more than Joe could handle. His mother’s reaction, coupled with the years of abuse in foster care, culminated in a severe nervous breakdown. His mind had buckled, his heart had imploded and Joe’s life went from bad to worse. 

He was committed to Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital. Joe spent four years there, and the treatment he received was typical of a Canadian mental institution of that time. A combination of shock therapy and psychotropic medication were administered to help Joe ‘rehabilitate.’ It was a futile effort. The treatments did nothing to heal the deep wounds of sexual abuse and abandonment, they only numbed and contorted young Joe’s shattered mind. Patient reintegration into society is something modern psychiatric institutions struggle with today. In the late sixties and early seventies, the concept of aftercare was almost non-existent. 

Joe’s early manhood is a testament to this deficiency in the mental health system. At 21, Joe, being declared of sound mind, was cast out into the world with no support mechanisms. Figuratively, he was as naked as the day he was born, but this time he was even more vulnerable as he no longer had institutional help, family, friends, hope or a home. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did—he was the product of two broken institutional systems.

The oblivion that drugs and alcohol provide can soothe a torn and homeless soul. They can suture and mend the deep emotional lacerations of a traumatic life that won’t heal. They can also induce a kind of amnesia, helping one forget who they are and the pain they bear. Drugs and alcohol are thus attractive remedies to the downtrodden and injured, alas, their effects are temporary and they come at a great cost. This was something that Joe was soon to find out. Crime, jail, overdoses, short-term memory loss, epilepsy, police beatings, gang muggings, street violence and years of homelessness became the debts that Joe paid to the twin overlords of addictions and hopelessness. As his appetite for the numbing effects of narcotics and booze increased, so too did the seriousness of his crimes: from petty theft to shoplifting, to break-and-entering, all the way up to armed robbery. Young Joe was becoming a professional criminal, one who consorted with heavy criminal elements and, just like all serious thugs, started doing serious time. His behind-bars initiation began when he got pinched for armed robbery, which landed him in Toronto’s infamous Don Jail. He did six months of dead time [1] there, which is no small feat. Comparatively speaking, doing six months at the old Don in the seventies is roughly equivalent to doing three years in Kingston Penitentiary today. Luckily for Joe, his brother George was a bailiff who understood the risks of the Don and bailed him out. Surprisingly, at the robbery sentencing Joe only received probation, a slap on the wrist. The judge’s leniency did nothing to faze Joe nor did his incarceration in the ‘Don-ster.’ Quite the opposite happened. You see, Joe had graduated from common thief to full-fledged hardened criminal. He no longer cared about the world that had taken so much from him, leaving him with nothing. He lived by a new code now, the criminal’s creed: live for today, forget the past and damn the future. 

Joe had grown accustomed to the concrete in jail cells, the dark back alleys and cool side-street doorways. He also learned to trust his instincts, becoming wild and street smart, tough and lean. The frozen earth he slept on every night matched perfectly against the hard-boiled countenance of his heart. But the life Joe had grown used to was beginning to take a toll on his body. Over time, the rugged desolation of street life slowly ebbed away at his constitution. A steady diet of drug and drink had been working silently in tandem with neglect to sap Joe of his most valuable asset: health. Joe knew that The Reaper was near, the lack of strength in his malnourished body proved it. He could feel its pull. Death followed him from campsite to campsite, from rooftop to rooftop. It even followed him to a garbage bin where he woke up covered in noodles after a blistering night of inebriation. Everywhere he went, so too did death’s icy grip. According to Joe, death did indeed catch hold of him—more than once, in fact—as he received last rites from a priest five times. But death, by Joe’s testament, did nothing to slow him down or scare him off the streets. Quite fittingly, the one element that would resuscitate Joe from the depths of his homeless despair would not be death at all, but life, heralded by the birth of his fifth child in 1982.

His fifth child’s birth shifted something within Joe, something monumental. It was as though the rusted gears within his heart began to churn after being seized up for so many frosted years. Living on the streets, Joe had tried to love many times. The proof was in four failed marriages that produced four children, none of whom had the same effect his fifth child had—they hadn’t thawed his frozen soul. Not that they meant any less to Joe or that he loved them any different, just that he wasn’t ready to change with them in their turn. His fifth child was different. It came at the perfect time. It reminded him what a precious gift life was. It also reminded him that there was love in the dark, cruel world. All at once Joe was deeply invigorated. The mental and emotional chains that had bound Joe to misery his whole life had been obliterated by the coming of his infant child. He no longer needed to drink or do drugs, or wander—his mind was finally free. The cries of his newborn baby had released him from his life of bondage. The physical addiction, however, remained. This was of no concern for Joe though; he marched undeterred and steadfast into withdrawal and later recovery.

After he made up his mind to get sober and lift himself off the streets, it seemed nothing could stop him. Joe stoically decided to go cold turkey. Following his decision came the violent effects of an abrupt withdrawal. The chicken skin, the vomit, the diarrhea, the aching, the restlessness, the shaking, the hypersensitivity to light, the hot and cold sweats—all were uncomfortable and all were painful beyond belief. Notwithstanding their terrible effects, perhaps the most dangerous side effects to Joe’s instant and herculean sobriety were the alcohol DTs [2]. They caused him to black out, vibrate constantly and thrash about unconscious in grand mal seizures. For five, seemingly never-ending days, Joe endured all kinds of physical excruciation, and even though the chemical demons screamed in his bones and gnashed at his flesh, Joe remained obstinate. Joe held on. This is something that Joe still does to this day. But, as he will tell you himself, sobriety wasn’t an event: it was more like a lifelong process.

It’s been 30 years since 63-year-old Joseph ‘Old Eagle Eyes’ Motuz, the Métis Elder, gave up drugs and alcohol. He attributes his miraculous rise out of homelessness and liberation from addiction to three things: a return back to nature, a reconnection to his spiritual past through First Nations and Métis Elders and spirituality. All of these culminated in 1990 when Joe underwent an intense period of introspective learning whereby he accepted the idea of a higher power/Creator, understood the power of healing, began to appreciate the power of prayer and incorporated the importance of sharing into his life. He also credits the Canadian Mental Health Association as a secret to his transition from homeless addict to housed citizen. 

Today ‘Old Eagle Eyes,’ the man who walks with soft moccasins, can be seen making and selling jewelry on the streets of Victoria, British Columbia. This is also where he sells copies of The Victoria Street Newz to people who walk by. It should be known that any earnings Joe makes is faithfully, and honestly, declared on his monthly welfare statements. Joe is politically active and has participated on the Action Committee of People with Disabilities (ACPD) for four years, where he serves as both a board member and the Vice President. The ACPD’s mandate seeks to assist and/or advocate for people with disabilities. 

Nature, the Creator and service to his fellow street family keep Joe vibrant and alive. He is not afraid of spreading his wallet thin so that his homeless brothers and sisters can eat or avoid end-of-the-month binds. He is also not averse to sharing whatever clothes, food or household supplies he has. Generosity comes naturally to Joe because he believes, in his core, that the Creator made all men, women and children equal regardless of nationality, race, colour or creed. When one bears in mind that the crucible of fire that was Joe’s life could have very easily turned him into an apathetic monster, the quality of Joe’s empathetic heart becomes apparent. By choosing to rise above it all and love, Joe shows other homeless people, and the world, how to triumph in the face of colossal adversity. It is often said that the meaning of life is to give life meaning. Many in life never figure that out, but it’s safe to say that Joe has. Ask anyone who knows him.

In Joe’s words:

“The Homeless are my brothers and sisters. We are all equal in the Creator’s eyes. I accept them the way they are. They have been part of me for many, many moons. I always look for their good side, their humour, their qualities and their personalities. Until we walk a mile in their moccasins, we have no right to judge. I am an outdoors individual. I love the woods, the lakes and streams.  Anywhere there is wildlife there is beauty, peace and tranquility. I love to watch wild animals, birds, and insects; make a campfire and breathe fresh air. Surviving all these years by your wits, street knowledge is a feat in itself. It will take all I have to survive till my journey ends. I have many challenges ahead. In the future I hope to live peacefully with humankind and myself. I want to remain independent and keep my dignity. I count all my blessings, because there are people worse off than me.”

[1] Time spent before a bail hearing or after an unsuccessful bail hearing.

[2] 'DT’ is short for ‘delirium tremens:’ an acute episode of delirium that is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol.

Homelessness in only one piece of my puzzle book Read more stories in the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Download it for free at:
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
November 27, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

In our latest website survey, Sergi L. asked: "What is the opinion of people experiencing homelessness about the different services available to them? Are their needs and opinion taken into account? Are there any services built up from their own opinion and/or participation?"

This is a great question, as it encourages us to consider how often people experiencing homelessness are actually involved in developing services meant for them. There are, however, many people experiencing homelessness with many different identities, backgrounds, and circumstances; so there’s no single opinion that I can point to as “the homeless opinion” of services. Opinions on service effectiveness and quality would vary greatly, depending who you asked and about which services.

But are these opinions included from the very beginning? Not often enough. Our e-book, Homelessness is Just One Piece of My Puzzle, includes stories from many people with lived experience of homelessness; many of which reference various services that the person accessed. Key themes that emerged included the need for more early engagement and more coordinated services. As Richard Henry wrote:

I would like to see a facility that would have people come in one door and have everything they need under one roof—like one-stop shopping. To the left we have doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and mental health care; on the right we have addiction counsellors, personal care workers for housing, etc. So at the end, when you walk out the last door, you’re ready for a new start.

This is, of course, rarely how services are structured. Although this is just one person’s opinion, it is easy to see how a system that would work best for people experiencing homelessness – with so many barriers making life difficult, integrated services would be much more effective for them – is not taken up in the same way by the organizations funding and running the services.

Moving towards inclusion

Types of participation

While peer programs and participatory research studies have grown in popularity, people experiencing homelessness have historically been excluded from the research and planning of services and programs. This is a problem not only because experiencing homelessness face social exclusion in general, but also because leaving people with lived experience out of service planning creates unnecessary divisions. A quote from FEANTSA’s Participation Toolkit illustrates the negative effects that this can have:

...the main effect of putting distance between ‘providers’ and ‘users’ and neglecting human capacity is to make people weaker rather than stronger, more isolated and divided from each other, more dependent rather than more resourceful, and more at risk of ill-being and distress. (Boyle, D., Coote, A., Sherwood, C., & Slay, J. (2010)

The toolkit defines the types of participation possible (pictured right) and recommended that people with lived experience have an impact on the “person” level (meaning, someone gains something through being involved, like income, education and/or skills); as well as in policy/planning, practice and perception.

Most programs that serve people experiencing homelessness include them in the evaluation stage (or consultation) but this isn’t early enough to ensure that people feel genuinely involved or that the services will truly meet their needs. In many circumstances, people with lived experience are included only after projects have been defined – creating a power imbalance that can be difficult to change.

A 2013 study with the People with Lived Experience Caucus, who worked with the At Home/Chez Soi project, showed that participatory research and planning requires careful consideration and planning. Lessons learned regarding inclusion in a caucus model included: involving community members from the beginning, before big decisions are made; considering paying members for time and labour; and creating a transparent selection process for members. Clearly, people with lived experience need to be part of service and program development from the beginning – ideally, they are the ones proposing programs and services that they and their communities need.

Assessing inclusion in services/programs

If you’re curious about how inclusive a particular service or program is, here are some factors to consider:

  • Program/service leader (Who is organizing? Why? Where did the idea come from?)
  • Representation (Where are the people with lived experience? Is there an advisory board, a caucus, are they within the organization?)
  • Community consultations, focus groups (Was anyone with lived experience asked what they need?)
  • Exit interviews (to get feedback)
  • Jobs (are people with lived experience hired at the organization in peer or other roles?)

For more resources, check out:

The Inclusion Research Handbook

Participation Toolkit (2015): 25 Self-Assessment Tools & Tips

Participation Toolkit – Redistributing the Power (2007)

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
November 25, 2015

Youth form a substantial part of homeless populations, both in Canada and abroad, but they are often overlooked. For the past 15 years, this issue has become increasingly visible across communities. It is estimated that youth make up about 20% of the population that uses shelters in Canada. This week’s infographic, published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, focuses on pathways to youth homelessness in the United States. The National Coalition for the Homeless is composed of a network of service providers, community activists, service providers and even people who are currently experiencing or who have experienced homelessness. Primary goals of the coalition include (1) the prevention of homelessness and (2) ensuring access to immediate needs for those experiencing homelessness.

The Road to Youth Homelessness by the National Coalition for the Homeless

The infographic states that 500,000 unaccompanied youth experience homelessness in the U.S. yearly.  The term ‘unaccompanied youth’ is used to refer to youth who lack parental, foster or institutional care. Approximately half of these youth report that they left their home because of first-hand experiences with physical, sexual and emotional abuse. LGBTQ2 youth are significantly overrepresented in the population, comprising roughly two out of every five youth living in homelessness. The infographic also notes that youth moving out of foster care and criminal justice systems often find themselves without a home. 

There are strong similarities between the pathways to homelessness that exist for youth living in the United States and Canada. For example, a huge care gap also exists for youth leaving foster care homes in Canada. For a short introduction to the challenges facing foster youth aging out of care, I invite you to watch the video below, which briefly goes over the need for the development of a stronger support network for these youth in Canada.

Traditional responses to youth homelessness take a piece-meal approach, consisting of scattered programs and services. These responses also tend to be reactive, responding to the needs of youth only after they start living on the streets. Preventive approaches to youth homelessness have seen measured success abroad. Such an approach is more likely to have success treating the causes, rather than the symptoms, of homelessness. Early interventions into the lives of youth entering homelessness can be understood as a preventative measure against chronic homelessness. Building in stronger supports for youth leaving the foster care system in Canada can act as a form of homelessness prevention. 

Furthermore, there should be a visible difference in how services and supports are designed and delivered for youth living in homelessness compared to adults living in homelessness. Increasing funding for specialized supports, tailored to the needs of youth, is a step in the right direction.

While public knowledge and awareness has improved in recent years, there remain barriers to accessing and receiving adequate services and supports for homeless youth. Awareness about the issue, by sharing infographics like this one, can play a role in addressing youth homelessness, both in Canada and abroad. Youth living in homelessness need guidance and opportunities like any other young people transitioning to adulthood. Accordingly, we need to be doing a lot more for youth living in homelessness, this means investing more into supports and committing to long-term solutions.

November 23, 2015

This is an excerpt from the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book.

I would like to share my story, my shortcomings and strengths, my experience on the streets and what I think can be done to make change.

You just never know when or where you might be able to make a difference in someone’s life.

My journey from Nova Scotia to Ottawa was not without incident. After 18 months on the reserve, drinking a 26 oz. a day and a 40 oz. on Fridays and Saturdays, there was no way to stop drinking without a series of consequences.

So before jumping on the bus, I stopped at the liquor store for a quart of beer and a 26 oz. of whiskey. On the way out of town on the highway, where my kids lived, I said good-bye as I looked out the window. I took a deep breath and a big swig of my whiskey. I was all choked up and sad to leave them behind, but I knew they would be coming soon—their mother’s boyfriend was in the military and was being transferred to Ottawa.

Let the first leg of my journey begin  

I told my kids I was going to Ottawa to get a place and would see them there. I was looking forward to a time when I would have overnight visits with my kids again; this was my lifeline to staying focused and on track. This is what prevented me from staying on the streets forever. 

Well, it didn’t take me long to become stranded in the next province, Fredericton, New Brunswick. What I thought was going to be a quick refuel, turned out to be the end of the road for me on that bus. The bus driver checked the plastic cup I had my booze in, sensed I was under the influence and asked me to get off the bus.

I was stranded. It was cold and wet, so sleeping outside was not an option. I only had $40. A motel room was out of the question, so off to the police station I went. When I arrived I had to ring a buzzer, and after signing a release form, they gave me a blanket, a pillow and a cell for the night. I slept like a baby.

The next morning when I woke up, they told me the next bus doesn’t leave until 7pm and that there’s a men shelter a couple of streets over. I went for breakfast and hung out with the boys. I still had my big beer left so I shared it with them. It wasn’t long before we made our way to the liquor store. 

The role of homeless supports in my life

I think, for the most part, the major contributor to my ending up on the streets was the lack of addiction treatment programs available.I think, for the most part, the major contributor to my ending up on the streets was the lack of addiction treatment programs available. Any long-term treatment has a six- to eight-month minimum wait time. Shelters become an easy option with free meals and a roof over your head; and you’re close to downtown, which leaves no need for a bus pass for transportation.

Unlike ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program), people on social assistance have to pay full price for their bus pass. This comes out of a $365 shelter allowance, which leaves them with $220 for the month. In many cases, the money allocated for your bus pass is spent on housing or daily living. This leaves people helpless to get around to food banks.  

Living in the shelters pays you a PNA (Personal Needs Allowance), and in many cases that is more than you would end up with if you had your own place. Someone who has their own place would have a bunch of bills to pay, along with paying full price for their bus pass. They have little money left for food, clothing, hygiene items, etc. In having your own place, you can’t afford a phone, cable TV, laundry, clothing, etc.

With our current two-tier medical system for those who can pay and those who can’t, people on assistance do not have the coverage to pay for medications they may need. This forces people to get creative in order to get the things they need.

There are just so many ways to make money. When a good scam comes out, people ‘jump on the bandwagon,’ as they say. If someone is making good money selling their medication, it’s not long before the word gets out on how and what to say to the doctors to get what you need.

Others that need medication and can’t get it from their doctor, or who are not covered, turn to the streets. Often, street drugs are not regulated and are dangerous. These drugs can be very addictive, and it’s a slippery slope into homelessness.

No matter what kind of scam you’re into, it is likely illegal, and eventually you will get caught. Having a criminal record, like bad credit, does nothing but further put people at a loss, and makes getting a good job or an apartment almost hopeless.

Working under the table becomes a good option for those affected by past wrong doings. You get the security of having your rent covered by welfare or disability benefits, and are able to supplement your income in a more socially acceptable way. This is why handyman services are so popular.

Many people become frustrated with the system, and the only escape from the torment of reality and the stigma that we live in when we are down and out is drugs (including alcohol and prescriptions).  

It’s likely that you’ll become socially depressed. We are sad due to the way we see the world around us. It is circumstances that bring us to an emotional depression. We don’t see the help that’s around us, and we dwell on what we think we are powerless over.

The second leg of my journey: Still stranded in Fredericton

At the liquor store, my regular routine was to buy a big beer and steal a mickey. It was easy for me, being a new face in the town of Fredericton.  By the time 7pm rolled around, I was too drunk to get on the bus heading to Ottawa.

Partying is all part of that life, and I showed those boys how to have a good time. The only problem was we were all too drunk to get back into the shelter, so six or seven of us went to the police station. This time we were all charged with public intoxication, and we were put in the drunk tank with no blanket or pillow.

The next morning at the liquor store, it was evident that police already alerted them because all eyes were on me. I knew it was time to leave town, so I drank just enough of my 26 oz. of whiskey so I wasn’t sick, and off to the bus stop I headed. The boys didn’t want me to go, but Ottawa was my destination.

Finally I got on the bus without incident. I held my breath as I showed my ticket to the bus driver. I arrived in Ottawa with two big duffel bags, my knapsack, $7 in my pocket, a half bottle of whiskey and a big beer. In a short time, I polished off the bottle of whiskey. With nowhere to go again, it was off to the police station.

The police phoned ahead and secured me a bed at the local men’s shelter. There I met a whole bunch of new friends. I knew I had time to find a place before my kids moved to Ottawa, so I hung out with the boys. What I thought was going to be a short time ended up being almost four months on the streets.

For many, living on the streets or in the shelters is the end of the road; when things seem hopeless, it’s all the roadblocks that you run into that make you give up the fight and settle for survival. Survival becomes a way of life, a freedom, a comfort, where you have friends. Having your own place often leads to confinement, depression and loneliness. I envision a community-living environment where everyone works together doing laundry, cooking and cleaning. It becomes a big family; a group of people who share common interests, and can set some goals for independent living.  It’s a place where you have friends, where before you had none. We all need a home, not just housing.

But many just give up. It becomes too hard to fight the system, so you just live within in it: can’t get it, steal it, and get caught, good! Put me in jail—free meal, free drugs, a doctor, clean clothes, etc. It becomes a revolving door.

The end to my life on the streets

It was time to sober up; my kids would be coming soon, so off to detox I went. After spending seven days in detox, I went back to the shelter where I met up with one of my buddies who managed to get a place in a rooming house. I spent a couple of nights and decided this could become my way off the streets.

Soon after, I got my own room and took the position of superintendent. Becoming a superintendent supplemented my income by $150, just enough to get me through the month.   

It wasn’t long before my heavy drinking and tough guy image was challenged one too many times. I ended up with assault charges and was sent back to jail for three months. Coming out of jail with a determination to turn my life around, I got another room and a superintendent position in a quiet building. I also got on the wait list for subsidized housing. To get on an urgent list, I pretended I was still homeless and put my son on the list with me to get housing quicker.

It took three months, and even once they found out my son didn’t qualify, they still had a bachelor apartment for me. Things were looking up. I managed to get a new I.D through a community centre where I was seeing a doctor and applied for ODSP

When I moved into my new bachelor apartment, I was still addicted to alcohol. I thought I could help other street people. I would invite them into my house to shower and do their drugs, but this soon turned into a new business opportunity for me.

I was able to get off the booze but became a full-blown crack addict. Selling crack became a way of supporting my habit as well as supplementing my income. It took about six months of dealing crack to 30 or 40 people a day to catch the eyes of the law, and I was off to jail again, losing everything.

You could say I had been left in the cold. My discharge worker never did confirm housing before my release from jail.  A visit to the ODSP office left me no hope of receiving any money for shelter, food or clothing. I was released 36 pounds heavier after 107 days of confinement. I had no clothes that fit.

If not for a friend, I would be forced back to the streets. Like most people coming out of jail, I would have had to resort back to shelters, where the game never changes and you are always at ‘rock bottom’. Being forced into survival mode has its setbacks—for me, it pushed the limits on my ability to remain sober. 

I was not able to secure any financial support until 12 days after my release. All the old feelings and the high of being free came back to haunt me. When you’re left with nothing, many are forced back into the same old routine they were in before they got arrested. Unfortunately, most of the time, you’re sucked right back in the game. It’s quick, it’s an easy fix, and for some, this is the only life they know.

What I think could have made a difference

My frustration and disappointment in the system were setting in. I feel people just give up the fight. Help is scattered all over the place, with too many barriers, too many hurdles and too much red tape. Today, again forced to work within the system, I am left frustrated. I had a fire back in May 2012, and struggled to find a new place to call home.

I would like to see a facility that would have people come in one door and have everything they need under one roof—like one-stop shopping. To the left we have doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and mental health care; on the right we have addiction counsellors, personal care workers for housing, etc. So at the end, when you walk out the last door, you’re ready for a new start.

Shelters, community centres, etc., are also a lifeline, and in my opinion could be the perfect place to try this out. Funding needs to be allocated for services and facilities in order to accommodate long-term treatment programs, rather than a long-term waiting list for these services. When someone hits that ‘rock bottom,’ or finally realizes they need help, we need to have the help for them, then and there. For most it’s their last chance: if they don’t get help, they may never come out of it. 

My addictions came at a heavy cost to all those around me. But today, I can share the love that was lost for so many years. All the programs I took on addictions in the past, and writing a transcript of my book, Life in the Game of Addiction while in jail, helped turn my life around. If not for this, my time would have been wasted, and the cycle would have continued.

My hope is that people live without addictions in their life, and that others realize that people do change. Don’t judge a homeless person, because you don’t know what led them to homelessness. 

I lowered myself to the streets where I had lost everything, but learned so much. I learned that the world is not all about the riches of the flesh, but the love for life and helping the needs of one another. Living on the streets in total surrender of life’s challenges has led me to the life I live today, and to my belief system.

Life in mainstream society revolves around seeing personal wealth as success. I was a very successful general contractor for years, and then succumbed to the greed of wanting the bigger, the better and the more the merrier. My goal was to become a millionaire. But now, after all my experiences, I see wealth in love of family, friends and faith in God. I am truly blessed with ‘happy thoughts’ today.

Many times when I was on the streets, I looked at all the people going by, and thought, “You poor bastards. You’re like a bunch of robots programmed to do the same thing day in, day out, stuck in debt to greed of the materialistic world.” 

Although I had many great times on the streets, the reality is if you miss a meal, you go hungry; if your shoes are wet and worn, you suffer. The threat of violence is all around. The loss of my family is ultimately what led me to get off the streets. It was the pain—the hurt inside—that could have kept me on the streets and using until the end, like many before me who have lost their lives, or have taken their own lives. Giving up, thinking this is the end of the road, nobody cares anyway.

I am by no means perfect, and still have minor flirtations with past addictions, but today I am no longer trapped by any outside influences in my everyday life. Sometimes in life it takes the loss of everything to really appreciate what you have. 

God bless everyone for He has blessed me.

Homelessness in only one piece of my puzzle book Read more stories in the Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice book. Download it for free at:
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
November 20, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

As National Addictions Awareness Week 2015 draws to a close, I want to explore the topic of harm reduction – an approach to drug strategy and policy that has become near and dear to me over the past several months, and one that organizations all over the globe are asking others to commit to.

Since starting my practicum at a community health centre, I’m often asked about what I do by my family and peers. Much of what I do is rooted in harm reduction: an area that is difficult for many people to understand. I get it, it does seem odd to outsiders why I would be spending my time handing out fresh pipes, screens, syringes and more to marginalized folks using drugs. Frequently, I’m asked if I think what I’m doing “enables” people to use drugs – insinuating that harm reduction increases drug use or makes it “worse” – and just perpetuates the issue. I find these kinds of questions come from a perspective in which all drug use is labeled “bad” and in which it is my job to ensure someone stops using – and this simply isn’t what harm reduction is about.

Harm reduction in BCWhat is harm reduction?

As written in our Youth Employment Toolkit: “Harm reduction is often viewed negatively because of its link to substance use, but harm reduction approaches are used on a daily basis by the general population: hand washing, seat belts in cars, crosswalks and bike helmets.” So you can think of it as an approach that acknowledges that people do and will use drugs, and so instead focuses on limiting potential consequences.

Much like wearing a seatbelt doesn’t stop people from driving, harm reduction alone does not aim to reduce or stop drug use (though it often acts as a point of connection for people when they do decide that they want to use less). Most harm reduction services focus on providing clean and new supplies through needle distribution and exchange, supervised injection sites, street outreach, workshops, and even alcohol management programs. And it works. As Hedrich and Hartnoll wrote in their review of harm reduction interventions:

…the scientific evidence shows that harm reduction interventions are effective in terms of their stated goals, as long as they are implemented appropriately within their contextual settings; and…single interventions are far more effective when implemented together as part of a broader public health policy, including steps to facilitate healthier living and safer social environments.

Part of the bad rap harm reduction gets is this idea that it alone can address the complex issue of problematic drug use (and the often traumatic and systemic events that contribute to why some people use), which it just can’t. Harm reduction is about meeting the person where they’re at and encouraging them to change risky behaviour, not demanding that they stop using altogether.

BC Harm Reduction Strategies and Services outlines the following guiding principles for harm reduction: pragmatism (accepting that drug use has always and will likely always occur); human rights (basic dignity and respect for all); focus on harms (instead of the drug use); maximize intervention options (needing a variety of approaches); priority of immediate goals (what does the person need right now?); and drug user involvement (nothing for us without us). These principles are very important. People who use drugs are deeply stigmatized, and though not everyone who experiences homelessness uses drugs, it is a reality for many. The potential harms associated with substance use, as noted in our section on substance use, are many:

This includes pharmacological effects of the substance itself that may impair a person’s ability to safely and competently make decisions and carry out tasks that they engage in. Problematic substance use may lead to deteriorating health; accidental death; and increased chances of risky sexual behaviours. Other harms that may result from problematic use of substances include: the inability to work or stay in school, ruptured relations with family, friends and community members, and problems with the law. 

I’d like to draw some attention to the last part about legal and justice issues. The criminalization of some substances – which is unrelated to potential harm caused, if we consider the great many negative effects associated with alcohol – means that many drug users themselves are also criminalized. This punitive, no-tolerance policy on some drugs has been criticized by many, including the writers of a 2014 London School of Economics report, which asks decision-makers to finally “end the drug wars.” The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is making similar calls for action and advocates for policy “based on evidence, human rights, social inclusion and public health.” Harm reduction is a core component of such policy, largely due to a growing evidence base of its effectiveness.

Harm reduction in Canada

One primary goal of harm reduction is to reduce the contraction of blood-borne diseases among users. A 2010 international study by Wodak and Maher concluded that “countries that have provided extensive needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution treatment appear to have averted an epidemic, stabilised or substantially reduced the prevalence of HIV among injecting drug users.” As Vineeth wrote in his infographic post on World Hepatitis Day, harm reduction approaches have also seen great success in limiting the spread of hepatitis.

In Canada, British Columbia is a leader in coordinated harm reduction services (though Toronto is also considered a hub, with harm reduction as a key part of the city’s drug strategy) and in creating promising practices. The province has two supervised injection sites, implemented the first-ever crack pipe vending machine, and developed an alcohol management program. The Insite program has contributed to many positive results reported between 2002 and 2011:

  • 0 overdoses at Insite
  • 78% decrease in new reported cases of HIV among people who inject drugs in the area
  • 55% decrease in new reported cases of hepatitis C

Furthermore since 2012:

  • 95 overdoses in the area have been reversed with naloxone
  • 42,000 referrals made from distribution sites to other services (housing, mental health, etc.)
  • 400+ admissions from Insite into onsite detox program

So while harm reduction doesn’t put a stop to problematic drug use – and no one strategy will – it certainly does save lives, reduce disease transmission, encourage coordination of services, and more. For those reasons alone, I’d say it’s more than an appropriate response.

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