A man spends ten years on the street but never loses his entrepreneurial spirit
I was a successful businessman. My girlfriend introduced me to crack cocaine and that was the beginning of my downfall. Within 2 years, I was bankrupt and living on welfare.
It took 8 more years to hit the streets.
I tried living in a shelter, but the conditions were unacceptable. After breakfast, we were thrown out, regardless of the weather, until lunch. After lunch, we were sent back to the streets, until supper. If we did not return by a specific time, we lost our bed and our possessions were thrown out within three days. We slept in a room with 50 other men in beds two feet apart. Can you imagine trying to sleep with the sounds of 50 men talking, laughing, crying, coughing and farting as a constant background, or my concerns about catching their diseases or bugs? It only took a few days to choose the relative freedom of the streets.
I found an empty garage before Christmas during the worst winter Toronto had seen for 50 years. Thus began 10 years of locating a place to shelter me and store my possessions, only to be found out within a short time and forced to move along.
Once, a friend and I watched a sergeant from 14 Division douse my squat and all my possessions with gasoline and set it on fire. A legal clinic helped me to lodge a complaint against the officer. After a year, I was notified that the complaint had been investigated and no grounds were found to pursue the matter. They did not interview me or the other eyewitness. So much for my rights. It was clear that I had no human rights because I was judged as being less than human.
During the 10 years I was on the streets, welfare for homeless singles, which was euphemistically renamed Ontario Works, was set at $195.00 per month. I began panhandling to cars to supplement my income. This allowed me to support my addiction, and myself, without turning to crime. But the government, in its efforts to criminalize poverty, passed the Safe Streets Act, making it illegal.
A few years ago, I was working (panhandling) when 3 bicycle cops stopped to give me a ticket. The first cop asked, "Why don't you do something useful with your life?" My reply was, "I've provided over 2000 man years of employment in this city. What have you done?" A streetcar came along and the black cop said he was going to throw me in front of it. I grabbed him by his jacket and as I began to pull him with me in front of the streetcar, I said, "Go ahead, I'll take you with me." The third cop took me over to the sidewalk. After talking with me for a few minutes, he gave me a Toonie and left with his partners.
A few years ago, two cops threw a friend of mine off the railway overpass at Spadina and Front. He sustained multiple fractures in both legs.
There are some really bad cops in Toronto, but there are lots of good cops too. I've had them give me money, food and clothing. They have come by in cold weather to be sure I'm OK. The majority are OK, but we tar them all with the same brush. When one of them beats us up or harasses us, they all become the enemy. There are homeless people who bring it on themselves and onto the rest of us, but most of us are just trying to survive. Most of us try to remain inconspicuous, but it's getting harder because the authorities have been fencing off all the hideaways where we go to sleep or do our drugs. When there is no place to hide, we are forced into public places. I wonder which is better.
Dealers fill their drugs with cut so you can't even get a good high. Some of it will make you sick or even kill you. They don't care. It's not as if we can complain to the Better Business Bureau. One of my friends was late paying his debt to one of them and the bastard beat him with a steel pipe. He got over 100 stitches in his head.
I've seen deals go down in front of the cops and they ignore it. If a dealer gets caught he's back dealing right away. If convicted, he gets a slap on the wrist and the bosses promote him. It's all organized. If an independent starts up, the connected dealers give him up to the cops so they look like they're doing something. All that does is keep the competition out of the connected dealers' territories. Meanwhile, the policy is to ignore the street dealers and go after the big guys. Everyone knows the big guys are protected.
If they want to stop crack from destroying people's lives, they should bust all the street dealers. If they were arrested, refused bail and given long sentences, the message would be clear to all the punks that think killing people with drugs is an easy way to make a living. Sentences should be the same as for premeditated murder because that's what it is. Instead, the system makes the victims of the crime the target by jailing addicts.
When I smoked, I couldn't eat. I'd roll a joint or drink some wine to give me an appetite and slow my heart down. Without grass, I'd probably have died of malnutrition. I weighed les than 100 pounds when I was homeless. Often, when I was on a run, I went 5 to 7 days without sleep and with only a little food. I never really got to sleep. I just kept going until I blacked out from sleep deprivation. Then I'd rest for a couple of days and eat like a pig until it was time for another run. If I wasn't high or trying to find a way to get high, I was probably blacked out. If I didn't get to my squat before I ran out of strength, I had to worry about being rousted by the cops or attacked by some fool who thought it was fun to beat up a homeless person. I forgot how to sleep and still suffer from a sleep disorder. I rarely sleep more than one or two hours at a time.
I lived for 2 years in a shack I built near Old Fort York. I had a sliding glass window, a roof deck, a BBQ and a garden. I had a stove and propane lantern that gave off enough heat to keep me warm. The police found it and had it bulldozed.
I almost died there one night. I'd been on a 7 day run and I blacked out on top of a lit candle. Luckily, the temperature was 25 below and I was wearing 7 layers of clothes. I woke up when the flames had destroyed the layers of clothing and reached my skin. I put the flames out and blacked out again. When I woke up, I thought it had been a dream until I saw that my clothing was in ashes
Kids were a problem. They threw stones at me and one night they set my shack on fire while I was sleeping inside. I smelled the smoke and woke up in time to put the fire out.
20 years ago, when I became an addict, I thought it was like smoking a little grass, something to share with friends at a party. I'd been trying to quit for years, but I never made it more than two weeks. After a few days without it, I'd get to thinking about it and that was all I'd need to make the call. If I managed to get past that, the physical withdrawals would begin - pain, nausea and diarrhea. The only way to feel better was to get high. The dealers were getting rich at my expense, so if I didn't contact them for a while, they'd come by and give me some free drugs to get me going again.
The only thing an addict knows is the drug culture. When he quits drugs, he has to stop all contact with everyone he knows. He leaves everything behind and there is nothing to replace it. He exists in a void. That is why Cocaine Anonymous is so popular. It gives the addict an anchor, people to talk to who share the same problem. This is fine as a transitional support system, but it is just an extension of the drug culture. Everyone there is an addict.
Most people don't realize this is transitional and never get beyond it. If a person can't build a new life outside the drug culture, the odds are he will relapse. A rehab program that encourages the addict to reclaim the life he had before drugs is doomed from the start. If an addict were happy in his old life, he wouldn't have become an addict. An emphasis on exploring the possibilities of a new life has the highest chance of success.
The most dangerous time is when boredom sets in. The mind will seek a means of overcoming it. Doing drugs is the first thing that the addict will think of. Rehab programs should encourage patients to keep busy at work, school, volunteerism or hobbies. Deep in the addict's subconscious is a trap. We fool ourselves into thinking that once we have been clean for a while, we can go back to being a casual user. Many addicts never realize that you can't be a part time addict. If you use once, you will eventually revert to full time addiction.
During the first phase of rehabilitation, it is important to avoid old friends and haunts. The strongest of us will succumb to temptation if it is right there in our faces.
Taking on too much all at once can lead to frustration and feelings of inadequacy, which provide another road back into the abyss.
Every month, someone dies out there. Most of the deaths are preventable. Providing a decent home and realistic treatment could prevent all exposure, violence, disease and drug overdose deaths. Being forced to live on the streets is a death sentence, imposed by the politicians who refuse to legislate a minimum wage and social assistance levels that are adequate to allow payment of market rent.
A homeless person gets worn down until he dies. More people become homeless for economic reasons than all the others, even though the average upper middle class income is several hundred thousand dollars per year. A single homeless person on welfare receives less than $3,000.00 annually. Where is the justice in this? Why is there no money to allow the people at the bottom to afford a home?
Protests do more harm than good and only serve to stroke the egos of the activists. I can't imagine anyone being convinced to have sympathy for a crowd of rabble, bent on disrupting their lives. I think that if people can gain a better understanding of us, they may be more inclined to take some action to make our lives less hazardous.
It's offensive to be treated as less than human. People should realize how quickly they could find themselves out here with us. How many people could maintain their high standards of living if they suddenly could not work? The social assistance program was designed as a safety net to prevent this tragedy, but greedy politicians have gutted it. They balance the budget on the backs of the poorest people in society. How can they justify condemning us to die on the streets? You'd think we were in the middle of a depression, instead of the longest economic boom in history.
When you've been on the streets long enough, you begin to believe that you deserve to be treated like a throw away person. It's hard to hang on to your self-respect when you're forced to beg for a living and eat other peoples' garbage.
On March 2, 2005 I called an outreach worker and asked her to help me get into St. Michael's Detox Centre. That was the last time I did drugs or drank alcohol. I spent 6 weeks there, going through cold turkey withdrawal, resting, eating, attending counselling sessions and getting healthy.
I moved into a halfway house for recovering addicts. While I was there, I attended weekly outpatient rehab sessions at the Salvation Army Harbour Light Centre.
I upgraded my application for assisted housing. I had been on a waiting list for years and still had years to wait, but because I was a senior, I qualified for housing in a seniors' building. The apartment I live in became available in a few months and I moved here October 1, 2005.
None of this could have happened today. The McGuinty government has closed down some of the detox centres and reduced the amount of time a person can stay to less than a week. No addict can prepare for a life without drugs in such a short time, so there is no hope now. Even if he can get into a detox centre, he will be sent back to his old life within a week. This is evidence of the government's determination to condemn addicts to a life of desperation, followed by premature death.
My hobby, digital photography, helps me to keep busy so I don't start thinking of drugs. I enhance my images on my computer. The finished product is my artistic impression of the image and I call it Digital photoArt.
I made it! Others could too. Most addicts want to quit. All they need is a better system of support and rehabilitation for a large percentage of them to recover. And a safe place to call home.