The facts are sobering. Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 10 Canadians live with an addiction. A 2012 Salvation Army report, Canada Speaks 2012: Mental Health, Addictions and the Roots of Poverty, states that Canadians surveyed indicated 25% of Canadians live with an addiction. That’s 1 in 4 or 8 million people.
And, when put in context of homelessness, startling. The visibly homeless population in our city make up 4% of those suffering from an addiction. In a city of 1.2 million, they would normally be lost in the numbers, but, because they are more marginalized, and more ‘visible’ which also could mean, look different, we perceive the impact of their addiction to be greater than the impact of others.
Yes, an addict who is homeless is a frequent user of social and emergency services, particularly if they are living on the streets. When you’re living the life of homelessness, survival is a day-to-day event. And sometimes, survival isn’t pretty.
Homelessness sucks. Homelessness saps you of energy. It tears away the fabric of your life, exposing your underbelly to the grit and grime of an existence no one would wish upon even their worst enemy.
Spirit. Health. Will.
Yes please. Pass me the needle. Give me the hit that will end the futility of all of this.
Olympic athlete, Dan O’Brien said, “The only way to overcome is to hang in.”
For people experiencing homelessness, hanging in, hanging out, hanging on, is often all they can do.
Direction is a place called oblivion. Purpose an upside down world of despair. They don’t know what they’re going to do to fix the mess their lives are in, but wait, ‘Hey buddy, Gotta fix?’ And someone answers. Someone always does when you’re livin’ on the dark side of the street.
“You gotta find a new direction. Get a job.” society tells them. Frightened, they run away. Can’t they see? This is the only direction they’ve ever known. Their lives have led them to this. How can they find a ‘new’ direction when they don’t know how to change the direction they’ve always gone. Down. Down to the street. To street level. To outside looking in. To never havin’, always takin’. It. Us. Them. They don’t know if there’s a place they can go where despair will let them off the hook of desperation. They don’t know.
And so they hang in, hang out, hang on.
We tell them, you don’t belong here, and then we call them drains on society, as if we could wash ourselves clean of the stink and filth of homelessness in one simple statement.
It doesn’t work that way. Homelessness is an outcome. It is an indicator of what isn’t working. In someone’s life. In our community. In our cities and society. Homelessness isn’t the problem. We are.
We talk about ending homelessness but we don’t talk about ending the financial drive that underlies the tearing down of existing low-income housing stock, or the gentrification of our inner cities that is pushing the very people we say we want to help out to the edges of our communities.
Outside looking in.
It is the plight of those who lack the economic, political and physical will to fight for themselves. Whose resources have been drained and whose energy has been expended fighting for that next fix, that next trick, that next inch of ground where they can make a stand if only for a moment, to catch their breath, sell a trick, buy a toke. Maybe, once upon a time, they made a choice that brought them down to street level. Too long looking at the dirt, the choice to get back up is too far gone on the road to desperation. Up is too far away. Up is an unknown direction. Up is that place you’re just too tired to reach for.
And there they lie, until one day, someone reaches out a hand, it may be the one hundredth or the one thousandth hand, but it is that hand they reach for. It is that hand that has found them where they are just too tired to resist reaching back. And in that one hand, they find the strength to get up. It’s not easy. But they do it. And even when they fall, they know, that hand, which is part of many hands connected, will be there to catch them. Again and again. Because to end the homelessness that has sucked their life away, they need to feel part of those hands connected.
Homelessness sucks. but then, so does poverty. So does disease. So does abuse and divorce and mental illness and intolerance and judgement and a host of other social ills that drain our communities of the spirit to work together to be the change we want to see in the world.
We can end homelessness. But first, like an addict choosing to put down that drink, push away that needle, we must believe we can.