Photo by ADVOCATE news services The struggle with addictions can be one reason for homelessness.

A former Red Deer opioid addict understands the community’s frustration

‘It’s a privilege and an honour to be an example of change,’ he says

He works as a pipefitter now, has a car and rents his own apartment.

But a few years ago, the sparely built 43-year-old was the kind of homeless opioid addict many people would have written off with some choice words.

He admits he stole from individuals and stores to feed himself and his addiction.

He also slept in a makeshift camp in the parks system whenever he could avoid going to the Safe Harbour mats program.

“You never feel more homeless than when you’re sleeping in the mats program and eating at soup kitchens,” he explains.

Amid the horde of other hopeless, homeless people, “is a dark, heavy, heavy vibe.”

The man who calls himself Steve for confidentiality reasons, says he fully understands the community’s frustration with people like his former self.

“People feel unsafe because it is unsafe … They are fuelling their addiction through crime, so they are burning their bridges.”

But what this anger directed at the homeless does is prevent people from understanding that “nobody wants that kind of life,” says Steve.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve cycled back into jail, back on the streets, into the hospital, (overdosing) in ambulances, dealing with the police …”

Steve estimates he overdosed on fentanyl at least 30 times — including once when he was found clinically dead, with no pulse, before paramedics began administering the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.

Whenever he felt himself pulled back into the bright, living, noisy world by emergency services workers, staff at Turning Point, or fellow addicts, he remembers feeling a kind of disappointment.

This feeling grew over time, until he actively tried to kill himself, including trying “suicide by police.”

Steve recalls being in a pharmacy once, demanding morphine. When police showed up, he rushed at a female officer, shouting, “’Shoot me’ … I could see her hand shaking on the trigger,” but she refused to pull it.

That time, Steve ended up in the Red Deer hospital psychiatric ward. This connected him with workers from the Canadian Mental Health Association, the agency that eventually helped him get off the street and into rehab.

But it took many other moments of crisis before Steve finally took the hand that had been extended to him by agency workers.

Having relied on hash and weed since he was an under-sized 14-year-old — and cocaine and crack during his mid-20s — the East Coast native who had come to Alberta for work admits his drug habit seemed almost impossible to overcome.

But there finally came a time when he had overdosed so often, that doing any amount of opioids would immediately send him into another near-death episode.

Since there was no more relief or benefit from doing drugs, Steve told the CMHA that he had the intention to go into detox or treatment.

They helped set him up in an apartment. Steve says it took a while to accept the fact that he wouldn’t be kicked out if he fell back on his old ways and couldn’t immediately stop using.

He entered the detox/treatment program at Ponoka’s Centennial Hospital. It worked for him the second time around.

He has been drug free for the past year — and has the plastic chips on his key chain to prove it.

Steve credits counsellors for helping him understand his own destructive instincts. He also credits the CMHA program for helping him get his own place, as well as the safety tickets he needed to get his pipefitter credentials from Red Deer College.

“A guy on income supports can’t afford $150 tickets,” he says — nor the safety boots that were donated to him by the John Howard Society.

Piece by piece, Steve feels he’s been reassembling a better existence, including a renewed relationship with his now adult daughter.

Although he might end up in an oilfield bush camp with other drug users, Steve says, “I have boundaries now.”

His new mantra is to avoid self-punishing behaviour and negative individuals.

“I eliminate unnecessary stress and drama from my life. I have no time for toxic people… If it doesn’t feed my soul and feel good, I don’t do it.”

He feels, “it’s a privilege and an honour to be an example of change.”

Where does he see himself three years down the road? Steve pauses to ponder that question, then says, “I would just like to see myself sober and happy.”


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