An addiction he admits he will never shake led a Red Deer man through a troubled, grim life, living on the streets or on a mat at a homeless shelter for the better part of his adult life.
Steve — his real name is being withheld to protect his identity — now lives in a quiet basement apartment in Red Deer. But he has been homeless and without hope off and on for a number of years.
When he first came to Red Deer in 2007, the only place he had to stay was with someone he knew who dealt drugs.
Steve brought his addiction with him, and he left Eastern Canada in part because of a significant drug debt.
“I’ve been kidnapped three times, been tied up to chairs, had my foot smashed three times,” said Steve, removing a sock and pointing to a flattened toe on one foot that was hit three times with a hammer.
“I thought the guy was going to hit right there (pointing to the middle of his foot) but he hit this one toe three times and that’s why it’s flat.”
In Red Deer, he got into a routine he said a lot of homeless here fall into. Living with a dealer wasn’t helping his drug problem and it was a bad situation for the now 38-year-old. He would sleep at Safe Harbour, but not on the sober side, or at People’s Place. He’d get kicked out early in the morning and follow the herd of homeless to Potter’s House or Berachah Place, and then he’d return to a mat to get what sleep he could the next night.
“You try to sleep on a chair or you try to sleep on the floor. There are so many people who are just as miserable as you are.
“It is very grim.”
He has been in and out of the Safe Harbour detox for three years. But he didn’t know they had sober-living houses. He’d be in the detox for seven to 10 days, come out and go back to living with his dealer friend, repeating the cycle of addiction. But when he found out about the sober-living houses, he knew that was what he needed.
“I knew in my heart that’s all I needed, I needed a safe environment where there would be no drugs, no alcohol, just a place I could feel safe in,” said Steve.
He was on a methadone maintenance program at the time, starting with 40 mg of methadone and slowly weaning down one mg a week.
Travelling with the herd, he would go to the hospital and hang out at the meditation gardens on the second floor. It was a positive place for him to go.
“There are trees, there was a water fountain, you saw families with loved ones and they were showing compassion,” said Steve.
“It wasn’t misery, it wasn’t ‘poor me my life sucks,’ it wasn’t ‘let’s go rob this guy’ or ‘let’s go get loaded.’ It was a place of solitude for me.”
He went into Safe Harbour for a short time, then spent 17 days at the Lander Treatment Centre in Claresholm, then back to Safe Harbour to figure out what to do next.
“Somewhere between Lander and Safe Harbour a switch flicked, it became about choosing life,” said Steve. “I’ve abused and manipulated the systems in place, I’m guilty of that, and I’ve witnessed people grow and come from a place of brokenness to a place of service where they are emotionally available for people and that’s all through the 12-step program.”
He was in the 16-month sober living program through Safe Harbour up until mid-December and that helped him get back to work. But the day after he got out, he didn’t have a place to go and with a pocket full of money, he relapsed.
“I went back to the street,” said Steve, who is an electrician.
“I said I’m just done. I had a suicide attempt last year and I’ve been in and out of the hospital with psychosis, so they’re kind of familiar with my pattern. I got to recognize the pattern this time and I knew I didn’t need a five-day cycle here, I need some help.”
It was when he got into the Red Deer Housing Team program recently, a housing first-based strategy, and the 12-step program, that he started getting things together again. He is working and he has been in his apartment for a few weeks now. It’s the first time he has had his own apartment since 2003. He’s been clean for more than a month now.
It is a long ways removed from his life before.
He started using marijuana and hash at 13. He did his first crack “hoot” when he was 15.
“I have an addiction, which is the key issue to my homelessness,” said Steve. “When I relapse, my life instantly becomes unmanageable. Finances, emotionally unstable, incapable of work. It hinders me to that degree.
“Addiction really consumes a person’s thoughts and that’s where the homelessness comes in.
“Sometimes, when I’m using, I don’t shower for days, I don’t brush my teeth for weeks, I stink.”
His drugs of choice are opiates, either morphine or heroin. But he has also used crack, crystal meth, marijuana, hash and coke.
One night that stands out in his mind happened in Red Deer. Steve had been partying with some friends, including a woman he called a hard-core “Listerine drunk.”
“I went back in the morning so I could buy some pills and I did some pills.
“Then this other woman shakes me and says ‘Get up, I think she’s dead.’ So I got up and the way she had her face on the pillow, her hair was covering her face. I reached in to feel for a pulse and when I pulled my hand back it was covered in blood.
“I went to roll her over to see what was really going on and rigor mortis had set in. She’d been dead for a while.”
He counts himself lucky to not have contracted HIV or AIDS in his years as a user, but has contracted hepatitis C.
He has found solace in narcotics- and cocaine-anonymous programs and has worked through the 12-step program, accepting a higher power.
“I came to believe in God,” said Steve. “For me, God is the power and essence of love, and the power of the truth.”
He was adopted at a young age and the first time he saw his biological parents he was 19 and incarcerated.
“They weren’t too pleased, that’s not where they wanted to find me.”
Recently he went home and met them again, and he called the event a milestone in his life.
“So when I came back home, people said I had such a positive aura. They saw a difference and I do believe it was believing and trusting in God.”
He said there are more homeless in Red Deer than people realize.
“There are a lot of women who are walking the streets at night prostituting themselves, coupling up with some guy who has a place just because they have nowhere else to go,” said Steve.
On top of his addiction he has a history of mental illness, including depression and anxiety disorders.
“I’m not going to use today and that’s as far as I can go,” said Steve. “But my plans and goals don’t include drugs or alcohol.”