Advocate reporter Murray Crawford accompanied two Central Alberta AIDS Network NightReach workers as they visited people on the street this week. NightReach staff provide new needles, clean pipes and condoms to people in Red Deer in an effort to combat the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. The people who the Advocate encountered on the street spoke on the condition that we do not disclose their full names.
Sitting in the downtown McDonald’s, a man with a blond, scruffy beard and dirt under his fingernails recounts the turns his life took that put him on the streets.
The 40-year-old has been out in the cold for a year, shuffling between indoor places daily while he tries to get his life back on track.
One of the biggest obstacles for Mike, whose last name has been withheld, is his opiate addiction.
“I had a great girl, I had a great life but I put it all in a damn needle,” he said. “Once you mainline (inject intravenously) drugs, there is no turning back, at least not right away.”
Two infections in his left leg leave him in constant, excruciating pain.
He was a hydraulic mechanic building drilling rigs in the oilfield. Now he is dependent on opiates to manage his pain.
“I can’t explain to you how bad it feels,” he said. “I wish you could superimpose it onto kids and show them how bad it feels, but you can’t.
“I took Tylenol 3s, Tylenol 4s, Percocets and built myself up. I thought, ‘Whatever, I’m fine.’ One day I could barely walk and called up my friend and told him I’m so sick I need to take a couple of days off of work. He told me I was hooked on drugs. That was a harsh realization.”
But he said he’s down about 75 per cent of what his addiction was at its peak.
“I took a $400-, $500-a-day habit down to $50,” said Mike. “It will be taken care of.
“I can’t do what I want to do the way I like to do it with that addiction. It’s the most cantankerous son of a bitch habit that I’ve ever come across.”
By about the beginning of the second day without feeding his addiction, the pain is unbearable. His reliance on opiates has affected his body’s ability to produce its own pain-killing substances, such as endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphin, leaving him dependent on foreign substances to manage the pain.
“You’d be pretty shocked to feel that kind of pain,” said Mike. “At the beginning of that second day, I can’t go without it.
“I’m dragging myself around, literally. I’m walking and I’m sweating profusely and other terrible symptoms like diarrhea.”
Mike was forced to seek shelter at Safe Harbour mats program, after his Red Deer camp was shut down.
He preferred the camping to a mat because he wasn’t kicked out early in the morning.
“Especially when it is very, very cold,” he said. “When it’s -35C and you need to be gone by 6:45 a.m., it’s hard to push yourself out the door. Where do you go from there?”
He would go to Berachah Place, a day centre where the homeless found warmth, showers and laundry facilities. When the centre closed, Mike was scared about what would happen to him and a lot of other people without that safe, warm place to go. A temporary warming centre opened in November for the winter months; it operates seven days a week.
He’s been in touch with the Red Deer Housing Team, but isn’t hopeful of being in a place before Christmas.
“I would understand. I’m not sitting there with my phone waiting for them to call,” said Mike.
He is one of the many faces greeted by NightReach workers. NightReach staff patrol the downtown area each evening armed with a backpack full of harm reduction supplies, toques, socks and first-aid supplies. Harm reduction supplies include new needles, pipes and condoms. The goal in handing out these items is to reduce the instances of communicable diseases such as hepatitis or HIV and AIDS.
NightReach is run by the Central Alberta AIDS Network as a mobile outreach initiative.
Sometimes they have mittens, but they were out of donated mittens this night. Of course, that is the most commonly asked for item.
NightReach workers Casey Ames, a nursing student at Red Deer College, and Aisley Miles, the volunteer and peer engagement co-ordinator at CAANS, were handing out gift cards as part of a 12 days of Christmas campaign. This day, the gift cards are for Quenched, a coffee shop on Little Gaetz Avenue.
Ames started working with NightReach earlier this year. She said she was nervous at first when her class saw a presentation of what they do, but after thinking about it for a bit she thought it would be an interesting experience.
Now that she has been at it for several months she feels comfortable in the job and enjoys providing health care to vulnerable people.
Miles said she feels safer meeting and helping clients than she would with men coming out of a Red Deer nightclub.
Miles spends a lot of time working with CAANS in various capacities and rarely leaves the office. Educated as a community support worker, she enjoys the night interactions and the impact they can have on the health of their clients.
Rob sheltered himself from the wind while waiting for Safe Harbour to open for the evening, but had a smile on his face when he saw Ames and Miles approach. That smile got wider when the NightReach workers handed him a gift card that covers a coffee and a sandwich.
Ames and Miles set out from the Turning Point on Little Gaetz a little after 6 p.m. and head north. Within a few blocks, they meet their first client. He asks for some supplies and talks a little about a job opportunity.
Further on their route, a woman pulls Ames into a hallway to discretely ask for some items. Miles makes sure to keep Ames in sight for safety reasons.
They make sure to hit spots downtown where people are likely to be. They walk a six block radius from Turning Point to Potter’s Hands to McDonald’s to Safe Harbour, to the Buffalo.
Back at McDonald’s, Walter said he had a home but lost it trying to help other people. He said he would go to the Central Alberta AIDS Network and get needles for other people to shoot up under his roof. But he was eventually robbed blind and left with nothing.
“I gave them a safe place, a shower, some leftovers and showed them what life was supposed to be like,” said Walter.
“I had one guy live at my place for a few months. Model kid, treated me with 100 per cent respect. One day he fell in love with a girl and had a little fun and he ended up robbing me. They’re stuck in their rut.”
He encourages young kids to get off the street and go back to school, to foster care or back to their homes.
But it can be a hard sell.
“It’s all about themselves and where they can get their money for their next fix, treatment whatever you want to call it,” said Walter.
A self-proclaimed functional alcoholic, Walter battles with prescription painkillers such as dilaudid.
“My pill addiction is an addiction, I know it is an addiction,” he said. “I won’t cut down on my prescription because I don’t want to feel the pain I go through when I’m walking.”
On this night, he’s headed over to the mats at Safe Harbour but he’s hopeful to get into his own housing before Christmas. Ames gives him a Quenched gift card, but he says he is going to give it to someone else.
For more information on CAANS and NightReach, visit www.caans.org or call 403-346-8858.