Today I learned of the death of the first of my clients I ever housed through the Streets to Homes program. He was in his mid-twenties and died of an overdose. Adrian (I’ve changed all names here, for the usual reasons) was a kid engaged in an intense battle with his addictions. It was an all-consuming battle, but I can’t truly describe it as a battle ‘against’ his addictions. At times, it was clearly his sobriety that was the enemy. At other times, it seemed it was he himself he was determined to undo. Though the battle seemed to be on-going, and the focus of most of his waking moments, the battle lines were never very clearly drawn. I imagine that his was a battle like many that occur in wars, once romance and patriotism and the veneer of order are peeled away – a confusing horror of weapons wielded in anger but without aim, of blind violence against whatever person or object is near, of rape and vengeance seized upon with an unreigned appetite whenever the opportunity presents itself.
When Adrian was on the street, before he was housed and making some tentative steps toward recovery, while he was still sleeping in parking garages and on top of grates in the downtown core, he was the youngest in a crowd of homeless men who were all locked in debilitating struggles with alcohol and drugs and who formed a loose yet cohesive community. There was Ted, a man in his mid-forties who had himself once been a social worker. Ted also had a claim as the “youngest” of the crowd, in the sense that he had the least direct experience of the streets, having only become homeless a few months before. He was the centre of the group, the one around whom the others congregated, partly because of his age, because of his education, and possibly because his having once been a worker himself testified to the arbitrariness of the catastrophe that had put each of them on the street. But it also had a lot to do with his calm and easy spirit, and his way of pulling the guys into moving the same way, instead of against each another. There was Bernie, in his thirties, who proudly and ardently refused all help from workers, but who loved to welcome and talk with us all the same. There was Donnie, living half the time with the grate crowd and the rest of his time with a mentally and emotionally fragile girlfriend he shared a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with. In all, there were about ten regulars and hangers-on, about half of them Caucasian and the other half Native, sharing their booze and sleeping space on the grate, caring for one or two dogs, supporting one another through their arrests, visits to emergency rooms and stays in detox when the lifestyle became too intense to bear.
At any given time, two or three of them were strongly motivated to work at getting housing, but perhaps the most serious of their challenges was staying focused and sober long enough to move forward. And one of the most impressive and moving aspects of this community was how, to a man, they alternately supported and pressured Adrian, the youngest, and Ted, the newest of their number, to make the necessary changes to escape the street. This concern was masked in bravado at times, and in the claim that these two were less strong, fit or ready for the harshness of the streets, while they themselves could stand it awhile longer. They had already survived it for years, after all. But beneath the show of deference and concern, one could usually glimpse the fear, that maybe they’d withstood the streets for too long to ever break free. Adrian could be saved because he was still so young, and because his father still came looking for him, sitting with hims in coffee shops and going along on appointments at the OW office, visiting him in Detox and going with him to see the ruined and smelly rooms his benefits might afford, even offering him inducements to try getting clean one more time. Ted might be saved because he’d once had a substantial success in the world, and not in the too-distant past. And he had a wife who hadn't given up and wanted to be with him. And he had a dog, and what a friend a blessing and dog is when you live on the street. Maybe he could make it again.
And in fact, two years further on, Ted has made leaps. He’s been housed for over a year now. He’s reconnected with family. He’s even looking into university, to work at completing a degree. He tried making the occasional visit to the grate, “for old times”, and to reconnect with those who’d kept him alive and going when he didn’t always feel he could himself. But every time he did so, he wound up on a binge, wasted, blacked out, maybe arrested. So he finally stopped going back there. He’s learned to keep his eyes directed forward.
But Adrian didn’t make it. The last I heard of him before today was from Donnie, now housed himself, no longer with the girlfriend, working part-time, but still on the street with the guys from time to time. He told me that Adrian still came around too much, still used indiscriminately, both alcohol and whatever else was put in front of him. And now he’s gone.
Adrian isn’t the only one of my clients to die an untimely death, directly related to street life. There’ve been a few. But learning of his death today really struck me. It brought to mind the early mornings when I’d find him along the sidewalk, cold and shaking violently from early withdrawal, panning for a few dollars so he could make a trip to the beer store when it opened, to start his day right. He’d acknowledge the pain, but would then laugh it off. He’d tell me he knew what he was doing, and that he’d kick all of this. He knew how to. He’d done if before and would do it again, from will power and from the smarts he knew he had. He just wasn’t ready yet. Why pretend he was. The day would come. We’d all see.