Down, But Not Out

An introspective examination of the tragedy of homelessness in the richest society ever to exist on Earth

Homelessness is not an accident. Homelessness is not a problem. Homelessness is a political agenda. Why else would there be so many homeless people in the richest country that ever existed on the face of this planet.

Friday, June 22, 2007

This is my story (click here)

I used to be a successful and wealthy businessman, but I was homeless for 10 years. Before that, I was the owner of 2 Century 21 Real Estate offices with 100 employees. I had recently received an award for having the third highest sales volume for all of Century 21 of Canada and I was doing small real estate developments when I met Marlene and fell in love.

She introduced me to crack cocaine and that was the beginning of my downfall. At the time, I had been considering running for the Mayor’s office in East York, but my new lifestyle precluded that. Within 2 years of my first taste of crack, I was bankrupt and living on welfare. Once my money was gone, so was Marlene.

It took 8 more years of constantly downgrading my living conditions before I finally hit the streets.

At first, I tried living in a shelter, but the conditions were unacceptable. I was not willing to submit to a system which required me to sleep only during a specific time period and eat only what was provided and only at specific times which did not correspond to the dictates of my appetite. After breakfast each morning, we were thrown out regardless of weather conditions and not allowed back until lunch. After lunch we were sent back to the streets until supper. If we did not return by a specific time, we lost our bed to someone else and our possessions were put in a garbage bag and left on the floor for anyone to ransack. If they were not claimed within a few days, they were thrown into the garbage. The worst thing was sleeping in a room with 50 other men in beds only a few feet apart. Can you imagine trying to sleep with the sounds of 50 men talking, laughing, crying, coughing and farting as a constant background, or my concerns about catching their diseases or bugs? Even in jail the maximum is 2 people sleeping in cots in a cell with a third forced to sleep on the floor with his head inches from a toilet. It only took a few days to choose the relative freedom of the streets.

I moved out and found an empty garage for shelter shortly before Christmas during the worst winter Toronto had seen for 50 years.

Thus began 10 years of locating a place to shelter me from the elements and store my possessions only to be found within a short time and forced to move along.

On one occasion, I watched a sergeant from 14 division souse my squat and all my possessions with gasoline and set it on fire. Not only was I a witness to this arson, but there was an additional eyewitness. I went to a legal clinic and they helped me to lodge a complaint against the officer in question. Nearly a year passed with nothing happening and I was finally notified that the complaint had been investigated and no grounds were found to pursue the matter. I was amazed since they did not interview me or the other eyewitness. So much for my rights. It was clear that I had no human rights because I was judged less than human.

During the 10 years I was on the streets, welfare for homeless singles, which was euphemistically renamed “Ontario Works” was set at $195.00 per month and this was raised to about $200.00 per month only a couple of years ago. Obviously, a person can not survive on such a meagre amount, so I began panhandling to supplement my income.

Eventually I tried squeegeeing cars for money, but I wasn’t very good at it, so I invented panhandling cars with a cup. This worked well for me and allowed me to support myself and my addiction without turning to violent crime, but the government in its efforts to criminalize poverty passed the Safe Streets Act making it illegal. At first the penalty was a ticket, but recently, an immediate jail sentence has been imposed.

I remember a few years back, I was working by the streetcar tracks at the corner of Spadina and the Lakeshore when 3 bicycle cops stopped to give me a ticket. The first cop asked, “Why don’t you do something useful with your life?” My immediate reply was, “I’ve provided over 2000 man years of employment in this city. What have you done?” At that moment, a streetcar came along and the black cop said he was going to throw me in front of it. I grabbed him by his jacket and as I began to pull him with me in front of the streetcar, I said, “Go ahead, I’ll take you with me.” That shut him up. The third cop took me over to the sidewalk and after talking with me for a few minutes; he gave me a toonie and left with his partners. My parting words were, “You’re OK, but how can you stand working with those two jerks who were right beside him.” His reply was, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

A few years ago, two cops threw a friend of mine off the railway overpass at Spadina and Front. He sustained multiple fractures in both legs. Lucky he didn’t die.

The greedy bastard dealers fill their drugs with all kinds of cut so you can’t even get a good high. Some of the crap they fill it with will make you sick or even kill you. They don’t give a damn. It’s not as if the customers can complain to the Better Business Bureau. One of my friends was late paying his debt to one of them and the bastard almost killed him. He beat him with a steel pipe. The poor guy had over 100 stitches in his head.

The cops don’t give a damn. I’ve seen deals go down right in front of the cops and they just ignore it. If a dealer gets caught he’s back on the street and dealing right away. If he gets convicted, he gets a slap on the wrist and the drug bosses promote him to a higher volume set up. It’s all organized. If an independent starts up, the connected dealers give him up to the cops so they can look like they’re doing something, but all that does is keep the competition out of the connected dealers’ territories. Meanwhile the official policy of the police force is to ignore the street dealers and go after the big guys. And everyone knows that the big guys are protected. They spend a fortune buying cops, judges and politicians.

If they really wanted to stop crack from destroying people’s lives the first thing they should do is bust all the street dealers. If they were taken off the streets and refused bail and when convicted given long sentences, the message would be clear to all the punks that think killing people with drugs is an easy way to make a living. Sentences should be the same as for premeditated murder because that’s just what it is. If you remove easy access to the drugs, less people would be trying them and rehab programs could really work. Right now, over 90% of the addicts that go through a program go right back to using, but I’ll tell you more about that later. Instead of that, the system makes the victims of the crime the target and jails addicts.

The larger benefit of getting rid of the street dealers is that without a distribution network, the drug barons wouldn’t be able to get their product to market. Can you imagine how fast our ghettos would be reclaimed by honest people if the street dealers were gone?

I often went days without eating or sleeping. Once I smoke, I can’t eat. I’d roll a joint to give me an appetite. Without grass, I’d probably have died of malnutrition. I weighed les than 100 pounds when I was homeless.

The booze and the grass would slow my heart down when I’m smoking crack or I’d die of a heart attack. Sometimes I’d need to take a valium to ease the stress on my heart. When I was on a run, I usually went 5 to 7 days without sleep and with only a little food. I never really got to sleep. I just kept going until I blacked out from sleep deprivation. Then I’d rest for a couple of days and eat like a pig and then it was time for another run.

I never really slept. If I wasn’t high or trying to find a way to get high, I was probably blacked out. If I didn’t get to my squat before I ran out of strength, I had to worry about being rousted by the cops or attacked by some fool who thought it was fun to beat up homeless people. I forgot how to sleep and still suffer from a sleep disorder. I rarely sleep more than one or two hours at a time.

I lived for a little over 2 years in a shack I built down by Old Fort York. It was well hidden in a group of trees and I added camouflage netting and tree branches to help obscure it. It was great. I had a sliding picture window, a roof deck, a bar BQ and a garden. I had a cook stove and lantern that ran off a propane tank. The lantern gave off enough heat to keep me warm in the winter. The police eventually found it and had it bulldozed, but I still have a couple of pictures here.

There is one from the outside, showing an outreach worker, friend of mine who had come to make sure I was all right and one from New Years Eve 2002. A friend and his dog were sharing a beer with me and his girlfriend took the picture. I almost died there one night. I’d been on a 7 day run and I blacked out on top of a lit candle. Luckily, the temperature was 25 below Zero and I was wearing 7 layers of clothes. I woke up when the flames’ which had totally engulfed me, had completely destroyed the outer layers and finally reached my skin. I put the flames out and blacked out again. When I came too, 40 hours later, I thought it had been a dream until I saw that my clothing was in ashes. I still had over a hundred dollars worth of crack when I blacked out so I smoked it and went on a 4 day run.”

When you live on the street, if you leave food out, it attracts raccoons and rats and once they find you they’re almost impossible to get rid of.

Kids can be a real problem. They throw stones at me and one night they set my shack on fire while I was sleeping inside. Luckily I smelled the smoke and woke up in time to put the fire out.

You know, crack is so fucked up. I had been trying to quit ever since I realised that I had become an addict, but I never made it more than 2 weeks. Every addict knows that it’s stealing his humanity and destroying his body, but hardly anyone succeeds in kicking it. 20 years ago, when I became an addict, we didn’t know how bad the stuff was. We thought it was like smoking a little grass. You know; something to share with your friends at a party. My friends and I would get together on Friday nights and smoke some rock to get in the party mood, but it didn’t take long before we were smoking on Saturdays too. Then it was one night through the week and before long it was every day and every night. I was the first one to realise that we’d become addicts. We were all successful businessmen. Most of us owned our own companies and had several employees, so when I told my friends that I thought we were addicts they all laughed. I told them that if any of them could go a full week without smoking I’d admit I was wrong, but none of us made it.

Anyhow, I had been trying to quit on and off ever since, but it feels so good that after a few days without it, I’d get to thinking about it and that was all I’d need to make the call. And if I managed to get past that stage I’d start having the physical withdrawals. Mainly pain, nausea and diarrhoea. The only way to feel better is to smoke some crack, so when I couldn’t stand being sick any longer, I’d get high. The dealers loved me because I was a chronic addict and they were getting rich at my expense, so if I didn’t contact them for a while, they’d come by and give me some free drugs to get me going again. I never had the strength to say no, even though I knew exactly what they were doing.

One reason rehab programs have such a low success rate is the simple fact that the only thing an addict knows is the drug culture. When he cuts himself off from drugs, he has to drop all contact with everyone he knows. He leaves behind a life with friends and routines and there is nothing there to replace it. He exists in a void and doesn’t even have a friend to talk about it with. I believe that is why Cocaine Anonymous is so popular. It gives the addict an anchor with people to talk to who are sharing the same problems. This is fine as a transitional support system, but it is just an extension of the drug culture. After all, everyone there is an addict. Most people just don’t realise that this is a transitional support and never get beyond it. If he can’t build a new life for himself outside the drug culture, the odds are that he will relapse. A rehab program that suggests that the addict endeavour to reclaim the life he had before drugs is doomed from the very beginning. If he was happy in his old life, he wouldn’t have become an addict in the first place. I believe that an emphasis on exploring the possibilities of a new life has the highest chance of success.

Another cause of relapse is monotony. The most dangerous times are those when boredom sets in. The mind will immediately begin seeking a means of overcoming the situation and doing some drugs is the first thing that the addict will think of. Rehab programs should encourage their patients to explore different plans to keep busy. A few are work, school, volunteerism or hobbies. Anything that keeps an addict occupied will help to prevent his mind from wandering into the dangerous territory of testing himself with “Just a little toke.” Deep in the addict’s subconscious is a trap. We all fool ourselves into thinking that once we have been clean for awhile; we can go back to being a casual user. Many addicts never get to the point of admitting the fact that you can’t be a part time addict. If you use even once, you will eventually revert to full time drug addiction.

At least during the first phase of rehabilitation it is important for him to avoid his old friends and haunts. The strongest of us will succumb to temptation if it is right there in our faces.

On the flip side, taking on too much all at once can lead to frustration and feelings of inadequacy which provide another road back into the abyss. I’ve learned all of this during my 20 years of addiction, both from personal experience and by observation of other addicts.

I used to break a $20.00 piece into 4 tokes and try to spread them out so that I have time to come down between each one. It’s hard to do because, once the initial rush wears off in a couple of minutes, there is an overwhelming compulsion to do another. If I didn’t resist that urge, I learned that I just didn’t get off on the next one and it’s too hard on my heart. There aren’t many crack addicts who live to my age. As you get older, you become more susceptible to strokes and heart attacks. I know younger people who put a whole $50.00 piece on their pipe at once. That would certainly kill me. I’ve heard of cops who when they catch someone smoking force them to smoke their whole piece at once, presumably in the hopes of causing an overdose death. I wonder if they have been the cause of some of the deaths on our streets.

In all my life, I’ve never seen death to the extent that it exists on the street. Every year, several people I knew I knew died out there, and many I didn’t know. Most of the deaths were totally preventable. The causes, exposure, violence, disease and drug overdoses all could be prevented by providing a decent home and realistic treatment. Being forced to live on the streets is a death sentence, imposed by the politicians who refuse to fund an adequate housing policy. A homeless person gets worn down until he finally succumbs to a premature death. It’s disgraceful that in the richest society that has ever existed on the face of the Earth, we should have a political policy that forces people out of their home to die on the streets. Although addiction is a major contributor to homelessness, the number one culprit is our government. We live in a society where a person who works at a full time job at minimum wage can not afford to pay his rent and a person who is unfortunate enough to have to rely on social assistance is guaranteed a sentence of extended homelessness followed by death. More people become homeless for economic reasons than all the others together; and this while the average upper middle class income is several hundred thousand dollars per year. A single homeless person on welfare receives less than $3,000.00 annually. Where is the justice in this? I’d love to see the politicians responsible for this policy try to survive on such a pittance. But no, they believe that they are better then the rest of us. They recently gave themselves a 25% raise, but there’s no money in the budget to allow the people at the bottom to afford a home let alone a modicum of self respect. Come to think of it, when did we start allowing the politicians to set their own salaries? Don’t they work for us? I don’t know of any other job where a person gets hired on a virtually irrevocable 4 year contract and can then tell the boss how much salary he must receive, even if he doesn’t show up for work half the time. I guess I really should have run for mayor.

I’ve said quite a bit about the bad cops we have to contend with, but there are lots of really good cops too. I’ve had them give me money, food and clothing. They have come by my squat in extreme cold weather to be sure I’m ok. They’ve been lenient with me when they have caught me getting high. I just want you to know that the majority are ok. The problem is that we tend to tar them all with the same brush. When one of them beats one of us up or harasses us they all become the enemy. The reverse is also true. There lots of asshole addicts who bring it on themselves and on the rest of us, but most of us are just trying to survive and deal with our problems. Most of us try to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but it’s getting harder all the time because the authorities have been fencing off all the little hideaways where we go to sleep or do our drugs. When there is no place to hide, we are forced to do them in public places. I wonder which approach is better.

I rarely used the services that are available to homeless people. I learned how to take care of myself out there. I didn’t use the soup kitchens because it takes too much time to walk there and back and line up waiting to be served food that I usually didn’t like or that was bad and made me sick. I can make enough money in the same time to buy a meal of my choosing. They’re great for most of the homeless and serve a real need, but I’ve learned how to get along without them. I did use the food banks though. I cooked most of my meals in my squat. I’ve already told you why I wouldn’t use the shelters even if I was freezing, but I did use the showers and have a coffee with my friends while doing my laundry at The Meeting Place, which is a drop in centre at Bathurst and Queen.

I never participate in protests. I believe they do more harm than good. I can’t imagine politicians or citizens being convinced to have sympathy for a crowd of rabble, bent on disrupting their lives. Protests only serve to stroke the egos of the activists. I think that if people can gain a better understanding of us, they may be more inclined to take some action to make our lives a little less hazardous. That’s why I’m sharing these thoughts.

There’s one thing about being homeless; you have lots of time to think about these things. What I find most offensive is being treated like something less than human by some of the people I ask to help me with a little change. If they only realised how quickly they or someone they love could find themselves out here with us. How many of them could maintain their high standards if they suddenly became unable to work due to illness or loss of employment? The social assistance program was designed as a safety net to prevent this tragedy, but greedy politicians have gutted it so they could balance the budget on the backs of the poorest people in our society. You’ll have to forgive me if I sound bitter, but I was paying in excess of $30,000.00 per month in taxes to our government and this is what I have to show for it. As hard as I try to find a way to justify it, there just isn’t one. How can our society justify condemning us to die on the streets like we were in some third world country? You’d think we were in the middle of a depression instead of the longest lasting economic boom in modern history.

When you’ve been out on the streets long enough, you begin to believe that you deserve to be treated like a throw away person. It’s hard to hang on to your self respect when you’re forced to beg for a living and eat other peoples’ garbage.

Recovering addicts require constant affirmation from people they respect while they’re struggling to rebuild their self esteem. To fully reclaim a lost soul and prevent a relapse, regular visits with a follow up councillor should continue for a couple of years. Initially, this should include a weekly home visit as well as a visit to the councillor’s office. The frequency should be gradually reduced over a 2 year period according to the councillor’s assessment of need. During this period the addict should be encouraged to pursue a pattern of growth in all aspects of his life with the aim of establishing a feeling of self worth through an ongoing series of accomplishments with affirmation of each. This may seem a high price to pay to properly rehabilitate an individual, but the end result would be a far greater success rate in rehabilitation efforts and the return of a productive member of society for a lifetime. This seems much wiser to me when the alternative is to write off all the years of investment our society puts into raising a child from birth through school and into the labour force. Economically it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to write this investment off when a little further investment would have a high probability of his successfully returning to the work force. After spending years as a social outcast, an addict needs time and guidance if he is to rebuild a life within society. Wouldn’t that be better than the current cynical policy of denying us enough assistance to survive on and quietly doing everything possible to make our lives miserable?

On March 2, 2005, I decided I’d had enough of trying to quit drugs without help. I called an outreach worker friend of mine and asked her to help me get into St. Michael’s Detox Centre. That was the last time I did any street drugs of drank any alcohol. I spent 6 weeks at the detox centre, going through cold turkey withdrawal, resting, eating, attending their in-house rehabilitation meetings and generally getting healthy in body and mind. The only drugs I have used since then are cigarettes and non narcotic pain medication for my arthritis.

When I left the detox, I moved into a halfway house for recovering addicts. While I was there, I attended weekly outpatient rehab interviews at the Salvation Army Harbour Light Centre.

While I was at the halfway house, I upgraded my application for assisted housing. I had been on a waiting list for several years and still had years to wait, but because I was a senior by then, I qualified for housing in a seniors’ building. The apartment I live in became available in a few months and I moved here October 1, 2005.

None of this could have happened today. The government has closed down some of the detox centres and reduced the amount of time a person can stay to less than a week. No addict can prepare for a new life without drugs in such a short time, so there is no hope now. Even if he is lucky enough to get one of the few remaining spots in a detox centre, he will be sent back into the same old life within a week. No matter how much he wants to quit, there is no chance. Just more evidence of the government’s determination to condemn addicts to a life of desperation.

The kitchen in my apartment is smaller than I’d like, but everything works. I keep a good supply of food here. When I’m too sick to go out, I know I’ll have plenty to eat. I have a few medical problems which have strong negative effects on me, but the worst is Hepatitis C. I got it by sharing a needle one day. The majority of people on the streets eventually get it. It’s a silent epidemic that slowly kills you. It’s very hard to cure. The doctors give me a 40% chance of being cured if I go through a year of chemotherapy. I’ve been on a waiting list for a couple of years, but I’m beginning to believe that I’ll be dead before I get treated.

I have 2 hobbies, which help me to keep busy so I don’t start thinking of drugs. I like computers and I’m trying to learn how to build web sites. I can do pretty good at it, but I still have a lot to learn. Also, I enjoy digital photography. I’m getting pretty good at that too and I’ve developed a technique to enhance my images using half a dozen programs on my computer. The finished product is my artistic impression of the picture and I call it Digital photoArt. I donated 6 pictures to the OCAP art auction fundraiser and they sold them, so I guess people like my work. I trade some with other artists so that I’ll eventually have a pretty good art collection.

I made it! Others could too. Most addicts want to quit. All they need is a better system of support and rehabilitation for a large percentage of them to recover. And a safe place to call home.


Anonymous said...

I really loved the way you told your story.
That's the real life of a cocaine addict .
I have a son that was a cocaine addict too. Now , thanks God, he's trying to have a new life. We know that's is very difficult , but I guess, with the family support, he will surpass.
Murilo ( Brazil )

Ronzig said...

Thanks. I'll say a prayer that your son succeeds.
It's the same story all over the world. the plague of drug dependency just keeps spreading. It's reassuring to receive comments, especially from so far away. I'm hoping that the information and stories on this site will be helpful to others. Don't forget to send this link to your friends so that they can see it too.