'WE'RE HIGH, BUT WE'RE NOT HOPELESS'
Author: Bruce Owen
Winnipeg Free Press
Mon, 29 May 2006
JEFF holds up last Sunday's Free Press and says a story and photos of Main Street solvent abusers didn't tell the full story of why he and his friends live on the street.
He saw the story while sitting in jail. Now he lives at Neeginan Emergency Shelter, formerly Jack's Place, on Main Street.
"In a way I was ashamed," the 25-year-old says of the photos showing people sniffing cheap and easily available paint thinner and other substances. "I didn't want people to know these people were my brothers.
"But I want people to know we're not different from them. We're the same.
"Maybe if we came from a good family we'd be different. Most of us were abused. Maybe if we came from a loving home things would've been all right. We'd be decent like you sitting here talking to us."
Jeff was one of about a dozen solvent abusers and other addicts who asked to meet the Free Press last week at the homeless shelter. "We're not hopeless," says Norman, a 31-year-old solvent addict whose photo appeared in Sunday's story. "The street out there is my life. The sidewalk out there is my life when I'm intoxicated and sniffed up."
"We may be high, but we're not hopeless," adds Charlotte, 26. She says she's been on the street since she was eight.
She and Norman say it's hard for people like them to get treatment and the help they need.
The Behavioural Health Foundation is the biggest and most respected facility in the province, but there is a three-to-four-month waiting list to get in. Treatment for sniffers also isn't easy and its often unsuccessful. Solvent abusers need more time in treatment than most drug and alcohol abusers as they appear to have less reasoning and resistance power.
"There are not a lot of places to go," says Mary Wilson, a counsellor at Neeginan, which is Cree for "our place."
"People who want treatment wait for ever and ever," Wilson says. "They need help and need it now."
Jean Doucha, executive director of the Behavioural Health Foundation, said right now there are 65 men and 76 women on the waiting list for the centre's drug, alcohol and other substances treatment program. Doucha said solvent abusers require long-term care because their habit causes nerve and neurological damage that's difficult to diagnose.
She also says the current get-tough-on-crime approach by Ottawa and the province does little if anything to reduce substance abuse.
More public funding is needed to increase treatment spaces, not more jail cells, and prevention programs.
"We don't look after our neighbours anymore," she says. "These people are still going to get out of jail and they're going to be even more bitter."
In the meantime, people like Jeff, Norman and Charlotte and the others say they go on day-by-day doing what they can to look after themselves and each other.
"We may look all messed up, but we know what we're doing," Jeff says. "People should know this isn't the way we want to live.
"But we're the bottom of the barrel."