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The homeless experience in North Perth, Part 2: Access to health supports

As the leaves fall off the trees, Ichabod says it’s harder to keep a camp hidden along the banks of the Maitland River. That’s okay though, because he says it will soon be time to find a warmer campsite on higher ground. The cold air settles in the river valleys first. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

‘Just because we might be addicts it doesn’t mean we don’t have actual medical needs… I have extremely high blood pressure and I haven’t been on my meds since I got out of jail’

This is the second in a series of articles allowing local homeless people to discuss their experiences in the community. For their protection, aliases are being used. This instalment deals with their experiences with addiction, physical and mental health supports, and contains language that some readers may find offensive. Future articles will discuss their experiences with police and their own suggestions about what can be done to help them out.

Part 1 can be read here.

As the population of North Perth grows, issues many residents associate with urban centres are starting to be noticed close to home. Homelessness is an issue which is not new to Listowel but until recently it was easier to overlook. It is now a visible aspect of the community, even if some of the homeless living here wish they could remain invisible.

Andrea Charest, executive director of It Takes A Village, the free store in the heart of Listowel, arranged a gathering of people dealing with homelessness. Sitting around a large table in the back of the store, they enjoyed pizza and talked about their perspective of what is referred to as the “homelessness problem.”

The discussion turned to physical and mental health and where homeless people can go when they need support.

Red said he has been to the hospital many times.

“I’ve got lots of injuries,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of different ailments. Every time I went in there it was just the ignorance – ah it’s this guy – I always felt out of place.”

Ichabod avoids Listowel Memorial Hospital now.

“They’ll say you are a pill seeker,” he said. “That’s funny because I’ve never even done pills in my life.”
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He said Palmerston and District Hospital is good.

Red, on the other hand, was prescribed painkillers for years for a bad back. He said he feels safer leaving Listowel to go to the hospital. His habit eventually became an addiction, but for over 10 years now he has been on a methadone program. Well, most of the time he is. He has been feeling extremely sick over the past two weeks because his methadone was cut off, and he said methadone is essentially just trading one addiction for another.

“I’m hurting,” he said. “It’s 12 days now. I’m over the hump anyway.”

Red is still getting his methadone through his doctor in Toronto.

“That’s another thing in town,” he said. “A heavy waiting list for a family doctor.”

He described it as “a pain in the ass” to get methadone in Listowel. For years, he has had to go to Toronto once a month to leave urine samples, and if he missed his appointment, it would be counted as a dirty test.

“Most people coming off anything, opiates, heroin – a dirty test is positive for any type of drug, so if you are taking them and still taking the methadone you can be cut off,” he said.

Charest, playing devil’s advocate in the conversation, asked why they don’t just get some help?

“Throughout my life, I’ve experimented with many different ways to deal and I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I at least know what it is I’m trying to stifle,” said Ichabod. “I’ve tried lots of different ways and this is what works. Unfortunately, that thing that works for me has been deemed unfit and dangerous by some other people and it’s been arbitrarily banned and controlled. I find myself at odds with an established system and I don’t care, I’m going to do me.”

He said life is not a video game and there is no reset.

“It’s my life. I’m the one who lives one time… I’m not going to spend any more of it unhappy and uncomfortable than I absolutely have to…”

– Ichabod

“It’s my life,” he said. “I’m the one who lives one time… I’m not going to spend any more of it unhappy and uncomfortable than I absolutely have to… You keep making your policies, keep spending your money on policing. They are going to throw me in a cage for a couple of days and say, ‘bad, do as you are told’, and I’m going to say, ‘suck it because I’m going to do me.’ I don’t go out and harm other people to do it. I’m not dangerous.”

That said, Ichabod agreed there are very valid reasons why drugs like methamphetamine and opioids are controlled substances.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not promoting this in any way, shape or form,” he said. “It’s not even something I call a last resort. It’s ‘OK, I’ve found myself here now I’m going to make the best of this because it seems to do what I want.’ I can understand if I was out there profiting from people’s suffering, that’s a different thing. Spend your policing time on that.”

Ichabod said he’s not out there scaring your children. Instead, he goes out of his way to stay out of the way and not be noticed.

“I don’t understand why I’m a problem that needs to have time spent during a town council meeting to address,” he said.

But Red did mention several things about homelessness which are problems, such as certain members of the homeless community who may not know how to get prepared to survive the winter.

“That’s where there is the problem,” he said. “I feel guilty leaving someone out there who can’t make it. That holds you back a bit.”

“There is that,” said Ichabod. “I never thought of that. Now you made me feel like a dick.”

“I’ve been thinking of that,” said Red.

Both of them agreed some people will need help in the winter.

“In the spring thaw you are going to find someone,” said Red.

Charest pointed out that it’s not easy to find affordable housing in North Perth, and if you are homeless it’s even harder.

A look inside the tent Ichabod and Josey share. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

Josey, another member of Listowel’s homeless community who decided to join the discussion, said she didn’t start doing drugs until her kids were gone and her life was upside down.

“I realized you can get in a door with a little bit of dope in your pocket,” she said. “It’s a foot in the door every time. I realized this and I’m thinking ‘wow, I have a decent connection. My best friend on the planet is one of the biggest dope guys in Stratford’ – I’m going to use this avenue to my benefit.”

So, at first, she kept a little bit in her pocket so she could get a place to sleep but then she started using it.

“That’s where I am at now,” said Josey. “It stopped being a foot in the door and now it’s an addiction.”

On that note, Charest mentioned It Takes A Village has started stocking clean supplies in the gear program.

“So you can get stuff at the health unit, the pharmacy or here now,” she said. “It’s just one more place to be able to give people access, no questions asked. I keep that stuff in my office just because some volunteers may not be comfortable to give that out.”

“That’s good to know, especially in a rural community,” said Josey. “I remember before you had the needle exchange at the health clinic. It was a real big problem.”

Charest asked Josey how she manages to feel feminine while living outside.

“All these things the media says a woman is supposed to be,” she said. “How do you embrace any little tiny bit of self-confidence when you are living like that?”

Josey said she may not be the best person to ask that question.

“Honestly, and this is probably one of the things that drive (Ichabod) crazy, I don’t give a flying fuck what somebody thinks about me,” she said. “I will bend down and pick up a cigarette butt if I need a cigarette. If you don’t like me or you have a problem with me, that’s your problem, not mine.”

But she still does her makeup and hair and she wants to look pretty and still wants Ichabod to think she’s pretty.

“But I don’t care if (anyone else) thinks I’m pretty,” said Josey. “No offence, but if I lived by what other people think, I’d be stressed out. I would never be happy with my existence if I was worried about what everyone else was thinking because it would consume me. Our image is all people see because they don’t want to get close enough to know us.”

Even though Ichabod is an experienced outdoorsman, sometimes when it’s too damp out after a day of rain, it’s not easy to get the fire to light. (Colin Burrowes Photo)

The people sitting around the table admitted they have a reverse bias and they are very wary of letting people into their circle.

“Very much so,” said Red.

“It’s an ‘us and them’ thing,” agreed Ichabod.

“Not just that but I have a big thing with humans in general, like I don’t like to let too many humans close to me because every time I do that’s how I get hurt,” said Josey. “The fewer people in your life, the fewer people are around to hurt you. I know that’s not necessarily the healthy way to be but that’s my jaded way.”

Members of the homeless community feel there is a lack of access to mental health supports locally.

“Maybe they are there and maybe we just haven’t found them,” said Ichabod. “Maybe they just need to advertise them better.”

Charest said there are resources available in the community.

“We have the mental health association here in town… for counselling, you can pick up the phone (and) you can call a crisis line,” she said. “You can get some counselling over the phone. Choices for Change, you can connect with them and you can have counselling over the phone concerning addiction and some of those concerns.”

Red said sometimes people just don’t know they should be looking for these supports.

“A lot of the time they say a crazy person doesn’t know they are crazy,” he said. “If they don’t know there is a problem why are they going to go get help.”

Charest asked if there are other reasons people aren’t accessing available resources.

“I didn’t know it was here but I’m not out looking for it either,” said Ichabod.

Josey pointed out some people do not access these resources because they don’t have phones or reliable access to the internet.

“Even when we do it’s usually Wi-Fi only,” she said. “There have been times when I don’t even come out of the bush for almost a month to get on the Wi-Fi to use my phone because I just couldn’t be bothered.”

“They treat you like you are scum or less. It’s awful in there. I hate it. Don’t let them take your blood because they are going to test it for drugs and if you are on drugs you are not getting any help. They will send you on your way and tell you to come back when you are clean… It’s going to make me cry just thinking about it.”

– Josey

Then Charest suggested walking into places such as the Listowel hospital to find out about supports.

“You want to walk into the Listowel hospital – are you nuts? No way, I will die first,” said Josey. “I have high blood pressure. I should be on medicine every single fricking day. I will not go back into that place. I’d have to be unconscious to go in there.”

When asked why, Josey said, “Because I smoke crystal meth and my teeth look like this.” She opened her mouth to show the damage drug use has caused to her teeth and gums.

“This has been a recurring theme for us,” said Ichabod.

“It’s awful,” said Josey. “They treat you like you are scum or less. It’s awful in there. I hate it. Don’t let them take your blood because they are going to test it for drugs and if you are on drugs you are not getting any help. They will send you on your way and tell you to come back when you are clean… It’s going to make me cry just thinking about it.”

Charest said this discussion is important because it has been brought to her attention that the Listowel Wingham Hospitals Alliance is trying to find ways to make their facilities more welcoming.

“Don’t be so judgemental,” said Josey. “Just because we might be addicts it doesn’t mean we don’t have actual medical needs … I have extremely high blood pressure and I haven’t been on my meds since I got out of jail. I worry about a stroke every single fucking day.”

Ichabod encouraged her to calm down.

“I will not go in that place,” she said.

With few exceptions, the experiences they recounted made them feel unwelcome if they needed medical treatment.

Charest said she has spent time sitting with people who use her phone to talk to a doctor so they don’t have to go into the hospital. She sits with them and supports them during the conversation. She asked if something could be set up allowing people to access resources without going into a hospital, would it make a difference? She suggested it could be done in a place where they are more comfortable like the Village.

“Yes, it would,” said Ichabod. “Just having that buffer of another person there as a support.”

“Having someone who you know supports you – they are on your side makes all the difference in the world,” said Josey.

Charest offered to connect with the doctors on their behalf.

“I would be willing to go to bat for that,” she said.

Ichabod said that is not the first thing which would have sprung to his mind as a solution for one of the problems facing the homeless community, but he thinks it is probably one of the things which will do the most good.

“A simple fix to what is probably the biggest problem we have got,” said Josey. “Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Colin Burrowes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the Listowel Banner. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.