A few months ago, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a remarkable grade 12 student, Makenna Carl, who wanted to suspend judgment and seek to understand homelessness. Today, she sent me a copy of her final paper that she submitted for credit in Psychology 12. My heart is full. Please take time to read through as Makenna’s work is thorough, thoughtful and most importantly, inspiring. Our future is in good hands.
Escaping Homelessness and Becoming Sober
The issue of homelessness and addiction is a massive problem on the Downtown Eastside. For years, driving down East Hastings I felt bad but more than anything scared. I had this twisted perception of how homeless people were. I thought that they were dangerous people I should stay far away from. Sadly, society generally thinks the same way. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go and interact with those people firsthand that I realized I was wrong. I had the ability to go downtown around Christmas time to see if they wanted to write a Christmas card to a loved one. During this experience, I was able to see how they truly are just humans like you and me. They were very kind. Honestly, they were nicer than most customers I encounter at work. It was interesting to see how much they craved human connection. I could see how badly they wanted to reach out to their loved ones and how much it meant to them that high schoolers were taking the time to sit down and have a conversation. In order to solve the issue of addiction amongst the homeless, as well as getting these people off the streets, they need to feel connected to their community and their loved ones.
Not only is a connection a necessary aspect of recovery for homeless addicts, it is also a basic need all humans require. In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow, proposed the theory that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs. These needs are presented as a five-layer pyramid. At the bottom, we have physical needs such as air, water, food, rest and health. The second layer is the need for security in the sense of safety, shelter and stability. The third layer is about social needs, for example, being loved, having a sense of belonging and being included. The fourth layer deals with ego, like the need for self-esteem, power, recognition and prestige. Finally, the top layer is achieving self-actualization. “Maslow called the fifth level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because it enables a person to “self-actualize’ or reach his fullest potential as a human being.” (Burton, 2012, p.1) In order to achieve this final level, all other needs in the four lower levels must be met. Homeless people often are able to get food or housing from shelters which would mean the first two layers are met. However, in order for them to keep progressing in life and in the hierarchy of needs, they need to have those social requirements achieved. Once they begin to feel loved and like they belong it will boost their ego resulting in being able to reach their full potential.
With that being said, simply giving the homeless population food and clothes is not a permanent solution. It does help them for the time being but in the long run it will get them nowhere. In England, they have realized this and created a national charity called Crisis. Their goal is to end homelessness and have created a program to do so. They offer free support, advice and educational courses in 12 areas across England. They believe that “they needed to be supported into learning in a way that enabled integration with others.” (Morphy, 2007), p.18) That belief is why not only do the homeless get to learn with others in a similar situation but also people who are not in the same situation. It is crucial that they begin to feel a sense of community and belonging. Morphy also said that many have low levels of confidence motivation, and self-esteem. (2007) “Engagement activity is one of the ways in which we begin to break through some of those critical barriers.” (Morphy, 2007, p. 18) They are also given the opportunity to have one on one support. Their specific needs are able to be met. “When you concentrate on their own particular issues they know somebody is interested, particularly when they have been in situations where they are treated as just a number – when somebody has come to get food or to queue waiting for clothes, the face doesn’t matter.” (Karim, 2007, p.20) It is essential for them to feel important and cared for. Especially since the majority of the time, people end up on the streets due to traumatic experiences in their personal lives such as physical and sexual abuse. The lack of connection is the reason they are there and the reason they cannot become stable enough to escape.
In England, they are helping homeless people connect to their community. Whereas, in Ireland, they are helping homeless youth reconnect to their families. As mentioned above, homeless people have gone through unimaginable pain. These terrible circumstances are generally the result of broken relationships within families. Being able to mend these relationships at a younger age is beneficial in preventing the youth from living their life on the streets. This research in Ireland suggests that existing social work services and interventions need to focus on building and fostering reconnections between young people and family member as an early intervention strategy. (Mayock, Corr & O’Sullivan, 2010) Negating the amount of volatile relationships leaves room for more positive ones. They conducted a study of 40 homeless youth. There were 23 men and 17 women varying in ages between 14 and 22 years old. The first phase, from September 2004 to January 2005, was a series of interviews about their life experiences. They were able to have follow-up interviews with 30 of the initial 40. During these interviews, they “were encouraged to update their life stories, including descriptions of change in their social networks and family relationships.” (Mayock, Corr & O’Sullivan, 2010, p. 393) Through these discussions, they found the three main routes into homelessness were a history of state care, family instability and family conflict and the young person’s ‘problem’ behaviour and negative peer associations. All of these pathways relate back to the lack of positive connections with those around them. 17 of the 30 who were re-interviewed were able to achieve greater housing stability. 8 of those 17 benefited from improved relationships with family. Although, “practically all expressed a desire for a parent to remain involved in their lives, and most reported efforts to re-engage with family life.” (Mayock, Corr & O’Sullivan, 2010, p. 395) Whether or not their issues with their families were completely resolved, they still felt it was important to have that connection.
Although the examples in London and Ireland are important, they failed to dive into the issue of addiction amongst the homeless. Many assume that addicts become addicted because of the chemicals in these substances and that over time you physically need them. This is an inaccurate assumption that has been inscribed in lots of society’s brains. “When we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do, because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you a sense of relief.” (Hari, 2017) This was said by Johann Hari during his TED Talk in 2017 at TEDGlobalLondon. Applying that idea to addicted homeless people explains a lot. These people are not able to bond and connect with society or family so they turn to drugs instead. If they had someone to give them the same relief as the drugs, or even the same bond, there would be no use for those substances. He concludes his TED Talk with a powerful statement; “The opposite of addiction is connection.” (Hari, 2017)
Hari supported this concept by mentioning the Rat Park study conducted by Bruce Alexander, a Canadian psychologist, in 1978 at SFU. They chose to do this experiment with rats since they are a social species, similar to us, they crave connection and communication with their peers. Alexander and his team created a park big enough to hold 16 to 20 male and female rats. There were places to play, eat and mate. There was also a contraption made for the rats to be able to choose between water and a solution with morphine. There was also caged rats that were isolated. They too had the option between water and the morphine solution. The dispensers would automatically calculate how much each rat drank. The results showed that the animals in Rat Park ingested far less than the rats that were caged. (Peele, 1985) At one point they moved the caged rats into the Rat Park and they preferred the plain water. Although this experiment seemed to cause a split opinion amongst the public, there clearly was a reason that the isolated rats were drawn to the morphine. It may not be a perfect experiment but when comparing the results to addicted homeless people, it makes sense. Homeless people are surrounded by each other but they still lack true connection. They make up for that by using drugs. Similarly, to how the caged rats decided to drink the morphine solution.
Bruce Alexander is just one of the famous Canadian psychologists that have done work in Vancouver. Gabor Maté has done tons of work with addicted homeless people on the Downtown Eastside. In fact, he changed a mother and daughter’s life with the help of Kristi Blakeway and Beyond Hello. The first time Kristi invited someone to go for lunch with her it was a woman named Cindy. She was traumatized by the decision of giving her daughter up for adoption when she had her. Cindy has no idea whether her daughter was alive or not, all she knew was her name. They started researching trying to find any information they could about her estranged daughter. Kristi ended up finding a woman in Ontario with the same name as Cindy had given her: Paige. Unfortunately, her Facebook page had been inactive for a while. Miraculously, they had a mutual friend. Kristi got in contact with said friend and he mentioned that Paige was adopted. He ended up putting Paige and Kristi in contact. Turns out Paige lived in Ottawa and was an artist and writer. She had no judgment towards her mom’s situation since she too had dealt with addiction. Paige asked Kristi to read her favourite book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté. The chapter Pregnancy Journals changed her life. “The story in the book about a woman battling addiction while pregnant inspired Paige to stay clean during her own pregnancy.” (Blakeway, 2014) Kristi ended up asking Cindy about the book and amazingly Gabor Maté is Cindy’s doctor and he wrote that chapter about her. “Without knowing her daughter, she had already become her role model and changed her life.” (Blakeway, 2014) Paige arranged a flight to Vancouver to meet her mother. Cindy didn’t want to meet her daughter in the state she was in. She ended up getting clean. The idea of having a relationship with her daughter motivated her to get clean. In order to get the connection, the connection she had been so desperately needing, she knew she had to get her life together. Since being able to uphold a positive connection with Paige, Cindy’s life has changed drastically. When Kristi first met her, she was near death. Now, she has continued to stay clean. Before she truly had nothing to live for, but the love and support she received from her daughter makes everything worth it.
Whether or not someone is homeless, or an addict, the one thing all humans crave is connection. Once everything has been taken from an individual, it leaves them hopeless. The only way to bring back that hope is to give them someone to believe in, to lean on. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member or friend. Society has the ability to help as well. Especially on East Hastings. They need to stop being treated as a tourist attraction and more as actual human beings. Take the time to have a conversation or giving them a smile. Connection is the major tool needed to fix homelessness and addiction amongst the homeless.
In order to gain a better understanding of this idea, I went to the Downtown Eastside with Kristi Blakeway to take someone out for dinner. Our first stop was at Save on Meats, a restaurant that sells food tokens. We buy 10 in case we see anyone who looks like they could use one. We walk down the street looking for the right person to take out for a meal. Many people are eager to talk to us. One man, in particular, stood out. He approached us on his motorized scooter. It was noticeable that he was high but it was mixed with a raw enthusiasm to meet new people. He asks us how we are doing and then wonders if we would take pictures with him. We take a few pictures but he begins to get too touchy so we move on and continue our search.
Throughout our walk, we encounter many characters. One man offers us a large stolen crystal for $15. He brags to other street goers how he stole the biggest crystal in the store. He also mentions that the jewel could ground us in yoga. It is like he knew our daily lives were different from those on Hastings Street. After meeting all these new people, we finally come across Tanaya. She is alone, sitting on a bench with her left leg resting on a wheelchair. We approach her and ask if she’d like one of the Save on Meats token. She says yes and then we ask if she would like to come with us for dinner since we were heading there for some food. Overjoyed, she agrees and asks if Mrs. Blakeway would push her in her wheelchair.
By the time we reach the restaurant, we have already gotten to know Tanaya better. She is in the wheelchair because her femur had to be replaced with rods and she recently broke her ankle. After sharing that piece of information, she begins to tell us her life story. She was born in Prince George, the oldest of thirteen siblings. Her mother was a street worker but has now escaped that life and is living in Vancouver Island. Tanaya tells us that she lacks the means to connect with her in person but, feels as though they are connected in spirit. Whereas her father took his own life. Although she has thirteen siblings, she says nothing about them in our talk. It was clear to see that from an early age she lacked a connection to her family.
Due to the lack of connection, she was pregnant by fourteen. She was unable to keep the baby. At age seventeen, she had moved to Maple Ridge and was working as a prostitute. But, our small community was not offering her as much as Vancouver could. Initially, she found the nightlife downtown exciting and was able to not become addicted to the drugs or the lifestyle. By eighteen, she fell in love and began a family. She had two boys, now age five and six. Their father was not able to escape trouble and went to prison for a possession of a firearm. For the first three years, Tanaya was able to stay clean and support her children. The toll of being a single mother was finally too much to bear. Her old lifestyle pulled her back to the streets. The boys are being taken care of by the ministry. Her love for her children is obvious, having their names tattooed on each forearm.
Once we knew more about her past, we asked how she wanted her life to be in the next five years. She talks about gaining custody of her kids and getting clean. Despite the fact she describes herself as an addict, she is not as far gone as many others on the street. She budgets her funds, spending $100 a year on clothes and $375 a month for rent at one of Vancouver’s worst shelters. The room she stays in is towards the back of the building and easy to break into. The scan card can be exploited quite simply. She is scared of the strangers who continuously force entry but is equally as scared of her boyfriend. He has been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and acts as her protector but also her abuser. She never knows which side of him she will see. This feeling of being trapped is constantly looming over her since there is no escape from him.
As we are finishing the last few bites of our meals, we ask her if the skewed perception society has about homeless addicts bother her. She explains to us that the part that hurts is that she does not have the same access to services. Taxis refuse to stop for her and if they do they rummage through her purse without permission to ensure she can afford it. She also mentions that hospitals do not allow her to wait in the emergency room with others. As soon as she arrives she is put into isolation. She feels as though she is not eligible for the same type of care as we are. She is convinced the goal is to discharge her as fast as possible to make room for those who are more accepted by society.
As we are paying, she asks if we can drive her home so she can avoid her boyfriend for one night. Mrs. Blakeway explains that she attempts to visit the Eastside at least once a month. Tanaya is more than willing to exchange contact information so they can meet again. We are exchanging out goodbyes when she asks, “Can I ask you just one more thing? If I decide to get the medical care I need, would you come to visit me in the hospital? I hate knowing no one will visit.” Mrs. Blakeway confirms that she will and we start on our journey home.
This experience proved that connection is key. It opened my eyes to a whole different side of feeling connected. I never considered the aspect of homeless addicts not being offered public services the way we are. Anyone would feel like they are unimportant if hospitals denied them proper treatment. A hospital is somewhere we are all supposed to rely on to keep us healthy. These people rarely have close friends or family to lean on, which is hard enough, but they are unable to even depend on the one place where your financial or social status should not matter. It is not surprising that so many of them turn to drugs. It is almost as if they have to self-medicate. On an individual level, everyone needs to be more accepting and understanding of the struggles homeless addicts face. But, on a larger scale, changes need to be made to ensure that they are able to obtain public services the same way everyone else does. It is wrong in society to judge someone based on their race, gender, sexuality or religion, so why are we allowing people to be judged based on their financial stability and their struggles? These people need our help. They need to be reintegrated into society. They need to feel like they belong. They need to stop being seen as a problem and be seen as human beings again.
Makenna Carl, Grade 12
Thomas Haney Secondary