I say “girl” because she is 15 years old. Alone in a parking lot, silhouetted by the light from above, she has the telltale sway, the crouched shoulders of someone under the influence of something.
I am overwhelmed by the need to take her home with me, but I don’t know how to help her. I wonder if the drugs she appears to be on are better than whatever it is she is using them to get away from. Who would choose this otherwise? Who would choose a life on the street, up and carrying everything you own in the middle of the night, no friends, no family ... no hope? I decide we always have to hope that there is hope.
Of the many things I learned while on 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. night outreach with the Go-Give Project is that the food handed out, while greatly needed, is incidental.
Their friendly hello did not always elicit a response from those who were homeless or in the thick of intoxication. However, the moment they offered food, a head would pop up, and a connection was made.
Dinner tonight is hot dogs and wedding cake. A former client got married and donated barbecue food and wedding cake for the meal that night. The cake, as well as the pudding cups, were the highlights of the night.
Except for Charlie, a lovely downtown dog, who much preferred the hotdog he got. Okay, two. He’s impossible to resist.
The Go-Give Project was started by Ali and Farooq 10 months ago, and they have seen a rise in the need and danger on the streets. (You can read that story, here.) First offering food to the hungry on the streets of the Nickel City, they now offer anything they can, including driving back to their apartment to obtain a sweater of Farooq’s to give to a client who’s wearing only a t-shirt.
The man is hunched over, almost turning himself into a circle to hold in his body heat. He cannot lay on the ground, nor stand and stretch, as he will lose his heat. His sweater was stolen earlier that day.
At no point did Ali or Farooq argue about providing the sweater; rather, the debate was which sweater Farooq was going to give up.
On our way back from their apartment, we picked up chocolate milk, the favourite of a young client whose foot was injured and further hurt by walking on it for hours. When Ali asked if he wanted it, the smile that crossed his face was one I will remember, maybe forever. I would have bought him an entire dairy right then if I could have.
One downtown, two worlds
But it is that juxtaposed reality of nighttime downtown that was such a shock: on the one hand, the revelatory celebration of a summer night in the city with pandemic restrictions lifting set against the other side of downtown, the one Go-Give volunteers (and countless others) try as best they can to mitigate.
In all honesty, the lights of the patios, the laughter, the cocktails and the general party atmosphere are where I would have much rather been. I’ve so missed the company of others, of joy and the lightness of a worry-free night.
But tonight, instead of being blinded by the lights of the patio, all I can see is the tent directly across the street from it. All I can think of is the two worlds, existing simultaneously. Both worlds have “drugs,” but one is accepted and the other will destroy your life. Then many will say you deserved it.
Tonight, the drug of choice, perhaps for both sides, is cocaine. When asked why, one Go-Give client said, “We heard it was good, so everyone wanted some.” Those who opted not for cocaine this evening are “smashing”: crushing pills, mixing in some water, “cooking” the mixture with a lighter and a spoon, and injecting the drug into an available vein.
One man, with an affectionate nickname on the street due to his propensity to sing when he is under the influence, has decided to smash tonight.
We hear him before we see him. Yelling is not unusual downtown on a Friday night. Through the night, I heard four shouts. Three of the four were bar-goers. One of those three was a domestic disturbance; from what I could tell, based on alcohol and barroom jealousy.
Ali and Farooq are quite fond of the singing man. When we meet him he is in the grips of his high, and remarkably, only an hour later, he is lucid, articulate and soft-spoken.
He tried to get clean, but he felt powerless against the physical effects of detoxification. And so, he is hollering in the downtown core, quite close to the patios.
This is when I notice the Greater Sudbury Police vehicles. They are parked at all edges of the square that is the downtown bar scene. I am still unsure if they were keeping the bar patrons in, the homeless out, or both.
It’s not working, though.
As Ali and I walk, she describes her client, the one who loves chocolate milk, becoming deeply intoxicated as bar patrons passed him drinks over the edge of the patio. Ali said she isn’t sure if it was pity, or sport, but either way, unhelpful.
And that is how the night goes. We drive the downtown core in their personal vehicle, filled to the brim with food and water, as well as a first aid kit, safe consumption supplies and naloxone overdose kits.
We drive around, meeting up with people, asking how they are, what they need, and how the team can help. Each of these people has left a deep impression on me.
Friendly faces and happy homes
We meet friendly faces, those who are thrilled when Ali and Farooq’s car pulls up. At both the tents set up in Memorial Park and those cramped together under the Bridge of Nations, we are instantly greeted by happy people. Water, pudding and hotdogs for all, and everyone heads back to their homes, their homes being wherever they can find a safe (or safe-ish) place to lay their head.
But while most of my experience writing about the homeless encampments is from the outside, reporting on the issue, this night will be my first time inside one of the makeshift communities.
In no way was I prepared for what I saw.
Small strings of battery-powered lights encircle a vine, brought from the outside in as a houseplant of sorts, decorating the pitch of the tarp that is acting as a central ceiling. The structure is several tents with their zippered openings facing centre, a tarp on the ground and over the tents, with several sticks and clothespins connecting each tent with, really, a roofed living room.
Each tent is a room unto itself, and in the centre, under the lighted-vine, a shelf. The shelf has a small loaf of bread and a can of soup; there is also a sign asking for the removal of shoes. A small broom sits in the corner.
This is a home built with pride, but it’s only a matter of time before it is dismantled. This hits me like a punch in the stomach. I, too, seek to make my home a place I love; to have it torn down would be heartbreaking.
I am also a person with a disability: epilepsy. To be sleep deprived, to be deprived of proper nutrition, stress, all of these things, would trigger seizures for me even with my medication. One man we meet credits the Go-Give team with treating his diabetes, offering food to him when he needs it, especially when he is up late at night.
Ali asks about a few others while we are out. One overdosed, but no one knows how he is. One hasn’t been seen in a while, and will now be added to the wellness checklist that Ali and Farooq maintain. With their client’s consent, the Go-Give project will begin to check with approved family members and friends to try to locate their clients. They have built a web of contacts in order to do so.
The wellness check
This came in handy when Ali, Farooq and I found someone who was the subject of a missing persons notice. We found him face down in his belongings, sitting with one leg astride a rock ledge, the other tucked awkwardly underneath him, unable to lift his head to meet our gaze. Ali recognized him immediately; she studies the missing person list each night, and she also knew his brother from his time on the streets.
Soon after, Greater Sudbury Police arrived, and handled the incident in a way that made the Go-Give team very pleased, if not a little surprised. The missing man was taken to the hospital, then soon discharged out into the world in the dead of night, with all his belongings, no ride and nowhere to go. If not for a call from Sudbury Police, Ali and Farooq would not have known he had been released from the hospital.
As the shelter closes at 2 a.m., and his discharge was after that, he had nowhere to go.
He may have chosen to get high again, and perhaps, no one would have found him. Instead, Ali spent the time texting with the missing man’s mother and sister, finding a way to pick him up. The phone call from the GSPS officers was appreciated.
After the team dropped me off at home that night, they headed back to Health Sciences North to wait for the man in order to offer him support.
After-care for medical interventions is sorely lacking, it seems. I saw a man who had a broken ankle and wrist; his crutches stolen earlier in the day, he had worn through the bottom of his cast trying to walk. One man had surgery to remove a nail from his foot and was out walking on it that night. While some basic care was given to him, try to keep it clean and stay off it, it is not always appropriate when someone is up all night walking to stay warm, without the ability to wash or change the bandage. Also, he had no shoes.
As I think of how much more I could write about this night, I realize that it was only one night. The very next night, Go-Give would be out again, with food and compassion, but each helpful act only temporary.
Everything we accomplished in those five overnight hours would be replicated again the next night. And so on, and so on, until a long-term solution is found.
It was just another night.