One of the most common words to describe the white crosses that line Paris Street is ‘haunting’. The crosses mark not only the names of those lost to the opioid crisis, but also the eternal grief of their loved ones.
Sadly, the crosses haunt another group of people, too, but for different reasons: those vulnerable and marginalized populations of downtown Sudbury that are fighting with every breath to avoid the same fate for themselves; those who have no home but the streets of the downtown core, where well-intentioned families trapped in understandable grief have created a cemetery in their backyard.
Each day and night, as the outreach workers of Sudbury head out on their rounds in downtown Sudbury, there is an overwhelming feeling that sits upon all of them — both volunteer and vulnerable people alike — that clings to them like tentacles and dominates their every thought and action.
It is hopelessness.
For those already facing a mountain of struggles — lack of housing, addictions, mental health challenges — the crosses that are a comfort to families are not a comfort to the people actually facing those struggles, say those who work with the vulnerable populations of the downtown core.
The graveyard on the corner of Paris Street and Brady Street, near Sudbury Theatre Centre, started as one woman’s memorial for her son. Then, it grew to include others who had recently lost their battle with addiction.
Then, crosses began to appear for those who died of addiction at some point in the past. Then, crosses were erected for people who died outside Sudbury.
It’s unclear what sort of fact-checking occurs before a cross is erected at the site, but Sudbury.com was told about two people who were wandering through the graveyard only to find their own graves.
The psychological impact of that was intense, said Joel Boivin, a registered nurse and harm reduction worker with the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY).
“It’s an ego death,” Boivin said. “So much of their external identity to the world just disappears. [That’s] the nature of addiction. Someone hasn’t heard from them, in years maybe, and they knew that they were getting into drugs, and that probably killed them.
“That’s where you see a cross come up, because somebody thinks that person has died, but they are just really under the radar.”
Boivin works regularly with the vulnerable and marginalized populations downtown and has noticed a deeper hopelessness than he has ever experienced grip the city. Outreach workers and clients alike, he said everyone is feeling overwhelmed and out of options.
“Some soldiers wouldn’t witness this amount of death in a tour of duty,” said Boivin. “Folks losing their friends, their families and loved ones, all their connections die so frequently that it’s hard for us to start a conversation about it. People are so used to ‘oh, so another one’s died.”
That desensitizing is only worsened by the white crosses, he said.
“When you start having to face that reality so frequently throughout your day, it makes it something that is easy to get apathetic about.”
He said the prevailing thought process among his clients, at least half of whom identify as Indigenous, is: “I’m fighting day by day, I’m doing my best to survive it all and it doesn’t really matter, because people think I’m done anyway.”
Though the reasons behind an overdose can be accidental or intentional, Boivin said they originate from the same place. “One way or another, both are an escape from suffering.”
While the crosses were erected to raise awareness of those who have died from overdose, safe consumption and harm reduction outreach worker Sam Smith* said the crosses are breaking the will of those who are struggling with addiction. (*Smith has requested anonymity to protect themselves and their work.)
Smith is also surprised surrounding businesses have not had an issue with the crosses, despite their issues with the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Protection Society (STOP) on nearby Shaughnessy street.
STOP is a safe injection site that offers harm reduction techniques to prevent overdose and can often support clients if they choose to get clean.
“The overdose prevention society pops up in a parking lot right near those crosses,” said Smith. “And the businesses around don’t want the workers to be in sight there. They complain that they don’t want the people attending these businesses having to witness what’s happening in the parking lot. Meanwhile, they are having to pass the crosses, and have no problem.”
Smith said they completely understand why grieving families would want the crosses in place, but feels safe and judgment-free consumption sites and harm reduction techniques are more effective than raising awareness; the safe consumption approach also forms the backbone of Canadian Government planning and legislation.
Smith also said that while the businesses tolerate the markers of the dead, “when we tried to build safe consumption sites, these same community members were in an uproar. The same people that want these people shuffled and displaced to other areas of town. Out of the park, out of here, but they want to come to the area to create awareness.”
And while there are many open hearts in the City of Greater Sudbury, those willing to do outreach work themselves, if you are not specifically trained, experienced and sure of what you are doing, you can cause more damage. Especially for someone who is addicted to opioids.
“When people are pushed to treatment before they are ready, sometimes those are the first people that end up dying,” Boivin said.
The tolerance for opioids drops significantly the farther you are from your last dose, he said. In fact, in about three days time, your tolerance can drop to the level it would be if you had never taken the drug before. Some addicts time their doses up specifically to ensure that their tolerance stays the same.
“If you’ve gone to treatment or even detox, even just cut off a few days to reduce your tolerance, when you go back to the streets, especially with Fentanyl, it’s so hyper-potent that just a dollar or two more of it can be enough to end your life.”
Instead of meals, instead of clothing donations, both Boivin and Smith said the best way to help these vulnerable citizens is to help with the sanctioned organizations already working downtown, those who not only have the knowledge to work in outreach, but who already have relationships with these citizens.
“We need the people that are trying to create awareness to funnel that awareness, the energy that’s coming, the donations, funnel that into the organizations that are already in place.”
The long-standing community groups of Sudbury do need assistance, especially when it comes to funding for their support. There is also a need to have systemic change both in income supports and with governments supporting a housing first approach to the issue.
Because as Boivin said, “rock bottom” can create change, so can anger or grief, but if the options to change — the support to change, isn’t there, then what chance does hope have?
“There is value and meaning to what they are going through right now,” said Boivin,” because it still lends to a brighter future tomorrow. I think that’s a part that really depends on all of us to make sure that becomes real hope, not blind hope.”
Please feel free to reach out to these and other community organizations should you desire to help.
- Elizabeth Fry Society of Northeastern Ontario
- Homelessness Network/Reseau de sans abri/Endaasgwok
- John Howard Society of Sudbury
- Sudbury Action Centre for Youth
- N’Swakamok Native Friendship Centre
- Centre de santé communautaire du Grand Sudbury
- The Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy
Jenny Lamothe is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com.She covers the Black, immigrant and Francophone communities.