Archive for April 29, 2013

When I’m with the homeless I don’t judge. I ask a minimum of questions, only enough to keep the conversation moving. I don’t interrogate or ask about their past. Mostly, I listen and try to understand. I am often asked why I am there. Although the reasons are deeper, I usually answer by saying, “The conversations here are more interesting than where I work.” I visit them before work, and at noon hours, so I always have an excuse to leave.

What I have learned over the past two years has changed my life. The people, who I consider my friends, are alcoholics, drug and other substance users. Some work as prostitutes, some have AIDS, most or all have served time in jail for various offences. All of them I would trust with my life. They have declared themselves my family. I am honored to consider them my family.

I have heard sickening stories of abuse as children and babies born with drug dependencies. Most have mental and physical illnesses, suffer beatings, broken bones, stabbings, and have a fear of abusive partners, or the police, or both. Authority in any form is seen negatively, as a means to control their lives. The homeless shelters are noisy, infested with bed bugs, the scene of fights and a place where personal items are stolen. Most of these people prefer to sleep inside common areas such as bank foyers, outside under bridges, or behind dumpsters.

In the conversations I recall, and write on these pages, I try to be as truthful as possible. I leave out details that I think might incriminate, but generally I try to give an accurate picture of the conversations I have with my friends. These people need help, but they want it on their own terms. They don’t choose to be addicts. It’s a disease and should be treated as such.

I’ve sometimes wondered why I’m drawn to homeless people. I’ve found some answers in the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate, M.D. He has a web site at: http://www.drgabormate.com

Dr. Mate works with drug addicts in the former Portland Hotel, on Hastings Street, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, considered Canada’s drug capital.

“What keeps me here? muses Kersten Steuerzbech. “In the beginning I wanted to help. And now…I still want to help, but it’s changed. Now I know my limits. I know what I can and cannot do. What I can do is to be here and advocate for people at various stages of their lives, and allow them to be who they are. We have an obligation as a society to…support people for who they are, and to give them respect. That’s what keeps me here.”

Liz Evans began working in the area at the age of twenty-six. “I was overwhelmed,” she recalls.”As a nurse, I thought I had some expertise to share. While that was true, I soon discovered that, in fact, I had very little to give — I could not rescue people from their pain and sadness. All I could offer was to walk beside them as a fellow human being, a kindred spirit.”