Through everything I’m reading on the current state of homelessness, addiction, mental health, camps and safe consumption sites in our community, there is a common theme. We are all fed up, really, really fed up. Each of us has our reasons for feeling that way but fed up we are.
Mayor and Council are fed up with having people blame them for the overdose deaths in this community.
Downtown businesses are fed up with the behaviours of the homeless and addicted and how that behaviour is affecting their customer base.
Families with loved ones who are addicted are fed up with the lack of immediate resources and are shamed into silence by the ugly stigma that suddenly refers to their family.
Front line agencies are fed up with the discriminatory barriers that are continually blocking the appropriate health interventions necessary in this time of crisis.
Others are fed up with Mayor and Council for interfering with research based health solutions.
So here’s the deal as I see it.
We have a group of people who are not welcomed “in” anywhere in our community. They are the young men and women (20-35 yrs. old on average) in our community who are actively using substances. They are our young families. They are your neighbours sons or daughters. They are your brothers or sisters.
85% of them are from Red Deer or Central Alberta so we kind of have to claim them as our own. Some of their families have been here for generations.
They are dying at an alarming rate.
We are failing them.
I think we can all agree that we need to do something and what we’re currently doing isn’t working that great. If we think about this logically, common sense shows us two options:
We do what the experts in the field tell us to do. Typically in a crisis of any sort we look to our experts in that particular field to provide leadership, experience, knowledge, research and best practice. Then we do what the experts suggest. For instance, if we had a chlorine disaster, Mayor and Council and the rest of us would rely on those experts to tell us what to do. We need them because what do we know about chlorine disasters? This makes perfect sense. Yet, with this crisis things are different somehow. For some reason, we dismiss experience, research, knowledge and best practice and instead make decisions based on personal belief or experiences. Why? I think it has to do with the idea of “choice”. We wouldn’t choose a chlorine disaster, that’s beyond our control and addicts are choosing to use substances so you can’t really compare the two. Trouble is I don’t believe that anyone would choose to live their lives the way addicts end up. I’ve never heard of anyone saying as a child that when they grow up they want to live on the streets and use drugs and have people in their community hate them and wish they would hurry up and die and clean up their mess before they go. That’s sounds crazy, but that’s what we are suggesting by the idea of choice. The thing is people aren’t having any fun. This isn’t partying. This is survival. They are self-medicating the toxic stress in their lives with substances. That perceived choice and their particular “medication” brings them to disaster far sooner than those of us who are medicating by drinking to oblivion in the sanctity of our homes, or shopping until the debt strangles us, or eating junk until our body starts yelling at us, or working until we don’t know our families anymore. That is self-medication too! The difference being the ugliness of all of these medications doesn’t rob us of our homes and families as fast. For those of us not addicted to such dangerous substances, it’s very easy to think that your loved one is choosing this destructive lifestyle over a healthy one. That idea can make you lose your mind in frustration. They just need to stop. They have to stop. They are losing everyone that was beside them. They might die! None of who they appear to be makes any sense, and then you remember. You remember the people they were before and you know deep in your heart that “in their right minds” they would never choose to live this way. I think we hang on to the idea of choice so we can stand farther away and point our fingers. The idea of choice creates that comforting old “us and them” and allows us to distance ourselves from the addict and relieve ourselves of any obligation and/or compassion. It reminds me of the early days of HIV when I was doing needle exchange. So many times I saw compassion withheld until the cause of the virus was known. You received the compassion if you contracted your HIV through a blood transfusion but nothing else. Rather than thinking about choice in a definition many can’t understand, we need to worry about the fact that the young men and women in our community are dying and as a community we are letting them die. We are doing that by not listening to the experts and assuming we know better. For all of you out there who do listen to those experts and are eager to help in any way you can, we need you and we need a great deal more of you to open your minds and hearts and shine your lights in these dark places. We have to build a place that welcomes. Otherwise, we need to…..
Ban the addicted, homeless and mentally ill people from the community. Whenever I say this people think I’m kidding but I’m really not. If we are not going to provide the services these people need, we shouldn’t let them stay here. If the consensus is that they are not welcome and we agree to the suggestion that we should do nothing and let natural selection take care of the problem, it would be more humane to ban them than to watch them slowly die and do nothing.
If you are someone who thinks Option 2 is crazy, it is you who I am speaking to. I’m going to be sending out a call to action in my next column and I need all of you in this community of Central Alberta who know that it’s time for us to do something to answer. Those of us who believe our responsibility is to help each other. These are our young men and women. We need to get a big bright light of community support going on. We will show the families in our community who have loved ones who are out there deep in the crisis that Red Deer is a community that really does support its most vulnerable people and cares more about their wellbeing than anything else.
That kind of action is what we refer to at the Harbour as shining your light. Once its shining it is a Harbour light! Many of you are a Harbour lights already. You are the people who have shone your lights in the Harbour, through donations whether it’s money or socks or food or boots. You’ve thought of us, you’ve been interested in what we are doing and supporting our work however you can. You are our current Harbour Lights and I need you now to turn your lights up a little brighter.
To all the kids in the community who have collected socks and snacks and toques and mitts and water, we need you too. You care about people unconditionally and your lights are the brightest. Your mom and dad can show you how to work the Call to Action button and you can shine your light too! It will be a powerful one because we need that unconditional love all over and you can tell all your friends to be a Harbour Light too!
I’m calling out to all of you families who are impacted by a loved one’s addiction and struggling so hard with all the ripple effects of that. There is such a heavy burden of shame that is associated with addiction, not only for the addict but also for the families. This shame can keep you from sharing your truths with even your closest friends; they might get some of the story but not all of it. I’m calling on you to overcome that fear and lend your voices by pushing that Call to Action button that can make a difference in the resources your loved ones desperately need.
I’m calling out to all the friends of those families who can see all the pain the families are going through and don’t know how to help them, the Call to Action button will help us so we can help when you can’t.
I’m calling out to all of you who are faith based. This is the time for “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers”. Currently in this community this group of people who are actively using substances and camping all over the place are “the least”. I need your belief to turn into action. Your non-profits need your light shining on them right now. Help them as they try so hard with limited resources to do what God is telling all of us to do: to help each other, even when we don’t like it, especially when we don’t like it.
We have to come together, all of those who are ready to shine our lights. There are dark places in this community that are aching for light. Will you be one of those lights? Can you support when you don’t understand all the complexities of the problem? If you believe in love and community you can. Leave the complexities to the experts who are trying so hard to break through the stigma and discrimination in order to provide lifesaving health solutions.
Red Deer may be ready for the Winter Games but this is a whole other game. We are not ready to be all we say we are, a welcome and inclusive community who support each other and do all they can to help others, if we continue to allow our fellow Albertans to suffer and die Let’s get ready, let’s shine those Harbour lights and start a love revolution. Let’s show those young men and women in our community that we care.
It’s love revolution time!! Spread the word and keep your eyes out for the Call to Action button!