I’ve tried over the years to make sense of the wacky world of addiction, mental illness and homelessness. I’ve asked questions at every opportunity, I’ve read the current research and I dove into the history. I’ve listened to the people who live with chronic addiction and to their families who desperately try to love and support them. I understand the community fears and frustrations and the funding systems limitations.

Through it all I ask myself over and over again: What if?

What if we had never recognized the lack of basic humanity in slavery? Or in witch hunts. Or in the horrors of the holocaust? When we look back at such things now we think, “What was the matter with those people? How was it okay to treat people like that?” That kind of thinking begs the question, “In 50 years will they be asking us the same thing in regards to our feelings and services for those who are chronically addicted and homeless? Will it horrify people to look back at what we are doing now?”

I was amazed while I watched the City of Calgary rally around all of those so devastated by the flood they had years ago. That spirit of community was much deeper and wider than those flood waters could ever be. It had ripples that travelled across the country. I remember how weird it looked to see those waters pouring into the downtown. You can hear about a flood but seeing it happen is a different story.

Of course my line of work with homeless people made me think, “Wouldn’t it be so cool if we did that with all the homeless people?” Immediately my logic brain kicked in and I thought, “Well Hoffman, that’s ridiculous. This is an entirely different situation! Those flood victims had no choice in the matter!”

But, is it really? Homeless is homeless. Losing everything is losing everything no matter the cause. Those losses are traumatic for anyone who experiences them.

One difference was that the flood victims knew that the whole of Canada was worried about their welfare and they had millions of people empathizing with them. Donations by the millions came in. People came to help each other clean up! It was fantastic!

It made me wonder about the criterion that is needed for that kind of support across the board. Can it be that level of concern and compassion is only doled out if people “deserve” it?  Yet we know housing is not a right, it is a basic human need. You might argue that these flood victims were hard working citizens of their community. They contribute, they have families, they know how to behave and they make smarter choices in their lifestyles. Therein lays the issue. It looks for all intents and purposes that the folks we see on the streets are choosing their lifestyle. No one in their right mind would choose that.  It can’t be that when they were a teenager they sat on the edge of their beds and said “I want to be addicted and live on the streets when I grow up.

I think the answer is the “in their right mind” statement.

We have learned more about the working of the human brain in the last 20 years than in the 100 before that. We know now about the role that toxic stress plays on the developing brain. That means that brain chemistry plays a huge part in our understanding of addiction.

What if you start using a substance as a kid and find that it really helps you self-medicate that toxic stress?

What if your environment supported nothing but that?

Had I only heard about the flood in Calgary and I didn’t see it, I would not have been as impacted. We watched that water and it was so powerful. What if we could see the “flood” of trauma that surrounds all of those we serve at the Harbour? What if we grew up in the same environments they did? What if we saw the abuse? What if we felt the effects of a lifetime of chronic homelessness and addiction and disconnection? Would we respond differently?  Would we still expect these people to get up and get to work? What if with the way their brains are currently working that the idea of choice is mute?

We know without a doubt that many of the people we serve at Safe Harbour have had a lifetime full of toxic stress and trauma, and have been unable to sustain the healthy connections we all need to survive. We know the effects of all of that on the developing brain and add toxic substances to that mix….. So, if you are one of the unlucky ones who lived an environment full of toxic stress and your brain did not develop properly as a result…..do you have a choice in the matter? As Gabor Mate’ says in his book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, “their brains didn’t stand a chance.”