Forgotten homeless are our national shame

Addiction and mental illness lead to lives of quiet desperation.

The sun was out in full force when I pulled up to the Wesley Centre on Ferguson North last Saturday morning.

The usual crowd had gathered, mostly dishevelled men in raggedy clothes, mostly smoking. A young woman stood to the side, rocking from one foot to the other. I noticed her sneakers were too small and the backs of them were broken down.

I’d visited Ferguson North many times in my years as The Spectator’s social issues reporter, so I recognized the look of drug hunger in her face. Deer in headlights spiked with desperation. I wondered if she, like many of the women I’d interviewed here, had been so desperate that she’d sold her body to satisfy that hunger.

I was at the Wesley to drop off a bagful of winter scarves. It’s interesting how the images of people I’ve interviewed have lingered with me and surface when it gets cold. The stories I’d heard in those interviews were often complex — broken marriages, lost jobs, an injury or disability that left them on social assistance.

The common thread for many was addiction and mental illness. It was during one of my first visits to the Wesley, back when it was in a dinghy basement across from the police station, that I met a homeless woman named Margaret Jacobson. She looked about 70, with her matted hair and leathery skin. I was shocked to find out she was in her 40s. Her fingers were so stained with nicotine, they could have been dipped in yellow paint.

She was well-known to Wesley staff, and 17 years of visits had earned her the nickname Princess Margaret. The reference to royalty would have been humorous if it weren’t for how truly tragic her life was.

For reasons I’ll never know, Margaret warmed to me. Over our many visits, she told me about her years inside the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital. Schizophrenia was a demon that ruled her life, and her HPH records read like a pharmaceutical dictionary; page after page of medication cocktails and electric shock treatments.

Margaret smiled a toothless grin when she talked about the baby boy she’d given birth to — and looked away when she told me he’d been taken by the children’s aid society and adopted out.

A few years later, Margaret died after hitting her head on the floor inside a sandwich shop on King East.

It was a frigid January night and she’d no doubt gone in to get warm. An ambulance took her to the hospital where doctors found cancer had eaten away parts of her body. The pain must have been unbearable.

Saturday, as I walked through the Wesley and smelled the despair and saw the familiar weariness in the eyes of people lining up for meals, I wondered the same thing as I did the first time I visited — how is it in a country like Canada that the most vulnerable among us have been so abandoned.

I hate to think it’s as simple as that they don’t tend to vote, but there is truth in that. The double tragedy is that the high number of homeless mentally ill on our streets is a government-created problem.

Deinstitutionalization was introduced in the 1980s under the guise that people could live independently with the right community supports. The problem is, the government emptied out the psychiatric hospitals, but neglected to put those adequate supports in place. What saved millions of dollars cost many people their lives and many more a place to sleep at night.

Homelessness is our national shame. A country like Canada should not have people lining up for meals or sleeping on the streets, especially those who have a mental illness. So, while the Olympics may have filled us with a sense of patriotic pride, we should take a deep breath and remember there are those among us who have been left out in the cold.

Denise Davy covered social issues at the Hamilton Spectator for 26 years. She is the 2013 recipient of a journalism fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study childrenʼs mental health.