EDITOR’S NOTE: The Viola’s Place Society is currently fundraising in an attempt to purchase the building that once housed the LifeShelter. Their deadline is April 30. They are currently $13,000 away from their goal. In an effort to inform people on the issue of homelessness in Pictou County, The News has reached out to people who have first-hand experience either by living on the streets or who live life on the brink of it. This is the first in a series that will be published today, Saturday and in Monday’s editions. For more information on how you can help Viola’s Place become reality visit Viola’s Place Society through its Facebook page or email at email@example.com.
George didn’t know it was going to get as bad as it did.
After all, he had a solid employment record, a wife, children and a roof over his head.
Then at 45 years of age, he was laid off from Maritime Steel where he’d worked for eight years and his home life was starting to crumble.
“Things at our house got progressively worse. Part of it was my problem. Part of it was her problem. Then I just left and I kept on drinking. Any amount of money I had I was putting into alcohol and drugs.”
Faxe beer was his drink of choice because it has 10 per cent alcohol – a quicker buzz on cheaper liquor.
“I always had enough money to buy a few Faxe,” he said.
After he left his marriage, he stayed with family or friends as well as getting his own apartment for a short time before he got evicted for hosting too many parties.
George went back to couch surfing, but soon wore out his welcome so he pitched a tent in a wooded area in Stellarton before someone found it and burned him out.
He moved on to an old caboose with an oil stove that was sitting in the CN yard in Stellarton and already occupied by another homeless man.
“One night it started getting cold,” he said. “I had been going in abandoned houses, garages, cars, anything and then I went there. He comes in and asks me who I was and he said I could stay there but I can’t do anything and I had to leave in the morning.”
George said winters were the worst. He was living off alcohol, drugs and cigarettes to keep warm while sneaking into basements and abandoned buildings for shelter. Sometimes he was alone, but there were times he found others in the same situation.
“I would go to libraries a lot until I was kicked out. Some people will go to the mall. I wore shoes out like crazy. I did a lot of walking. I would find a place to hide, get s–faced drunk, smoke crack, weed, pass out, wake up and hopefully it would be dark and start all over again.”
Police would find him, but he would always find another spot. Public buildings such as bank foyers and the post office are places where people go to get warm for a few minutes, but never a long time. He said railway tracks tend to be gathering spots for homeless people because they are out of police view.
“I always carried around a toothbrush and some toothpaste,” he said. “You can go to Tim Hortons and get washed, brush your teeth and get a coffee. Hopefully, someone there’s got some cigarettes.”
He earned his money from collecting bottles or stealing copper from abandoned houses. He spent time in jail and was picked up by police for fighting or being drunk in public.
Finally, for some reason he can’t explain, George realized he’d had enough.
On stormy winter night, he was sleeping in an abandoned car, high on cocaine, a bottle of rum and a dozen beer. He woke up in the middle of the night as cold as he has ever been, knowing he had to move, but instead opted to go back to sleep.
“I said just lay back, it will all be over soon. I did that for a while and then something woke me up. I don’t know what it is was, but I got out of that car. I still say to this day, it was a guardian angel that said, ‘Get the f– up George. You have to go or else you are going to die right here.’”
He crawled out of the car and through the snow to the closest bank foyer to get warm and then headed to the nearby coffee shop.
“I looked in the mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. I had gone to jail, been in fights with other homeless people, got sliced with a box knife a few times and I figured if I was going to be there any longer I was going to die.”
He called a friend who took him to detox in Pictou then to Recovery House on James Street, New Glasgow, where he lived for a year and half.
At Recovery House, he attended narcotics and alcoholics anonymous groups as well as in-house support groups and obtaining the services of addiction services at the Aberdeen Hospital.
“I learned how to cope with things and not keeping things in or letting it explode,” he said.
After this, he moved into his own apartment and got a job, but had a brief relapse with alcohol after being sober for three years. He found himself back tenting in Stellarton. After another arrest, he moved out of Pictou County to live with family in Bridgewater.
Today, he lives a quiet life in a bachelor apartment in Stellarton with his dog that he walks regularly. He has a few good friends, but mostly keeps to himself. He refuses to take any kind of prescribed medication for anxiety because he fears this could lead him back to homelessness.
“My plans are to keep doing what I am doing,” he said. “Do the best I can.”
As someone who has survived against all odds, he considers himself a success story, but George knows others in the county won’t be so lucky.
“I see homeless people around all the time,” he said. “I see them at (local coffee shops) in the morning and if I have money I will get them some cigarettes, a coffee and something to eat.”
George refuses to give them money because he knows exactly where they are at in their life.
Until someone is ready to change, it is not going happen, he said. Some people want to change and escape the streets, but they don’t know how.
“Some people did it to themselves, but there are other instances where people didn’t do it themselves, it was done by other people. There is a lot of sexual abuse. A lot of broken marriages. A lot of mental health. They don’t know how to deal with it and alcohol and drugs are their only saviour.”
A homeless shelter would be a place for people to go and not be judged and safe, he said.
“A homeless shelter is going to give people hope,” he said.