Shane’s story: bridging the gap between substance users and the community

If professionals truly want to help those struggling with addictions, they need to listen, says Vernon advocate

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A homeless man walks through Woodenhead Park towards the Columbia River in this file photo from December, 2018. Shane (not shown) says his substance use issues led to his being homeless in both Williams Lake and Vernon. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

The following is the first in a series of stories sponsored by the Revelstoke Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative. In this series individuals from Vernon and Revelstoke share their stories in an effort to open a community-wide conversation and reduce the stigma associated with substance use.

Growing up, Shane says he was the kind of guy who looked down on people who used drugs. Coming from a middle class upbringing he could never imagine he’d end up with a substance use problem so severe he’d lose his job and his home.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Shane, who has struggled with substance use issues going on 20 years, had been clean for six months when his then girlfriend made an offer he couldn’t turn down: she’d give him $50 worth of crack-cocaine if he’d hand over the prescription pills she was addicted to. Shane’s girlfriend’s ex-husband had warned him about her addiction to prescription-strength sleeping pills, saying to never let her have them.

“I wasn’t strong enough. The relationship didn’t last much longer,” said Shane, who was living in Williams Lake at the time.

Prior to Williams Lake, he had been living in Prince George.There, he fell deep into his addiction, lost his apartment and found himself moving to Williams Lake, where he managed to abstain from using drugs — that is until that day three years ago when he found himself unable to say no.

Shane continued to use while working in Williams Lake. That didn’t last long though, as he eventually lost his job and didn’t have a place to live. He found a new girlfriend, but couldn’t stay with her at the homeless shelter. He said a staff member at the shelter told him she had lived in Vernon before. She said it might be a good idea for Shane to start fresh, somewhere out of Williams Lake. So Shane and his girlfriend hopped on a bus headed for Vernon, completely unprepared for what met them when they arrived.

“I didn’t prepare properly because it all happened really fast. We got to Vernon [in November, 2018] and realized this is going to be really tough,” said Shane. He and his girlfriend (Joanne, who is now his wife) live off of Shane’s WorkSafe pension and social assistance. Shane says that equals about $1,000 a month. The couple lived in a motel until their funds ran out, and then went to the local shelter. It was the same situation as in Williams Lake, however, and the two were not able to stay together.

It was mid-summer and Shane had heard about a tent city located in Vernon’s Polson Park. It turns out it wasn’t really their thing.

“We never really fit in, even using and stuff. We can function a little bit, so we sort of stayed up in the front end of the park. A lady gave us a tent,” said Shane.

Shane and Joanne tried to make their tent feel like home, but a Vernon bylaw meant they had to tear down their camp each morning. It made it nearly impossible to work on bettering themselves, said Shane. That first winter the couple stayed in a motel, thanks to a subsidy from the John Howard Society. When the subsidy ran out last March, they stayed for a few weeks with a friend, sleeping on the living room floor of the one-bedroom apartment. Not wanting to be a burden, the pair decided to move outdoors once again, this time staying in a park behind the Vernon Recreation Centre.

From homeless to supportive housing

Shane and Joanne often walked down to a local gas station to use the washroom. They did their best not to “look the part,” said Shane. “But after a while, people know. The stigma around here is terrible, it’s brutal.”

One day, Joanne told Shane she’d been made to stand in line at the gas station to buy something before being allowed to use the washroom. Shane said he was beside himself when Joanne told him what had happened. The couple walked down to a clinic in Vernon where Shane expressed his frustrations. That led to a reporter writing about Shane’s story in a local newspaper. Shane and Joanne began participating in the Folks on Spokes community clean-up where they met Alison, a harm reduction worker with Turning Points Collaborative Society. Shane and Joanne also spear-headed Vernon Entrenched People Against Discrimination, an advocacy group that supports people who are homeless or use drugs, and tries to bridge the chasm between the greater community and those who are marginalized.

This past June, Shane and Joanne moved into supportive housing. Shane said his initial thoughts were to move in and then shut the door to the world. The first week there, however, Shane says he found himself surprised. There is a common area at the back of the apartment, and everyone living in the building began congregating there.

“We’ve become like a family,” he said.

Shane opens up about his past and the trauma that led to his substance use

 Shane talks openly about his past; he’s been to jail four times for stealing to feed his crack addiction.

“I almost lost my life for a $20[ crack] rock out stealing from stores,” said Shane, who says prior to using drugs he had never stolen anything. Today, Shane says, he’s the guy who would stop someone from stealing.

At some point, Shane, who says he could never say no to cocaine,made the decision to switch to meth. He tried smoking meth, but found that didn’t work so tried injecting it instead. He continues to inject meth on an almost daily basis, saying it allows him to keep level and helps mask the pain of losing his first child, despite the concerns his doctor has expressed.

“It keeps me level. I don’t use it to get high, I use it for survival. Most people don’t know I’m high, when I’m not I do have withdrawals. I lost a child when I was 22. I’ve never processed that. It’s always there,” said Shane, who, at the age of 31, began using drugs as a way to cope with the loss.

Safe supplies, housing first and why Revelstoke’s conversation on drugs needs to include listening to users

Unlike Revelstoke, Vernon’s substance use problem is often in-your-face and hard to miss. The hidden nature of substance abuse leads to difficulty attempting to have a conversation about drug use in our mountain town, but Shane’s advice is to just keep trying.

“People who have the power have to open their ears. They can’t pretend they know everything. When people who are in suits who have never had a substance [use] problem in their life are making decisions that affect [substance users], without our input, it’s a problem,” he said.

Shane is a strong believer in harm reduction and decriminalization of drugs, saying everyone has a story about why they use. He says more effort needs to be placed on reducing stigma so people who are using drugs feel comfortable going to clinics where they can get safe supplies to use their drug of choice.

“It’s important for people to understand at the end of the day people are still dying. I know it’s never going to be 100 per cent fixed, but the numbers are unacceptable and the stigma needs to stop. Safe supplies and housing first, for me that’s made all the difference in the world,” he said.

As for Revelstoke, Shane says he wants to help start the conversation that he hopes will lead to reducing stigma and focusing on solutions that will work.

“The best job I’ve seen for outreach is in Vernon. We’re ahead of Revelstoke. I want to help change that.”

For information on drug and alcohol supports in Revelstoke visit https://www.revelstokelife.ca/cat/alcohol-drug/.