I meet Kate where the alley opens up to the street. Homeless people spill out like creek water debouching into a brackish inlet. It is late Winter and the tiny city is still cold, especially for people living rough.
Kate is standing there in a jacket that is too big for her small frame, giving the impression that she’s dressed in a blanket. Like all of her clothes, this piece was pulled from a church free box. At this point in Kate’s life, it is entirely function over fashion although, when I first met her, things were different.
That was three years ago.
Kate was a server at a local cafe, she rented a room in a shared house, had a car, and was doing her best to make it on her own after freshly aging out of foster care.
Aging out is difficult.
Many supports offered by the government run out when a youth in care reaches “adulthood.” Hopefully the child had good placements along the way, placements with foster parents that were caring and supportive, and a care team of social workers who helped prepare the child for adult life in terms of education, skills, and resources.
Some placements are great with exceptional foster parents, ones that do have the capacity to take on children who have complex trauma and often issues with addiction.
Others are not. I have heard stories from clients of physical and sexual abuse while in foster care, as well as favouritism, neglect, etc.
The unfortunate truth is, many of my clients came out of the foster care system.
The psychological wounds they have endured are deep. Imagine, for example, what kind of effect abandonment at infancy might have on a young person’s psyche. What damage might result from a baby crying out for their mother for 24 hours or more, and having those cries go unanswered because mother was either too high to respond, or was simply gone? How might you survive a childhood where one of your parents hands you over to a dealer who is also a pimp to pay off an overdue drug debt?
Imagine again, what it might be like for foster parents trying to create a healthy environment for a child who has undergone such hell.
How difficult might that be?
When I was a kid I lived under the fear of being placed in foster care. I was poor, at times homeless with my mother and my brother, living in motels and in cars. As hard as it was, my biggest fear wasn’t where the next meal would come from but the fear of being taken by authorities from my mom.
We had a stint of homeless in Houston, Texas in 1981.
Our red, four door Ford LTD was where we slept. We spent a lot of time in the Montrose neighbourhood. It was a zone where cultural outlaws, queers, artists, punks, and prostitutes hung out.
Because of this mix, our poverty and homelessness was a little less conspicuous.
There was a certain level of freedom in that part of Houston that was distinct from the more suburban and middle class areas further down Westheimer. You could exist with a little less scrutiny. Still, I remember having to duck down in the passenger seat when police cruisers were near. We worried that if the cops discovered we lived in our car, they would have separated us and placed me into foster care.
It was a deep seated fear that reflected some intergenerational trauma passed down by my mother who herself experienced being sent to residential school (what she described as “an orphanage”) when she was 12.
This was in Grundy, Virginia, back in the 1940s.
Her stories of Christian style punishments and physical abuse marked me, but more difficult was to imagine the loneliness she experienced as a little girl separated from her family. No matter how challenging it was to be homeless; no matter how much adversity and risk we faced on the street, I wanted to be with my mom.
It’s a natural instinct.
For the child who is separated, even when put in the best foster placement, there is an awareness that something about their life with their natal parents was considered to be deeply wrong.
The foster situation isn’t easy for any of the people involved.
From what Kate told me, her foster parents were actually pretty decent. She lived on a small organic farm on the coast. The “parents” were kind and understanding and liked to take Kate hiking. But when she turned 19 she just had to leave. “I just really wanted to prove to myself and everyone around I could do it on my own,” she said.
That was the Kate I encountered before she became a client.
Now Kate lives on the street. The trajectory here was straight forward. She got involved with a charismatic guy ten years older than her who was recently released from prison. He was fun, adventuresome, good looking, good sense of humour, not really what you picture when you think of an ex-convict.
Quickly he introduced her to drugs.
First it was ecstasy, which was fun and sensual; then he turned her on to meth.
Kate suffered from severe depression her whole life, making her susceptible to abysmal periods of mental darkness. Initially her experience and discovery of stimulants provided a brilliant happiness that she didn’t know was possible.
“I finally felt alive,” she said, with a reminiscent smile. “It was like I could finally feel joy.”
There are many ways to do meth.
You can smoke it, snort it, swallow it in a gel cap, inject it, or insert it up the butt (a booty bump). Most people will start out by smoking meth. Tolerance builds quickly.
It gets harder to reach that high so, if you are using it to escape depression, the blues will come back.
Invariably, someone with more experience comes along with promises to take you back up to that soaring all time high. All you have to do is let them inject it into you with a needle.
Nearly all my clients were initially resistant to injection drug use. They are adamant that they will never shoot it. But then, almost all of them do.
The high comes back strong and fast. You feel great, on top of the world, present, focused, alert, capable of accomplishing anything, or so you believe. For people with undiagnosed ADHD, meth can actually be a relaxant. One client with severe ADHD claimed he could only sleep after injecting speed.
Kate’s boyfriend gave her that first shot of side (slang for meth). He didn’t know anything about safer injection practices (it’s not like this information is generally taught) so he blew out one of the major veins in her arm within a few months.
The two of them would stay awake for days, no food, very little water, having unprotected sex, and then Kate started to tweak.
Paranoia and hallucinations set in.
Kate’s man introduced her to fentanyl. She was resistant at first, but couldn’t take the meth psychosis that left her twitchy, awake for days, and picking at bugs on her flesh that no one else could see.
Kate’s boyfriend gave her that first shot.
It was so strong she OD’d. Naloxone brought her back. The overdose was disorienting, she didn’t know what happened, she didn’t know she was dying, all she could feel was a quick hit of opioid relief.
You know the story from here. Kate stopped showing up for work and was fired.
Her savings was handed over to her boyfriend who scored the drugs (he always took more for himself). She sold her car and that money also went to drugs. Without cash for rent she was kicked out of her house. There was no family to ask for help, no relatives within several hundred kilometers, and so the only place left to go was the street.
We sat together on a curb one summer day, looking up at a mountain that reminded Kate of one that she used to climb with her foster mother. Sun was shining down on us and the weather was warm. Tears ran down Kate’s cheeks.
She was ragged from that first few months of street life.
Her body ached from sleeping on concrete. She was suffering from withdrawal and exhaustion, and she was literally starving. Her skin was scabby from picking, all her possessions were contained in a grocery bag. I asked if she would consider reaching out to her foster mother to let her know how it was going.
Perhaps her foster parent could help?
Kate said she had thought about it, but no. She didn’t want to burden the foster mother with her problems.
“Her job with me is over,” Kate said, with no room for further discussion. “It’s strange though. When I lived with her, I used to see street people and junkies in Vancouver. My heart went out to them, but I never imagined I would end up that way myself.”
More tears falling.
Another year has gone by and here we are in the present, where the alley meets the street. So much has happened.
Kate’s calm, but a heavy sadness follows her around like the “shadow people” she often sees during bouts of meth psychosis.
Her face now bears the scars and the lines of street survival. Everything that you can imagine that would happen to a young woman in Kate’s position has happened to her. I hadn’t seen Kate in a couple of weeks and had been worried.
Women disappear from the street.
I had asked around, but if anybody knew where she was and what had happened, they weren’t talking. There had also been a street pimp circling around Kate, and he too was curiously absent.
Given this, when Kate popped back up, I was relieved. She was just beginning to tell me what had happened when a circle of other homeless folks began to gather around us. All of them needed harm reduction supplies and nutritive supplements.
At once multiple people began asking for bubble pipes, syringes, juice boxes, grocery cards, naloxone, granola bars, smoking foil…
I turned to Kate and saw tears welling again.
“Hey everyone, I have supplies,” I say, ‘but I want to finish my conversation with Kate. Just give me a few minutes.”
Some space was created.
Again, I turn to face Kate. She’s crying, but now also looks angry. Her brow is furrowed. Her lips are tight.
“I fucking hate this so much,” she says, beginning to tremble, her head shaking from side to side, like in disbelief. She’s looking at the other clients of mine in the alley.
“These are the only people I know anymore. No one else talks to me. I don’t exist. Nobody remembers me how I was before this. I’m so deep in now, I’m even starting to forget…”
“No,” I say. “I remember you before.”
Like I previously mentioned, we met when she was working at the cafe. I went in for a coffee during my break. I was having one of those days in social services where you question whether any of the work you do matters, whether it really makes a difference, and you wonder if maybe it’s time to give it up.
Kate didn’t know me, didn’t know about my work, but she picked up on the energy.
“This one’s on me,” she said, setting the Americano I ordered on the counter in front of me. “I hope your day gets better,” she said with a tenderness that had an almost material presence to it.
Kate’s action that day in the cafe shifted things for me. It didn’t change the big systemic problems, it didn’t solve addiction or homelessness, nor did it remove the vicarious trauma I carry. But it did bring home the point that simple expressions of human kindness actually matter. Just having someone see you with compassion creates space that allows you to feel less alone, even if it is only for a few moments.
“You made it clear that you had a big heart, and that you actually care about people and what they are going through,” I said to Kate as we stood by the entrance to the alley. “No matter what, that remains true to this day.”
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Melancholic and beautiful. Thank you.
This is heart-wrenching look at a common process of ending up on the street. I love how you call on us for our empathy and understanding. I cried at the end... so beautiful.