I decided to kick off my new blog with an interview I did recently, tackling a subject that I am passionate about. Homelessness.
I recently took photos for the Annual Homeless Initiative Event in our community. As I wandered around the room, capturing the interactions of service providers and city Councilors, I noticed two young men enter through the side door.
Dustin and his friend looked cautious of their surroundings and I was intrigued by their presence instantly.
Soon the Emcee got up and announced Dustin (A.K.A False Hope) as their special guest, a spoken word poet.
Dustin is a twenty year old landscaper and survivor of addiction and youth homelessness.
You could sense his nervousness and apologized for his raw, unpolished, work he was about to share. As he began pouring his soul into the air, the room fell silent and hung on his every word. Dustin was real. Dustin was exactly why everyone in that room was working towards ending homelessness. I truly admired him for what he was doing, and found out later that it was his first time ever standing on stage, sharing his poetry in a public setting.
I went over and shook his hand. His bear-like grip acknowledged my comments with respect.
I asked Dustin if he would tell me his story so I could share it with everyone.
A couple weeks later we met up outside a coffee shop. I grabbed my regular and Dustin lit up a cigarette. We decided walking was more comfortable and real than sitting in a coffee shop so we hit the pavement, coffee, cigarette and recorder in hand.
Here is our conversation:
Dustin, tell me how you ended up homeless?
Dustin takes a drag off his cigarette and pauses for a moment.
“It’s a variety of things, mostly, because with youth they actually put themselves in that situation and I put myself in that situation. I got addicted. I didn’t really want to go and be around my family when I was all junked out and shit, I felt that was evil towards them. So I lived in Sunrise House (The Emergency Youth Shelter) till I was eighteen. Then there were two years of real, adult homelessness that was the hardest time I have ever had.”
How did you become addicted? What led you down that path?
“Well, first I went to a party with a couple guys when I was fifteen and they had Ecstasy pills, and I didn’t know what it was. They were like, ‘Yo, here man, try this stuff, it gives you so much energy!’ so I took five of them. It took a while to kick in and I thought, “Well maybe I will snort them next time.”
After that I needed something better than Ecstasy. I didn’t want to be all sweaty so I started doing cocaine. Oh wow, Cocaine! You don’t sleep forever. Then I found Meth, I stayed up for months, I didn’t have to eat, sleep, and drink. I didn’t have to do shit all. Just get high.”
You are clean now. How did you go through the process of getting clean? What made you say, “Enough is enough?
“I was dating this girl at the time. To be honest nobody knew at first when I started, I kept it really hidden, but when you are on Meth you do some really stupid shit. You can move your body and not even know you are moving your body. So she found out, then my little sister found out, then my mom found out. It all went crazy and I didn’t quit right away, but eventually I just stopped doing it.”
So you didn’t have to go through any detoxing program?
“No, those don’t work, they just make you want it more. I feel, they try to help you with the wrong kind of methods and they are so mean in those places. You are just trying to get clean but they judge you. Not only them but the junkies in there. They find out you are in there for cocaine addiction, and maybe they are in there for Meth, and they call you a pussy and ask, ‘Why are you even here man, I have a real problem and you don’t.’ It’s a vicious circle going through that.”
If you look back at the time when you felt you were your lowest. How would you characterize your life now? How did you come through it?
“When I was at my lowest I really didn’t care at all. If someone were to look at me wrong I would just punch them in the face. I would fight every day; I just wouldn’t even care. I was angry for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, I am still kind of like that in a sense. I have severe Schizophrenia, so that really doesn’t help at all. When I feel threatened it’s really bad.
Now I have to remind myself that there is shit to do. I have shit to write, shows to do, I gotta do music, I gotta work. I didn’t have that back then. All I had was drugs.”
How did you find writing as a way to express yourself?
“Well, I always use d to write poems when I was younger. In Grade 5 I did shows back then as well for the community, but then it just ended. I also use d to do music a long time ago, rap, I was in a couple bands, and I played drums for quite a while.
One day I just picked up a pen and started writing again. I was like, “Fuck, I just need to tell somebody!” It just took off from there. Rap is all writing in itself, but a spoken word poet approached me recently and taught me how to do it, so that is the direction I am taking now.”
Did you find it was a good therapy in helping you deal with a lot of the emotions you have not dealt with previously?
“In a sense, yes, but it all comes down to in the end that you still need that human emotion and a pen and paper can’t do that. When you are alone with your thoughts, those are the things that can kill you the most.”
When you were up on the stage the other night, was that the first time you performed poetry in front of an audience? How did that feel?
“On the way up the stairs I was like, “Okay, you got this!” I rap all the time with a few groups, a few underground rappers, and in that way I’m not nervous. But when I go and talk about my writing, and throw my life into it, my emotions and stuff like that, it’s different.
I got to the top of the stage and looked out at all the people and was like, “Whoa! I’m really here, this is really happening!”
Having my two buddies there was the greatest thing ever, because all the people I use d to hang out with, they are all not around like they use d to be. They all chuck you aside. But these guys have been with me through it all, my drug addiction and everything.”
You mentioned to me before that youth homelessness can often happen by choice. Why do you think they choose homelessness?
“It’s not necessarily that they choose it, they just choose to leave without knowing what it actually like to be out on their own. To have to struggle for themselves, to have to make their own money, to have to find their own places to sleep, to actually be an adult.
A lot of kids at a young age think they are able to do those things. You know it all, right, you’re fifteen. You have a lot of friends, you go to school, but that will change in a second. You’ll see who your real friends are and when shit hits the fan that thins out the herd right there. People start showing you their true colors that you didn’t even know they had. I have learned that every single day of my life.”
So you have probably seen a lot of support come out to help you?
“NO!” Dustin responds almost laughing, like I was crazy.
“NO?!” I respond, a bit shocked by his answer.
“If you’re homeless you are alone and most [of] the time you are sleeping on the streets. I see commercials every day about how Canadians help homeless people, but how come there are still so many homeless people? They can spend thousands of dollars on a commercial but they can’t spend fifty dollars to help someone have a good sleep in a bed?”
So what do you think the solution is? What would you like to see happen?
“Start asking! You are going to offend people whether they are homeless or not, but until you start asking questions, nothing will change.”
But Seriously Dustin, a lot of youth, if you go up to them and start asking them how you can help will get defensive and mean. They are angry and don’t want to accept your help: how do you help them?
Dustin’s facial expression validates what I am saying but clarifies with a different perspective.
“They just don’t want to accept your help because they are scared. That’s one thing about being homeless that nobody will admit. You’re fucking scared, because once you’re out here you have nobody, you have nothing. You can get stabbed, you can get shot, and you can get beat up. They will take your shoes, your hat. If you are wearing something nice or you have any money, consider it gone.
I used to be in gangs. I am talking heavy shit. I’m talking stuff nobody should ever see especially if you are young, but because of that people wouldn’t touch me. They knew what I was capable of. Getting out of that way of life and trying to survive is part of this vicious circle. A lot of people out here, because of that, lose their minds. A lot of kids with SO much potential, so much creativity, they just lose it.
of it this way: for every five kids homeless, that’s another five drug dealers, that’s another five thieves, that’s another five no-goods, that’s another five lives destroyed because nobody started asking, Nobody cared to ask.”
If you could talk to your fifteen-year-old self now, what would you say to that child?
“Never give up! Keep moving forward no matter where you are, or what happens. Keep moving.”
What about the kids that are choosing to be homeless?
“It’s not worth it. You get into arguments with your dad or your mom, you may hate your life, and you may want to get high and party. Yeah, I get it! Everybody goes through their rebellious phase in life. But you have your whole life ahead of you, don’t throw it away for that one gram, that one party, for that one pill, for that one night. It is not really worth destroying how many years you have left.
I spent my life, so many years, so many days, and hours, and seconds and minutes, angry. So many things would trigger my anger, and I’m still angry. Trying to figure out why, but that is life, you are supposed to figure it out yourself.”
You said you were Schizophrenic. That must be frightening for you.
“Sometimes it is because you have to understand no two people with a disease are the same. Schizophrenia is a scary thing. You create your own reality. I am not saying that “Oh you see a building and it’s there, but really it’s not there.” I don’t see things that aren’t there.
People who know you have schizophrenia think you’re crazy, and that’s what kills you.
The one thing I find about my Schizophrenia is that I come up with impossible thoughts, like Murphy’s Law. The thing is I am not scared of death. I have been shot at so many times. I’ve been beat up, and all that shit, but I am just not even scared anymore. I am twenty-eight years old and I think, “Fuck it!” If you are going to stab me, stab me, but I am going to go out screaming and fighting.
It is the mentality, the being suicidal, that’s what scares me. Being Schizophrenic, that’s what scares me the most. It’s something nobody should have.
The people that I have with me, who know I am Schizophrenic, when I get down or something, the way they look at me, it cuts me right in half. I’m like, “Don’t even try to understand.” I don’t need you to feel sorry for me, I have never needed that in my entire life. I knew what I was getting into the day I left my house.
So when I accepted what I made for myself, I couldn’t blame anyone else but myself. Nobody forced me to do drugs. Nobody is forcing my face to the smoke and saying, “Inhale.” It is my own will power. People who say, “OH he or she did this to me,” no they didn’t. They may have showed you but it was up to you to decide between right and wrong.”
I think your story is really inspiring, especially for people who are thinking of deciding to live on the streets. You have seen what awful things can come from that choice. If you were to talk to youth who were thinking of choosing this lifestyle, what would you say to them? How would you want to help them?
“Like I said, no two situations are the same. When it comes down to it, and the door is open, what do they want to do? I can only help someone who wants to help themselves.
For your future, if you could achieve anything without limitations, what would it be?
“I would save a life. Even just one. Make someone’s day. To affect someone, even if they are thousands of miles away, to have that much better of a day. That would be something amazing!”