Calgary Homeless Foundation employs former homeless to reach out to others
You see them almost every day. Walking along, you try and turn a blind eye to the person lying in a heap of dusty rags and plastic bags.
You may avoid acknowledging that the dirty clothes, unwashed hair and rotting teeth actually belong to a person.
Some of these people's stories include drug abuse and formidable pasts, but not all are ones of lifelong battles with addictions. Not all homeless people end up on the streets due to a destructive upbringing.
Never too old to end up on the streets
John Bodman, 68, didn't have a gradual decline from grace. His was a steep tumble into homelessness.
At 51 years old, he had his life pretty much figured out. He was making good money with a thriving welding business of his own, and had a family who loved him. His downfall lay in what he admits was simply "curiosity and boredom."
Business was booming and instead of coming back to Calgary, Bodman settled into an apartment near his work up north. One day he ran into an old friend, and they arranged a night for a visit to catch up and reminisce about old times.
"He asked if he and his girlfriend could come over and visit me. I said 'come on over,'" Bodman said. "He asked if he could smoke in my place, and I said 'sure you can smoke'— because everyone smokes."
Bodman's friend wasn't referring to cigarettes "I was pretty naïve then and thought he meant cigarettes," he said. "Then he brings out all this paraphernalia and I thought 'wow.'
"He kept offering it to me and I kept turning it down. I was thinking 'I don't smoke cigarettes and I don't drink alcohol, but it looks like they are having a pretty good time.' So, at about midnight, I said I would try one."
And one was all it took. With that hit, Bodman's fate was sealed, and his fall from grace came rather swiftly.
"I don't know how much he gave me, but he must of given me a pretty good shot because I did it and reached into my pocket and told him when he goes again to bring me back some," he said.
"Then I just spiralled downhill, sold everything, ended up on the streets. Just that quick. It only took a couple of weeks. Crack was my addiction."
Clean, and on the straight and narrow for the last four years, Bodman now works for Safeworks Harm Reduction Program, a division of Alberta Health Services that aids with the treatment of addiction.
Along with Cecil Smith, 57, Bodman does peer outreach for Safeworks to try tohelp people battling through what he already beat.
Smith said he has battled a heroin addiction, on and off, for the last 43 years. He says he just got tired of struggling and reached the point where he had the desire to get off the pavement and into a house.
"I grew up in the days of the hippies, where we wanted to see what this was like and what that was like," Smith said. "At 14, my first drug was an IV injection. And it just went on from there."
Through Bodman and the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Smith said he has been off the street for the past three years. He says he realized having a roof over his head was better than living on cold sidewalks and that staying off drugs was the only way he could keep his house.
Although not completely clean now, Smith said he no longer feels the need to "take a hit every day." Having gone through it all himself, he now focuses on helping other people get off the streets and into a housing program.
"It makes me feel better about myself," Smith said. "It gives me self-confidence and self-esteem, because when you live on the streets you lose that."
"The first thing you lose is self-esteem, because everybody looks down on you and thinks you're just a bum. They don't realize the story — that you are a person and it's everything else that's behind.
"The first thing that people have got to remember is we are people. Our disease is what caused us to be where we're at."
Bodman credits a surreal drug experience and his daughter as the driving force behind him checking himself into a treatment centre and getting help.
"I can still remember my business, and having money and going to restaurants, and being married, and having two kids," said Bodman. "So I didn't want to die out there without seeing my daughter again. That was one of the biggest driving factors that got me thinking about getting off the streets.
"I won't do it again. I definitely learned a lot."
Humble to the core, he scoffs off Smith's compliments and credits of being his saviour. "I don't think I've saved anybody, but I try to help people, because I was out there for 13 years too."
Project Homeless Connect
There are numerous agencies and resources available for the homeless in Calgary. One of them is the Calgary Homeless Foundation.
Every year the Homeless Foundation hosts events, like Project Homeless Connect, that provide some basic needs — such as clothing and haircuts to those living on the street — as well as connecting homeless people to emergency and information services, addiction counselling and various other agencies.
Andrea Ranson, vice-president of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, said that with every Project Homeless Connect event — there have been 13 since 2008 — between 600 and 1,000 homeless people attend. This number increases in the winter months.
Helgi Eyford has volunteered at all the Project Homeless Connect events by working the bag drop-off area.
"It's been a real privilege for me to be here," he said.
- By CELESTE DE MUELENAERE