At the height of his addiction, Gabriel Stockless was spending $250 to $1,000 a day on drugs, and would go for long stretches without sleeping.
He resorted to trafficking, robbery and other crimes for money to fuel his habit, and was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison for his actions. By the time he was released, he had accepted that he would likely die on the streets as an addict.
Marcus Gagńe was told from a young age that he would end up on the Downtown Eastside, addicted to drugs, just like his parents and siblings. After spending 10 years in foster care — where he suffered rape, physical and mental wounds, and abuse for his decision to transition from female to male — he felt like a “waste of space” with no purpose in life.
Both are now proud college graduates with meaningful careers that allow them to give back to their communities.
Stockless and Gagńe successfully completed the Community Mental Health and Addictions Worker diploma program at Stenberg College in Surrey, a place where their lived experiences are considered assets, not shortfalls.
Through the program, students learn the skills needed to become social service workers, mental health workers and outreach workers, in a setting where they can address their own mental health issues at the same time, explained lead instructor Allen Hoolaeff, who calls Langley City home.
“The whole process of going through this program is you’re exploring all of the different challenges that people face, but you’re exploring your own challenges. So, at times, it’s very much like group therapy,” he said.
“We discuss their own traumas, I disclose the traumas that I faced in my life, and it is very, very real. If you haven’t dealt with your own traumas and your past, how are you going to help someone else?”
About half of the students enrolled have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, and some have even completed the program while living at a shelter.
To enter, students must have a minimum of two years of sobriety (if facing addiction issues), at least 12 volunteer hours and the completion of Grade 12 or mature student status. Writing and passing an entrance is exam is also required.
In the eight years the program has been available, Hoolaeff said there has been a 100 per cent success rate among the students, without one relapsing into addiction.
“Going through the program, they are supported in every aspect. I had one student who probably had a Grade 4 reading level, and by the end of the program brought it up to Grade 12. (The student) was able to write really good essays, did presentations and (was) very confident,” Hoolaeff said.
“Ultimately, that’s my goal with every one of my students; to get them to a place where they are confident, competent and they are going to make the biggest difference with the individuals that they work with.”
Hoolaeff has a background in social work, with experience working for crisis lines, adult and juvenile corrections centres, and mental health homes for adolescents. He believes one of the biggest issues surrounding homelessness is stigmatization.
“I think that the majority of society looks down on homeless people, and doesn’t see that they are actually people who are struggling,” he said.
“It’s not really a choice that they are out there, it’s basically about the only option that they have. When you look at 40 per cent of homeless individuals are formerly in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family — that’s significant,” he said.
Metro Vancouver is home to an estimated 3,605 homeless people, according to the 2017 homeless count, with 206 living in the Langleys.
The region’s 2017 homeless strategy reports that an estimated 80 per cent of homeless people have a chronic health issue, with 33 per cent of sheltered homeless, and 36 per cent of unsheltered homeless, suffering from mental illness.
A further 44 per cent of sheltered and 55 per cent of unsheltered homeless face addiction issues, and 30 per cent of sheltered and 27 per cent of unsheltered homeless have a physical disability.
Hoolaeff said that in his experience, many who end up on the streets have had some kind of trauma in their lives that they have been unable to properly deal with, and a pill becomes “the magic cure for everything.”
Establishing a connection to community and finding stable housing are key to help reverse this lifestyle, he said. For this reason, Hoolaeff has been pushing for approval of the Quality Inn supportive housing project in Willowbrook, a proposal that has stirred controversy in the community.
“If you’re invested in community, if you feel you are a worthwhile member of the community — not necessarily respected, but accepted — you’re not going to be doing things to harm your community,” he said.
“You don’t make change in people’s lives by telling them what to do or throwing them in jail. You make change by creating connections and having a relationship with them.”
That connection can be as simple as making eye contact and smiling at someone, he added.
“Treat them like a human. If you were in that position, how would you like society to treat you? Because we are only about six bad choices away from being in the same position — every one of us.”
For more information on the program, visit www.stenbergcollege.com.