One man's experience with homelessness
Web-only article from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1)
Mark Willis is a 48-year-old Polish immigrant. He came to Canada in 1989 seeking a better life. At the age of 30, Mark was living the good life. He had a well-paying, full-time job as a carpenter. He was married and living in an apartment in Vancouver's West End.
In the spring of 1993, however, when Mark was 34, he had his first psychotic incident and his life changed dramatically. Without warning he slid into a depression, which immobilized him - he couldn't even get out of bed. Then he began to hear voices that dominated his thoughts. He became too paranoid to go to work. He couldn't leave his apartment, and the outside world ceased to matter. Not understanding what was happening to him his wife tried to cheer him up. Nothing seemed to help and, frustrated with his mood and immobility, she moved out. Mark would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia.
A few weeks later, Mark made a suicide attempt and was admitted to hospital. After a short stay, however, he was simply released under his own care. The treating physician thought he was suffering solely from depression and put him on Prozac.
Mark returned home, felt better and believed he was well again. He went back to work, reconciled with his wife and she moved back in with him. They wanted to make a clean start so they moved to West Vancouver.
Thinking the incident was behind him and it was just a one-time thing, Mark stopped taking his medication. But by the fall of that year, the depression and the voices returned. Again, he didn't understand what was happening to him.
Mark was living in a new country, speaking a language that was not his native tongue, and living with a disease he knew nothing about. He got progressively worse trying to cope on his own - until he couldn't take care of even his basic needs. Eating and dressing became too difficult for him, let alone a personal relationship, paying his rent or managing his money. His wife, too, knew nothing of his disease. She gave support in the best way she could - she even took him on a trip back to Poland. Eventually, after months of struggling and seeing no change, she moved out for good. It was only after his wife left that Mark learned he was suffering from a mental illness.
With no change in his condition, Mark finally went to a walk-in clinic and explained to the doctor what was happening to him. This doctor (whom he still has today) sent him for a psychiatric evaluation. It was then he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Mark still didn't understand the full scope of his illness and believed he could handle it on his own. Once his wife left, however, he had no other supports and, left on his own, his rent went unpaid. As a result he was taken to court and evicted. The police arrived at his door with the landlord and they removed him from his home. They took him to a welfare office and dumped him on the street outside the closed office. He lost everything; all his personal possessions and mementos of his life. The landlord kept the few things of value to cover his lost rent.
As Mark was an immigrant with no other family in the city, he turned to his doctor. She had him placed in the hospital.
Upon his release he moved to the Lookout emergency shelter and was referred to the Strathcona mental health team. But after a few weeks he moved to a hotel and stopped seeing the Strathcona team. He was on oral medication, felt well again and thought he could manage on his own.
Over the next five years Mark lived in shabby, cockroach-infested hotels in the Downtown Eastside. As he says, "Anyone, even healthy people, would become depressed living in such conditions." In one hotel room, he repaired some of the holes and painted the walls to fix it up a little. When the manager found out, Mark was immediately evicted. In another hotel, he had things stolen from his room. The manager laughed at Mark when he reported the theft.
During these five years, Mark was on and off medication. When he was taking it, he was aware of his situation and it was too much for him. Unaccustomed to such terrible living conditions, he would sink into depression. "What do you do when your life changes so drastically?" Feeling overwhelmed and not knowing any way out, he would stop taking his meds and let the schizophrenia take over.
The illness created another world inside Mark's head; a world that revolved around him. He believed everyone and everything from strangers on the street to the television were communicating messages to him. He became consumed with what these voices were telling him. Filled with the restless energy of his mind on overdrive, all he could do was walk. Out on the streets under the blanket of his illness, he was as vulnerable as a child. He was robbed, beaten and even arrested and thrown in jail. He didn't remember to eat or clean himself - or to pick up his disability cheque to pay the rent. He was again evicted.
Mark was living in a hotel in the West End when he was approached by two mental health outreach workers as he wandered the street. He was tired of the constant barrage of voices in his head and accepted their help. They connected him to community resources.
Mark's life then began to improve a lot. The care workers introduced him to Coast Mental Health. Coast's downtown Resource Centre gave him a place to go every day so he wasn't on the streets. And he could be around other people living with mental illness. He had meals there and was taken on outings into the community. He started seeing a new psychiatrist and taking injection medication. The final piece was getting supportive housing.
It was here, in a supported living apartment block, that he began to feel good again. Mark explains, "When I have a secure place to start from, then I can work out my stuff. It gives me a base to build my self-esteem. You need four walls and the security around you to work out your illness. If you don't have that, you have to do it on the streets."
Mark now holds a steady part-time job. He has become a part of his community. Once a week he cooks for 20 residents in his building. He's known by his neighbours and at the store around the corner where he shops. His illness will be a constant concern, but with his home and support around him, he knows he will always be safe. That gives him the strength to face the future.
About the author
Jake Adrian works at Coast Mental Health as both a volunteer and employee, while furthering his foray into the field of mental health communications