Street Health Client Stories – René

“I never thought I would be homeless until it happened to me”

René grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, both of her parents enjoyed stable employment, she went on vacations in the summer and was always encouraged to chase any opportunity that came her way. But after a series of unfortunate events, René departed from the sheltered domain of the middle class and plunged into what would eventually become six years of living in and out of the shelter system, often sleeping rough in parks and outside churches.

As a young person with a creative mind and a healthy curiosity, René excelled at a variety of jobs often to the praise of her bosses. René became a highly skilled welder, capable of sticking to strict quality and timeline standards. In addition to this, she has her counterbalance certificate and is an experienced forklift driver, both jobs that require technical proficiency and a certain propensity for being uncomfortable.

As someone who constantly searches for new challenges and creative outputs, René, after years of working in a variety of skilled trades, decided to try her hand at the world of professional cooking.  She trained as a chef at George Brown’s renowned culinary school, finishing top of her class. Upon graduation, René worked at several fine dining establishments most notably the Gladstone Hotel where she was responsible for preparing menus, running a kitchen staff, ordering ingredients, and coordinating deliveries.

René always had an impeccable work ethic, her bosses often praised her as someone who works hard and does not make any complaints.

She was making good money, living her life, never thinking for one second that becoming homeless was a possibility, until one day everything changed. René was introduced to methamphetamine by an acquaintance.

“Misery loves company, drug addicts love using with others, people can bring you into that world”

It started off slow, “I became a functional addict, nobody suspected anything because I was able to get a lot done at work. People were shocked when they found out I was using drugs and that I was an addict because I was on time, did my work properly, and always getting praised from my bosses”

Before she knew it, she began to slip. René eventually lost her job, and due to burned bridges with her family, she was forced to turn to the streets. In what felt like the blink of an eye René went from gainful employment to a life of uncertainty on the streets of Toronto.

“I was making thousands of dollars a week and then I allowed drugs to take hold of my life until it became the most important thing in my life, my day revolved around getting high”.

René began bouncing between shelters, when there was no space she would sleep outside, all the while her substance use continued to take more of a toll on her health due to the reliance on a toxic street supply. Sadly, her experience is not uncommon, more than 7,400 people used Toronto Shelters for the first time in 2021. The pandemic, cuts to funding, lack of affordable housing, and the poisoned drug crisis are cited as some of the main reasons for the sharp rise in homelessness.

Using drugs alone is one of the leading factors for overdose death, many who have succumbed to overdoses are found alone. People who use drugs know the risks but due to stigma and barriers to resources, they often do not get the help they need.

It was during this time that René became aware of Street Health. René began accessing Street Health’s Overdose Prevention site where she was able to safely inject drugs under the careful supervision of trained staff.  While accessing Street Health’s OPS, René was referred to other services such as our nursing clinics and identification replacement services.  She saw firsthand the important role supervised consumption sites play in combatting the deadly poisoned drug crisis.

“Without Safe injection Sites overdoses across the city would increase, and it would put people, myself included in a precarious situation. Being able to use substances under the careful supervision of trained staff, no judgment but friendly and supportive makes a world of difference for the health of the community”

After becoming acquainted with Street Health’s services, René began attending our weekly drop-ins, it was there she started to develop a sense of community amongst people who had lived experiences much like her own.

“There is no substitute for experience at the end of the day, sometimes people with master’s degrees will speak about statistics on homelessness or substance use, but I would rather hear it from someone who has really been there and understands what it’s like from firsthand experience”

René suffered 2 strokes and a heart attack during the six years she was homeless making it increasingly challenging to find work and stable housing. René’s life started to shift course when she was finally approved for ODSP, she was able to secure housing and moved into an apartment downtown with her partner Myles. They own a French bulldog together whom they love very much.  “I am content, I am at peace” René exclaimed when asked how she feels about her current situation.

Things are looking up for René and for the first time in a long time, she is optimistic about the future. She and her Partner Myles enrolled in Street Health’s doorway project last fall, a community-centered project that recruits, trains, and transitions people with lived experience of substance use to become employed in the field of harm reduction.

All sorts of people become homeless for all sorts of reasons. We hope by sharing René’s story we can shed light on the realities of homelessness. Significant changes are required to combat the homelessness and poisoned drug crisis, investments in housing, safer supply programs, overdose prevention sites, mental health resources and so much more. As individuals, the least we can do is understand that behind the statistics are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life” – Nelson Mandela