“Sometimes I hope I freeze to death, sometimes I don’t. You know what I mean?”
With this pronouncement, John Lee’s voice falters with emotion.
Lee is 28. This was Christmas Day 2020 and he was outside the Salvation Army Lighthouse Shelter near Salmon Arm’s McGuire Lake.
He had come to pick up a turkey dinner being provided in a take-out container due to the pandemic.
Before a staff person gave him his food, she brought out some large band-aids.
His hands, dirty from living rough, were cracked in multiple places. In a poignant moment of tenderness that contrasted the harshness of his situation, the young man watched as this relative stranger carefully put band-aids on his damaged skin.
Lee said he lives near others on the outskirts of town in an A-frame type tent he fashioned, guided by his early training as a cadet.
“It holds heat, it’s dry,” he said. “I’m doing things properly that way, as best I can.”
He goes to the food bank when it’s open.
“Until you’re homeless, you don’t realize how hungry you really are without food. You go through it really quickly.”
Lee has a brother who lives in Boston and will mobile load Tim Hortons for him so he can get something to eat. Lee goes there in the mornings to charge his phone. He said people who are homeless aren’t allowed to sit there longer than 15 minutes anymore.
It’s difficult to wash properly, he said, adding public bathrooms are locked up at night, and many times they are strewn with hypodermic needles. He quickly added he is not free from addictions, but the needles are terrible.
“It’s gross. I hate it and it’s scary as well. That’s why I usually carry a stick with me for sorting bottles and cans and stuff.”
Lee said he was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome when he was 12 and suffers from high anxiety.
But many of his current problems stem from when he was 22, he said. While working, he fell off scaffolding, resulting in serious injuries. His voice catches again when remembering the man who saved him, breaking his own ankle while doing so.
Lee was put on pain killers for an extended length of time, Dilaudid or hydromorphone.
What turned out to be the last time he went to renew his prescription, he was told, no more. But by then he was well into an addiction and was faced with excruciating withdrawals. He sought relief in illegal drugs.
He said decriminalization of drugs could be a solution, so people don’t have to commit crimes to survive. It might have made a difference for him.
“Well, back in the day, it would have. I wouldn’t have ended up doing anything wrong. I wouldn’t have ended up in prison, which is many, many years ago now. I wouldn’t have had to. I would have had the resources or a place to go where I could just do it. You would have the people there to help you stop doing it, as well as the people there to make sure you’re doing it safe. Then you’d be educated enough to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Lee said he did manage to do well for a few years.
“I had a fiancé,” he said, tears welling. “The only person who ever cared about me since Mom left…”
He said he was going to lose their rental home and he decided the only way to make ends meet was to sell dope.
“I made a mistake and I lost her. I f—-ed up, I take that.”
Lee has lived rough in Sicamous, where he contends homelessness was not acknowledged, as well as at a shelter in Vernon. He said although the staff at the shelter were very good, the easy access to drugs there did not help him.
Lee mourns his loss of family connections.
He speaks highly of his mother but said he hasn’t seen her in six years and rarely talks to her. His father died from kidney disease and he blames himself for not donating his own kidney. Two weeks later his other brother was beaten to death in New Brunswick, he said, his voice quaking. Both his uncles were killed in a car accident, and his grandparents died shortly after from natural causes.
“I’m sorry but I don’t really have anyone to do good for anymore.
“Now my life is a battle between staying clean and doing the right thing and saving money, which is damn near impossible. It’s always an uphill battle that you don’t have anything to help yourself climb with.”