When people ask how to deal with Kelowna’s social problems regarding drug addiction, retired attorney Tom Smithwick is ready to provide an answer.
As a leading advocate of Freedom’s Door, an initiative to help men who faced mental health and drug problems in 2002, Smithwick has found what he believes is the solution to helping people who are homeless in Kelowna become.
And he’s summarized his views and those of some of Freedom’s Door’s clients in a new book, Knocking On Freedom’s Door, Smithwick’s account of hopeful stories about recovery and healing from addiction.
Smithwick said people had often suggested that they write a book about his experience with Freedom’s Door.
His general refrain was, “I don’t have time to write a book,” but one day in March 2018 his thoughts on the subject began to change.
From there it took him a year to write the rough first draft and longer to complete the final version. He sought guidance from other local writers, including Sharron Simpson and Claire Bernstein, and offered Freedom’s Door clients the opportunity to share their stories.
He says that up to 80 percent of people living on the streets or in shelters suffer from mental health problems that have been mistakenly stigmatized as people who made bad decisions of their own free will.
“At that level, it’s easier for people to go away and ignore the problem. Another unfortunate component is that we now have a charter of rights protecting a person’s right to stay,” said Smithwick.
“This person may be 25 years old, mentally ill, abused by drug dealers, but our social obligations to help this person who may have mental health problems are being wiped out.”
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He believes the medical system has given up helping those struggling with mental health problems on the street, comparing it to seniors with dementia who receive a medical response immediately, “so quickly that Your head is turning “.
Today, the volunteer Freedom’s Door owns seven houses in Kelowna that house 64 men, supported by eight paid staff and more than 50 volunteers.
Homeless men trying to address problems in their life are given a faith-based life structure to find and keep work, to learn what makes them sick physically and mentally, and how to address these problems in their future life.
Smithwick said the program is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous program launched in 1935.
“This program has helped millions of people so we thought this was a pretty solid foundation for Freedom’s Door to be based on.”
The first step in recovery, he says, is to acknowledge that you are unable to control your addiction on your own and give individuals the support network that offers something else to rely on about yourself face mental health problems or overcome drug addiction.
“The principle of AA is to create a positive brotherhood of support that you are not alone, that you realize that you cannot do it yourself, and that there is a community of support to help.”
Smithwick said it is now well documented how addiction often stems from childhood trauma, events in a person’s life that are too overwhelming to address, so drugs are a way to hide the pain.
“In coping with this pain, addiction is so much about masking deeper problems. That’s how we are in society today. Let’s take a pill to solve a medical problem instead of getting to the heart of a problem that is making someone depressed and confused. Why not see why someone is depressed right away? “
Smithwick calls Freedom’s Door customers “wounded warriors” and says their stories share similarities – abandonment is a big problem, sexual abuse and comfort on the street is safer than being in a dysfunctional family home.
He says that first entry into the program is a required 90-day stay followed by an optional option to stay longer to get their lives back on track in a structured environment that many of them lack when alone be left.
“The majority stay longer than 90 days. Many stay longer, in some cases up to two years. You can stay as long as you want.
“Our longest stay has been with us for eight years. He works part time but the mental health issues would make it difficult to get by outside of the structure provided by our program. “
Freedom’s Door is now pushing the boundaries of affordable housing and applying to develop a facility in Glenmore pending BC Housing grants.
“It’s a $ 16 million project. We have a draft for the building with 43 planned rental units. It is being re-zoned, but the Kelowna Council has given its support, ”said Smithwick.
Freedom’s Door had proposed a facility for a dry salvage house on McCurdy Road three years ago, but it met resistance from the immediate neighbors.
BC Housing’s grant application for this project was ultimately rejected and BC Housing set up its own facility on the premises, which recently opened its doors to homeless customers.
“In three years we have come full circle. We have gone one step further than just being a recovery facility to provide affordable housing to the low-income people who need it.”
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