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By Leslie Ference
Original published in the Toronto Star
November 11, 2013
Looking at his life in the rear view mirror, Morrison “Mo” Thomas knew he had to take back control or lose it.
Years battling with depression, drugs and booze took over mind, body and soul, leaving him out of touch with reality and haunted by cocaine-induced psychosis. Delusional, Thomas was in an out of hospitals, rehab and shelters living on the edge.
“As long as I’m not on mind-altering substances, I’m OK,” said the 40-year-old. “I can’t live that lifestyle.”
Life took a turn about seven years ago. As he sank deeper into depression, he drank more. “Cocaine was like putting gasoline on a fire and the addiction just exploded,” Thomas said of those days.
Life hadn’t always been a disaster. A graduate of the University of Guelph, Thomas taught math and science to adults for several years. He was married, has three children and is grandfather to five. Life was good. But when money started rolling in, he slipped back into the old ways, each time deeper than the last.
“I came here to have the support I need,” he said of Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence), which has been his home from the past several months. A United Way Toronto member agency, it’s more than a shelter for homeless men.
The aim at the 63-bed home, said executive director Steve Teekens, is to reduce homelessness by helping men who come there become self-reliant and economically independent, while fostering and maintaining a healthy sense of community, co-operation and self-worth through the promotion of traditional aboriginal culture and values.
It’s a safe harbour where they receive medical and spiritual support as well as help with day-to-day living to rehabilitate their troubled lives. The Street Help program delivers clothing, hot meals and basic essentials, and offers a referral service for homeless people across the GTA. Gimme Shelter is a daily mobile counselling outreach to the homeless. There are also programs for youth.
A native sharing circle has been an important part of the healing process for Thomas, who has been sober for 10 months. Discussions often focus on addiction, life on the reserve, “and the dysfunction that happens,” he said, adding he grew up on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford. Isolation, poverty, unemployment and barriers to education are a reality there, he added.
Programs and services at Na-Me-Res offer the men everything from psychiatric counselling to writing and drumming classes. The extended Sagatay (A New Beginning) program, which Thomas is part of, helps residents develop life skills and confidence, communicate better, solve problems and live healthy lives. Together, they have helped him reclaim his life. These days he’s back in the classroom, volunteering at the Council Fire doing math tutoring, and hopes to turn it into a regular job. “I always had a feeling I could move beyond the street,” he said, adding that his family as well as the Na-Me-Res and Sagatay have given him hope “by helping break the spell.”
Nilus Bruce arrived in the city from Winnipeg about three months ago with a crew that operates fairs, like the CNE. He’d held that job for six years and was good at it. But things took a turn after his marriage broke down. Devastated, he started drinking.
The last straw was when he lost his identification and couldn’t cross the border to work at shows in the U.S. Bruce, 29, ended up on the streets of Toronto, down and out. Then he heard about Na-Me-Res, “my safe house.”
“It’s a place where I can start a new life,” he said, adding that separation from his family changed his world. “I lost my show family and my real family,” Bruce said, adding he’s never been homeless before. Other shelters in the city didn’t work for him. Without the support he’s received in the months he’s been at Na-Me-Res, Bruce said, he’d still be on the streets.
“I needed to get into an atmosphere that was spiritual,” said Bruce, who is proud of his First Nations heritage. Rediscovering his culture and participating in traditional healing circles at the shelter has been cleansing. The men who live there have become his brothers.
Being there has also inspired him to get back to his first love, his art. Bruce loves painting. “This is where I’m starting my new journey.”
Since he’s been at Na-Me-Res, Bruce has stayed sober and has faced the challenges of rehabilitation “step by step.”
“I feel really lucky to be here,” he reflected. “I feel confident to be with my own people. I feel really safe.” It’s given him the strength to move forward.
“I want this to work, because I don’t want it to get worse,” he said, adding that Na-Me-Res has helped him find himself and rebuild his life. “I found more of what I have in me. It’s quite a feeling…. And at Na-Me-Res, I’m not a homeless man.”
Bruce is looking forward to the day he is fully healed, employed and has a place of his own. The day after that becomes a reality, he wants to invite his daughter Nila, 8, to his home.
“I want to be in my daughter’s life in a good spirit,” he said. It will be the best reward.