New habits: former addict David Mitchell injects hope into street community

David Mitchell still remembers the night he rolled over in his sleeping bag and broke two ribs.

This story originally ran Sept. 16, 2010.

David Mitchell still remembers the night he rolled over in his sleeping bag and broke two ribs.

It was October 2002, and Mitchell was staying in a park in Vic West, with heroin—his closest friend. He sat up after feeling the cracks and realized he wouldn’t make it through another winter. And so, with all the effort he could muster, Mitchell got up and walked the 20 blocks to Victoria’s only detox facility, determined to find help at last. He was turned away outright—they only had seven beds, and all were spoken for.

“I said to them, ‘Look, you can either take me now or I’m going to die waiting outside your door, because I can’t make it out there anymore,’” Mitchell remembers.

After spending six hours waiting on the detox steps, Mitchell was surprised when a man came out and told him someone had missed an appointment—Mitchell would have a bed. “Whether I would have made good on my threat or not, who knows? Any longer, and I may have been lured back by heroin. But I was lucky,” he says.

Fast forward eight years. Mitchell tells the story of his recovery through painfully blue eyes. His face is lined with years of use. He coughs often from “too many butts,” he says, and he has a nervous confidence. But he looks like anybody’s dad—worn and weathered, with a healthy weight and a spark in his smile.

Mitchell is now the program director for the Vancouver Island Addictions Recovery Society’s (VIARS) Foundation House program. Since 2004, he’s been helping men like himself find their paths off the street.

A knight in shining windows

We chat in front of Bean Around the World, the coffee shop on Fisgard. This is no random meeting place; it’s the spot where Mitchell made his living for years by washing windows and sweeping the street for those who would pay him—or even those who wouldn’t. Mitchell credits the shop owners in the area, specifically Michael Garnett, for keeping him alive during his darkest times. They wouldn’t always give him money—it may have been coffee, food or antibiotics—but it was always something.

Garnett, who has owned Bean Around the World for 14 years, says he still remembers first meeting Mitchell, and then seeing his transformation—but he’ll take no credit for helping.

“We’re not in the habit of hand-outs, but David was persistent. He has the gift of the gab,” says Garnett. “He would hang around just to make a buck, and most people don’t want to deal with that. We even said no at first. But, eventually, we said okay.”

Garnett says that when Mitchell first walked in after his years of recovery, it was like seeing a whole new person.

“I honestly couldn’t believe it. It was remarkable,” he recalls. “I never thought it would be possible—for anyone—but he did it. And I’m very proud of what David’s doing now.”

Wrong-way turnDavid Mitchell in 2000, at the height of his heroin addiction, weighed a mere 105 pounds. A reverend took this photo so family would be able to identify a body,  if necessary. Mitchell is now a robust 220 pounds.

Victoria’s homeless population faces an undercurrent of change this coming year, from Pandora’s Green becoming a no-tenting zone, to old Traveller’s Inns being turned into affordable housing. But one thing remains: without more help, many of the people trapped by street life will still fall through the cracks.

Mitchell himself went through the recovery roller coaster of failure after success after failure. Today, he’s been clean for six years straight, but it wasn’t easy. The main problem, Mitchell says, was finding someone who could stick with him long enough to release him from the cycle.

“You don’t get into this mess without something going very wrong along the way,” Mitchell says.

So, how does someone go from working family man to heroin-addict on the streets? For Mitchell, a terrible plane crash left him hooked on narcotics, which quickly became too expensive without the benefit of social assistance. He became estranged from his family. He lost his home. He turned to the streets—and heroin.

“Even the well-intentioned agencies that try to help don’t always get there fast enough, and people fall—plummet—through the cracks,” says Ray Monteith, president of VIARS. “You don’t always get to sit at a table telling your recovery story to a reporter. People sidestep responsibility. And we lose so many that way.”

But not everyone avoids getting their hands dirty. Mitchell says that one man, Dave Richardson, was the reason his recovery stuck. Richardson, a Saanich police officer for 35 years, was at the detox facility doing ministerial work. Mitchell listened to him speak, then Richardson offered to take him to church.

“I remember thinking, well, I could use a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee, so I figured, what the heck? Then, I just kept coming back,” says Mitchell. “I saw the people there, how happy everyone looked, and I thought, ‘If I had just a little of what these people had, I’d be okay.’”

Richardson, now based in Israel as a chaplain at a church in Jerusalem, was a recovering alcoholic himself and was assisting other street addicts in 2002. He knew about the difference one person can make, and wound up helping Mitchell find clothes, shelter, community education and a shoulder to lean on for two years.

“David was the first person I talked to who just got it the first time around,” says Richardson. “He listened carefully, and he said, ‘What now?’ And I felt God telling me, you help this man—no matter what it costs you. I’m not the surgeon, just the scalpel. But I try to keep myself sharp for the surgeon.”

Richardson has seen hundreds of people go down a path similar to Mitchell’s, but Mitchell remains close to his heart.

“The thing I admire about David, is that he set his eyes on the goal and just kept focused,” Richardson says. “And now, to see what he’s doing . . . to see him pay it forward to someone else—that’s all the thanks I need.”

Island of found souls

In 2004, the Foundation House program was looking for a weekend counsellor. Mitchell had been a year and a half clean, and had just completed his addictions counsellor training through a local trade college. He got the gig, and in only a short time started his own vision—dedicating more time to the project to see greater services and higher intake. In 2006, the group obtained its second house, then 2008 saw a third house added to the roster, meaning approximately 30 men can now be housed in the male-only accommodations.

Now, Mitchell spends his days as program director helping others disconnect from their former lives. He interviews new intakes from off the street and from places like Wilkinson Road Penitentiary (people must be clean for 72 hours to qualify for the Foundation House program—compared to the few weeks that some other facilities require). He counsels men who are struggling to meet the house regulations—like regular sleeping times and chores, no swearing, zero narcotics, community service, alerting police of criminal activity and developing long-term goals.

One of the hardest parts, Mitchell says, is helping people redefine behaviours—especially nightlife. In some ways, he says, it’s like dealing with babies: repetition and positive, but firm support is key.

“Some days are harder than others,” he says. “Some men just want to come into the office and cry. You let them. Then, you pick them back up off the floor, pump them back up and say, ‘Okay. Now let’s get going.’”

Foundation House is designed as a two-year secular program, and sees intakes graduate from a detox house to a rehabilitation house to a working house. It has a success rate of 17 percent—but while that may sound grim, it’s leagues ahead of the three percent that many other detox and assistance facilities see. And while some participants don’t succeed on their first try, many do return to complete the program.

Mitchell reiterates that the Foundation House isn’t like harm reduction—keeping people as safe as possible in their lifestyles of choice—it’s designed for men who want to help themselves get out, and stay out.

“These men come to us in total wreckage. They are financially, emotionally, physically and spiritually bankrupt. We aim to turn men back into being leaders in their families and communities again,” Mitchell says proudly. “We have to teach people to be patient with themselves; to go back to that little kid’s dream of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ We have to get them to love themselves again.”

What about those who don’t succeed? Is it hard to watch years of effort go up in smoke? Mitchell says nothing is harder. Still, for him, he has to stay resolved.

“We get letters and cards from people saying ‘Our son went back to his addiction and he died, but thank you—we had him back for two years, and those years were great,’” says Mitchell. “It’s so hard to see. You do grieve. But you can’t let yourself slip. All those people need me back tomorrow. I have to be okay for them.”

Closing the gaps

Ray Monteith, who’s been VIARS president for eight years now, says homelessness is only the symptom of deeper problems—problems which often get overlooked when trying to find fix-alls.

“We all have circumstances in our lives, whether a plane crash, or a choice, where there’s this key moment that we realize we’re on a path to destruction. That’s the moment we have to get back to,” he says. “All the homeless initiatives in the world can’t help these people unless you surround them with the support they need, and base it around recovery. We can’t save everyone, but we can save some. We can close the gaps that people fall through.”

Mitchell says one of the hardest things to understand is why more social assistance isn’t offered to non-profits, like the Foundation House program, which have proven records with the community. He hopes to challenge downtown businesses, especially those that complain about loitering homeless people, to sponsor a bed at the house. He’s also asking city and ministries to offer their support.

“We have a program that’s really working here. And it’s such a struggle to hear people say, ‘What do we do?’ because we’re doing it—we just need more help,” says Mitchell. “It’s like all the planets have to align perfectly for you to get one chance to jump out. And if you miss it, it might have been your only chance. We have to help people make that leap.”

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