I suspect we are all grateful to see the snow disappearing and the air warming up. It’s a great time of the year. New energy seems to come with the freshness of spring. It also brings back memories.
In 2016 my daughter, Jawah, and I began Birchwood Coffee Ko. As we were preparing to open, numerous people expressed dismay that we would survive being located next to the building used as the day centre for homeless people. We had a different view.
As we prepared the space for our little business, we began developing a dialogue and relationship with many of those who used the centre. It was quite remarkable to begin learning some of their stories and seeing them for being more than addicted and homeless.
One person I became friends with was Michael Abel. He was originally from Lutsel K’e. He was ambitious and hopeful, but addicted and caught in the vicious cycle. He would talk about wanting to go to treatment. He had been a couple of times and quickly fell off the wagon on his return. But he never gave up.
During the winter he was always the first one to come after a snowfall to clean the sidewalk in front of the shop. He regularly came by asking for work, any kind of work.
Only on a couple of occasions he came into the shop intoxicated and angry; one time, he threw food at one of our young employees. We removed him and then banned him. He didn’t come back for some time. When he did, he came to apologize. That is one of the patterns that you live with when addictions get the better of you — you do something inappropriate, sometimes violent and then you suffer consequences for your out of control behaviour.
Most of us have witnessed the angry verbal and physical abuse moments of street people fighting with each other. It’s dangerous and pitiful. It’s pitiful because breaking those cycles is so difficult.
Michael so wanted to escape the trap. One day he said to me that he was hoping to go to treatment in a few weeks, but then what?
“When I come back, who is going to help me? No-one will give me a job. I have no place to live. I have no money. What am I suppose to do. I just will end up going back to my buddies and then it all happens again.”
I first ran for election in Yellowknife in 2015. Homelessness was a major concern. It was talked about as a priority. Then in 2019, it was a bigger concern. Now, here we are in 2023 with too many people still trapped, lost with no clear escape route.
I had the privilege of getting to know Michael Abel as a person. I liked him. I was glad to be able to provide some work for him and give him a little bit of help but, even more, some friendship. People need people. We all need to be valued. He cared about a lot of people who he knew were in worse shape than him. He was bright. He kept himself informed about the community. He wanted to count, he wanted a better life. I know he would be on our doorstep asking to wash windows and clean up cigarette butts as the weather warmed up and the snow disappeared. He even campaigned for me amongst his friends.
A few winters ago, Michael’s addictions ruined his health and he died homeless. It should not have happened to a man with such a deep hope for recovery. Unfortunately, it is easier to dismiss folks like him than to take time to know them. I am grateful we became friends and co-workers in a small way. He had lots to teach me and anyone who would listen.
I hope as the election rhetoric heats up about homelessness as the silly season approaches, something more meaningful will come out of it that has happened since 2015.
—Patrick Scott is co-owner of Birchwood Coffee Ko and former territorial election candidate.