A Surrey man, who spent much of his life struggling with addiction, is sharing his story of how stigma, shame and guilt were the key ingredients that prevented him from asking for help when he needed it the most.
While Nelson Mendonca, 42, dabbled with cocaine and alcohol in his early 20s, his path looked promising for a six year period in his late 20s. Mendonca, living in Victoria at the time, had a good job, a place to live, was sober, but says he didn’t deal with his underlying trauma and mental health issues.
And then, when he was about 30, Mendonca was introduced to methamphetamine. He lost his job, his home, and his connection to family and friends.
“Everything just went sideways,” he explained. “I’ve probably spent six of the last 12 years in custody or under some sort of supervision.”
Through his 30s, Mendonca was involved in criminal activity, primarily fraud-related crimes, to support his lifestyle.
Living on the street, he was so embarrassed of being homeless that he would strategically campout where nobody would find him.
“I was a very secluded homeless person. I didn’t let anybody know,” he said.
Even on nights when he needed to use a shelter, he felt so much shame that he concealed the fact that he was homeless from others at the shelter.
“I was always trying to make up some sort of excuse why I was there,” Mendonca added.
In addition, the stigmatization of substance use disorder is so strong that Mendonca would also disguise, or flat out deny, he was struggling and needed help.
“It took me until I was 40 to admit I was an addict,” Mendonca said. “I would never admit I was a drug addict. I’d even manipulate the courts and plead guilty to other charges and not plead guilty to the drug charges so that I wouldn’t get labelled as a drug addict. That looks even stupider that I’m a sober person doing crime.”
Mendonca’s life finally started to turn once he came to terms with his illness.
“I broke down, got on my hands and knees… Like, you’re a drug addict. I’m a drug addict. I need help.”
While incarcerated, Mendonca joined a treatment program that was available for a few inmates.
“It was more like a recovery house inside of prison that enabled me to not worry about the jail politics,” he said. “I got super real and honest and started to actually give a crap about myself. And that just kind of gave me the hope.”
Following his release from custody, he went directly to the Phoenix Society for further treatment.
“It was a super welcoming community and I’ve never been part of something like that before,” he said.
He’s been out of custody for more than 15 months and has been sober for 27 months. The Phoenix Society hired him on a part-time basis. He is set to graduate with his social worker diploma from Vancouver Career College next year.
He also shared part of his story, alongside addictions minister Sheila Malcolmson, at a funding announcement for 10 treatment new beds at Phoenix Society.
Mendonca, who now lives a working-class life but also has an experience with homelessness and addiction, has a unique perspective on how society treats people of different class.
He also sees the disconnect between what people think homeless people need, compared to what they actually require.
While food, clothing and monetary donations are appreciated, Mendonca said it does little to address the root cause of homelessness.
“If it wasn’t for my drug addiction, I would have never been homeless,” he said. “The way (people) are so concerned about helping the homeless get off the streets… no one’s addressing the drug addiction. Most of them are homeless because of the drug addiction, not every single one, but 90 per cent of the people that are homeless weren’t homeless until they started using drugs.”
“The focus has been too much on getting housing for them but nobody is addressing the drug issue.”
While living on the streets, Mendonca said not one person asked what he needed to get better – “people just assumed they knew what I needed.”
“If someone could have given me a bed in detox… I could have gone into detox, got healthy, then into a treatment facility. That’s exactly what I needed,” he said.
Finding a detox bed while living on the street is practically “unachievable,” he added. In addition to limited resources, the supervised detox beds that are available are typically reserved for people that are addicted to opioids or alcohol, he said.
The rational for that, he explained, is that people can die if they withdraw from opioids or alcohol. But what’s not considered, he said, is that someone detoxing from meth, for example, can go into a psychosis,
“There’s a lot of uneducated people,” he added.
Mendonca said he once tried to assist a 72-year-old woman who’d been smoking meth for the last 32 years. He attempted to get her a bed at detox, but the request was denied because she wasn’t addicted to opioids or alcohol. The people working at the detox facility, he said, suggested that she “just go to a meeting.”
“That just blew my mind,” he said.
Mendonca was reunited with some unpleasant memories after participating in the Joseph Richard Group Sleep Out fundraiser Nov. 5. More than 100 people slept in a South Surrey parking lot to raise $116,000 for homelessness and addictions.
Mendonca said he had no problem sleeping outside in the cold, knowing full well that it was only for one night.
But the fundraiser did attract the attention of the police, which Mendonca said made him feel uncomfortable.
“Just the way the police came into the underground (parkade), in an unmarked SUV, as slow as possible, drove right up to us and just turned those lights on,” he said. “I instantly thought they were there for me. That was my first reaction.”
Mendonca said someone from the group talked to the police and explained they had permission to be there.
“And usually, that doesn’t happen. If that was a bunch of homeless people down there and they tried to tell police they have permission to be down there, they would have never of had it.
That was the one part of the night that was triggering for me, just the police reaction.”
As for his future, Mendonca said his priority is building a stronger relationship with his family and friends. He indicated that treatment gave him a sense of community.
“I’m going to have my birthday (at Phoenix) in February and people from my last birthday party will be at my next birthday party,” he said.
“I can’t say that’s ever happened before.”