The Catholic Register
September 10, 2023
The Church on the Street

It’s ‘easy’ to get caught up in a dysfunctional life

Addiction is always a cry to be loved

It’s ‘easy’ to get caught up in a dysfunctional life

Deacon Robert Kinghorn takes time to speak with Trish, one of his flock from the Church on the Street.

(Photo by Michael Swan)

  • avatar
    Robert Kinghorn

I grew up in a city which was known for its high level of addiction. In fact, as far as I know, Glasgow is the only city in the world whose theme song is about its addiction to alcohol. Every get-together invariably has the ensemble raucously singing, “Something’s the matter with Glasgow because it is going round and round. When I get a drink on a Saturday, Glasgow belongs to me.”

Perhaps it is this upbringing that makes me feel at home with those who are experiencing addiction in its many forms and who remind me of my own petty addictions. Frightening as it may be to be close to addiction, it is always a cry to be loved.

As I was growing up, I remember standing looking in a shop window when two women came out of the shop. They stopped to chat, and the topic soon turned to the husband of a mutual friend.

“Did you see Maggie’s husband last night? Drunk again. I don’t know why she puts up with him. Every Friday night it’s the same.”

At that moment, Maggie came out of the shop and overheard the conversation.

“How dare you say that about my husband. You don’t love him like I do.”

Fr. Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who works with gangs in Los Angeles, said, “The principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self.”

Much of the work of The Church on the Street is with those who are addicted, and I am fortunate to be accompanied sometimes on my rounds by Anna, a friend who for 17 years has been in recovery from addiction. As we walked together recently, she reminisced about her life which led her to these streets.

“My father had a gambling addiction,” she said, “and eventually my mother had enough, and kicked him out when I was three years old. This meant that I also lost contact with my grandmother, and it broke my heart. Over the next nine years I was sexually abused, but my one comfort was seeing my other grandmother whom I loved dearly. I was able to get through life with her support, but when she died a few years later, that was the end for me, and I took to the streets.”

Suddenly, as we walked together, she returned to the present and shouted, “Hey Billy, don’t tell me you are still out here on these streets. I can’t believe it; it’s been years since I’ve seen you.”

After Billy and she caught up with one another’s life, she filled me in on Billy’s history.

“He has been chronically homeless for over 30 years. In and out of jail because of his addiction and mental illness. He has never talked about having family, but he did have a time of sobriety when he met his girlfriend. Unfortunately, she died of cancer after six years, and he was back on the street. You have to remember, the street is their community; it’s the people they know, and crazy as it is, they want to go back because they know they are accepted. People don’t understand that even with the drugs, the homelessness, the lying, the jail time and chaos, there was a thrill for me when I was out there, using drugs, and trying to outsmart the cops.”

'If you sit in the barber’s chair long enough, you are going to get a haircut'

-- Anna

“So, tell me more about your own story. What happened after your grandmother died?” I asked.

“Well, my next three years can only be described as reckless living,” Anna said. “I was isolated from my family. I got pregnant at 16 with a son who was born blind and with cerebral palsy. I was in no condition to look after him, so I gave him up for care. Then I got pregnant again, and this time I gave the son up for adoption at birth. For three years my life was filled with strip clubs, bikers, drugs and gangs. You know, you don’t think you will get caught up in it all. You say to yourself, ‘I will never do that, I have my limits.’ But no one understands how easy it is to get absorbed into dysfunctional living. As they say, ‘If you sit in the barber’s chair long enough, you are going to get a haircut.’ ”

This time our discussion was interrupted by a voice in the distance: “Hey Anna, you out on the streets again? Don’t tell me you are picking up clergy now.”

I peered into the dark of the night and could just about make out a figure slowly making his way towards us.

“Danny,” Anna said, “don’t tell me you are still around. Where are you living now?”

Danny mentioned the area of the city where he was housed, and Anna told him that was not a good area for him to be living.

“Too many temptations,” was her terse summary of the situation.

After he had gone, she said, “It’s unbelievable. Now there’s a man who came from a good family. He had all the support he needed at home. He’s well into his 60s now, but at 22 he thought he was a big shot and got mixed up with the wrong people. He came to the city to make money as a dealer, and quickly became his own best customer. It was not long before his life was in a downward spiral: drug dealer, user, couch surfing whenever his friends would let him, and jail time. He had a serious heart attack when he was 50, and the place where he is housed now is a big problem. It is filled with dealers and addicts. What chance does he have? The highest turnover in housing is in the worst part of the city since there are not enough housing support workers to help keep them housed.”

She returned to her own story of running with bikers and so much more.

“So, finally I met my ‘Prince Charming.’ He was one of the bikers I used to hang out with, but he was not part of a gang. Even though we were both still using drugs, I felt my girlhood dreams had all come true. We had a beautiful farm with children and livestock, and we were both working. For me it was my dream home, but over the next 10 years the prince turned into a frog, and my prince charming turned into my prince-alarming. He became controlling and abusive, and I decided to escape to the big city of Toronto and finally get treatment for my long-term addiction. It was not as easy as I thought. I had nowhere to live, and soon I was homeless and on the streets. I relapsed to what I knew best, and I became a sex trade worker on the streets, sleeping wherever I could, and heavy into the drug scene to kill the pain of what I was doing in my life.

“But I have to say, that in all that time I continued to carry a little Bible in my pocket even when I was out there. I remember I would be so high on drugs I would climb a tree in the evening to sleep and think that the police would not see me. Maybe I thought the Bible made me invisible. Two things kept me going when I was out there. One was that Bible, but the other were the seeds of hope that people planted in me. I remember a lady walking in the cold with her baby and when she approached she asked if I would put the mittens on her baby’s hands. This little gesture that most take for granted planted a seed of hope in me.  Don’t take for granted the difference a smile, a kind word or a prayer can make in the life a street person who often lives in shame.

“Finally, the police caught up with me, and maybe it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got jail time, and in jail I realized I could not go on like this. When I got out, I went into rehab and that’s where you and I met.”

“Yes,” I said, “and I still remember what one of the workers said to me the day you graduated, ‘You have no idea how long I have longed for this day when Anna gets her life back again. I am so proud of her.’ ”

It has been 17 years since that moment when I had just started out on The Church on the Street ministry, and I was delighted to be with Anna recently when she received her 17-year medallion from Narcotics Anonymous. Looking around, I could see others I had known on the street and wondered what had happened to them. Here they were, week after week faithful to their slogan: “Keep coming back.”

Margaret Craven, in her beautiful book, I Heard the Owl Call my Name, said, “The Church belongs in the gutters, because that is where it does its best work.”

The words were echoed by Pope Francis, at the beginning of his term of office, when he called upon the Church to be like a field hospital. In these days of ever more lethal opioids, and lives cut short by addiction, our prayers and ministry for those on the street are essential to bring hope to those who are alone and fearful, and cry out: “Where is the Church?”

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