“It’s 6 pm, and I’m late for work already.”
I proclaim my anxiety to my family members as I scurry to prepare myself for another night at work.
The hour-plus commute to work at a part-time youth shelter had become daunting. At this point, I feel fatigued as I quickly pour myself a coffee and check my gas tank to ensure I have enough petroleum to make the 100-plus kilometer voyage for set up and meal preparation.
Many days stand out in my memory, but this one stands out vividly.
Working six or seven days a week between multiple shelters in different communities, I was risking compassion fatigue at extreme levels. My physical health had begun to deteriorate as I burned the candle at both ends and did my best to maintain my responsibilities to my home and family. It was further complicated by my other jobs, community roles, and an unrealistic work schedule that regularly saw me eating crap food and living off caffeine.
My mental health had begun to fail as well. Familiar coping mechanisms were quickly seeping into my everyday life.
I was helping to manage multiple containment facilities for functional tragedies.
Life was not getting any better for many of our guests and clients.
The toll of carrying others’ misfortunes around necessitates a change in environment, community, and time investment. It is painful to watch those struggling with their turmoil, heartaches, and self-loathing, continuing to be shut down, shut out, and feel defeated.
Looking back on over two years as a frontline staff member of various homeless shelters and organizer of multiple street outreach teams and events, it’s often hard not to share in that defeat.
Now, make no mistake. I love my clients—even the ones who sometimes make the job a little more difficult and exhausting. Each one of them carries something special with them. Each of them perseveres through their pain in different ways, which I admire.
And of all the exhausting days I felt crestfallen and depleted, the emotional memories that have filled my life these last two years are not something I could bear to part with. These stories have become a piece of me, even if sometimes it’s a piece that feels like it’s strangling me.
I am halfway through my work commute. The coffee is disappearing like a mirage in a dessert.
And my phone rings. My colleague and tag team partner at work tonight is on the other end of the receiver.
“We need to talk about Cory,” she agitatedly proclaims as her temper boils over.
“What did he do this time?” I respond anxiously.
“I know you care about him. I know you’re doing your best. But this behavior can’t continue. He is incredibly aggressive with me, and we need a plan to tackle this.”
I respond with a simple “I understand” before she debriefs me on additional details before I hang up the phone. The defeat sinks in.
Cory is a special young man. Charismatic, intelligent, and funny, Cory is a twenty-year-old struggling with chronic substance use disorder. It was not uncommon to walk into the men’s restroom in the middle of the night to discover him passed out in the stall, a bloody syringe beside him, and the smell of cooked powder and tinfoil polluting the air.
Cory was often defensive about his drug use. The toxic cocktail concoction that polluted him was causing noticeable changes in his body mass. He would even occasionally vomit beside his cot or soil himself, which forced my hand to intervene.
For all of his faults, I loved him. After all, that’s what I do. I make a living, loving people who are sometimes hard to love. In my opinion, it’s part of the job description. To be patient, lenient, and compassionate.
Seldom does anyone come to the shelter system by choice. They often arrive at the doorsteps of a local church or community center, hat in hand, and desperate for a warm meal and a safe bed. Of course, they will be argumentative, defensive, and challenging. Their lives are filled with traumas that so many of us haven’t had to face.
Despite me having to clean up his vomit and sometimes help him clean up his bodily fluids, he was special. He was someone’s child. He had become my family because I had adopted him as a caretaker and supporter by being there when we opened each week.
Except for this week. This week, I was late. And no matter how much I forgave him for his trespasses or how many times I chose to see the good in him as opposed to dwell on the bad that surrounded him, there were certain behaviors I could not ignore.
According to my counterpart, Cory had been very unkind to her.
Cory had often refused to take his substance use off the property. He regularly refused to keep his space clean. Cory had been picking fights with other residents. But the straw that broke the camel’s back came when he exhibited potentially violent behavior toward my colleague in my absence. He broke our agreement. And for the sake of the integrity of this space, he would need to face the consequences.
His punishment would be up to me, and I was just arriving to work.
I will never forget this summer night, just as I will never forget the Christmas from the winter before. Christmas at a youth shelter is desolate. Donations of winter clothing and food are plentiful, but the crushed morale and heartbreak fill the room like a dank odor. Beautiful and incredible young people, often abandoned by people they loved who chose not to love them back, huddled in a space seeking refuge from the cold. No longer any belief in Santa Claus, they felt the sting of abandonment like lumps of coal in their socks.
I recall Christmas Eve when Cory arrived late and in very rough shape. He did not let on how bad things were, but I could see the tears rimming his eyes as he asked if there was space for him. Welcoming him, I prepared a meal for him and tried to make him comfortable. I remember asking other guests to leave him be as he fell asleep at the dinner table. I remember him waking up and vomiting his dinner onto the floor beside his cot. Feeling embarrassed, he asked for my help to clean it up. I then recall preparing him a second meal, hoping to keep him hydrated and full with hopes that sustenance would replace the toxins in his stomach.
It was 4 am, and we shared a Christmas meal while others slept. I asked him what happened as he had previously expressed a desire to return home to his family for the holidays. He wanted things to be different.
“They don’t want me anymore, man,” he said, shaking. “I tried to kill myself tonight, but I got scared when I overdosed and crawled here.”
He came here because he knew we’d let him in.
I scoured my workbag for a Christmas greeting card I had prepared for him. Attached to it was a cookie. I pushed it across the table and said to him, “We are your family now. Merry Christmas. I’m glad you’re still here to celebrate it with us.”
Fast-forward six months, and we are sitting in a side room.
He’s in one chair. My colleague and I are across from him. My co-worker chimes in, “We recommend a two-week suspension from this space. We will still store your things, but your volatility has become a problem.”
Dismissing her completely, Cory turns to me. “Leigh, you’ve gotta’ help me, man.” With a lump in my throat, I reply, “It was my idea.”
With tears streaming down his face, he asks if he can at least spend the night, to which we agree, assuming no issues continue. We recognize that he’s burned a lot of bridges. We understand that there is nowhere else to go. Plus, I was late, and he had already checked in. We did him this kindness because we loved him and wrestled with allowing him to stay.
Later that night, my co-worker asked me to check on him in the restroom.
It had been nearly two hours, and he responded accordingly every time she knocked on the door. But you could hear the distress in his voice.
I knocked on the door and told him I was coming in. I discover him crying. His eyes dilated. The contents of his bag are strewn across the washroom.
Cory looks at me, pulling a crumpled greeting card from his back pocket. He hands it to me and says, “that was the only card I got, Leigh. I love you, and you’re my friend. I don’t want you to hate me. And I’m sorry.”
My hands shake as I examine the card. Stains and scrapes across the page are visible, but it remains intact. I could see that he valued the gesture, and it hurt me to think that our space had become his home. It hurt me that losing us, even temporarily, would cause him so much agony.
I responded gently, “I could never hate you. None of us hate you. We just need you to focus on getting better. You need to remember that others here are struggling too. All of them. All of us.”
He hugged me as he cried the following morning, and as he departed, he promised me he would be back.
I cried the whole drive home.
Weeks passed, and his bags remained in storage. With each passing week, I became more nervous. I asked myself whether I had failed him. Did we make the right decision? Was he even still alive? Until one day, the bags were gone.
Some weeks later, another youth approached me and asked me, “Did ya hear about Cory?”
With a monkey on my back and another lump lodged in my throat, I responded, “no.”
This guest, sensing my worry, began to smile. “He moved home with his parents. He checked into detox the morning after he was last here.”
I will remember this experience for the rest of my life, but nothing was quite as euphoric as hearing that this handsome young man, with so much to offer the world that he hadn’t yet discovered about himself, was still alive.
I did my best not to cry as I asked them if they’d heard from him.
“The last time I spoke with him was that morning. We were sitting on a bench nearby, and he told me he had something to prove to Santa Claus.”
Two years of my life have passed. A pandemic. Multiple holidays. And so much tragedy. I had not failed him after all, but the chronic underfunding of our homelessness services had. And maybe we would have been better positioned to support people like Cory if we had the appropriate funding to hire additional staff and respond to crises in trauma-informed ways.
Maybe if Mental Health First Aid hadn’t been considered too expensive. Maybe we might have had a fighting chance if the staff wasn’t focused on meal preparation, success coaching, and space supervision all at once.
Or maybe if someone loved him as I did, he wouldn’t need to prove anything for fear of losing his cot to sleep on.
He’s somebody’s son. And in those moments, he was mine.
And as I look back on my growth because of these experiences, my unhealthy coping methods, and my ugly behaviors that I attribute to carrying around others’ pains, it sometimes feels like I’m beating my head against a wall. Cory isn’t the only one I’ve spent time with who has filled my life with worry.
I wonder how he’s doing now. I wonder if he knows that it’s him who’s Santa Claus and me who has something to prove. He gave me the gift of his dedication to himself. All I did was bake a cookie.