When Friends Die

The ignored trauma of people living on the street

Between 2016 and 2019, 15,393 people died from drug overdoses in Canada. This year, we’re breaking the records set in those years. 

“Canadians should be seized with this particular crisis,” says Canada’s Chief public health officer Dr. Teresa Tam. The closed Canada-U.S. border, increased social isolation and reduced access to safe supply are all factors contributing to the recent increase in overdose deaths. 

The pandemic has not created a new problem, but rather added fuel to an existing crisis. Back in 2016 the Canadian Public Health Association described “an expanding opioid crisis in Canada that is resulting in epidemic-like numbers of overdose deaths.” That same year, B.C. declared a public health emergency after reporting a staggering 200 overdose deaths in just the first three months of the year. This year, B.C. has reported over 170 deaths each month for May, June and July and is on track to nearly double 2016’s numbers. 

Many Canadians live largely removed from the world of this ongoing crisis. I admit that I do too. Even though I have worked with people experiencing homelessness for over seven years, I am still sheltered from their lived reality. I have never shared a tent with a client. I have never taken clients home to meet my wife. I have never sat down with a client for drinks on a Saturday night. 

When friends die secondary photo
Jesse and Anthony are both outreach workers in Toronto.

Living the trauma

My friend and work colleague Anthony lived as an addict on the streets for over 20 years. Much of that life is behind him now, but the rise of the fentanyl crisis has made the deaths of his friends an almost daily occurrence. After another recent death, Anthony reflected on how this is affecting him, saying “There is a list of names that I can’t help list off to myself before I go to sleep who are gone. It’s f–king surreal and terrifying. Always, we are distracting ourselves in some way from the reality of our own deaths.”

For Anthony, these folks aren’t just numbers, or even just clients; they are friends and family. He lives with them. When I go home, Anthony continues to live it. 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a friend or family member knows the life-changing weight of grief. Can you imagine what this would do to someone who continuously experiences such losses? 

Now more than ever the church has the opportunity to step up and support harm reduction practices so that we can save lives and care for people experiencing this degree of trauma or loss. That might mean making a referral to a counsellor, psychologist or mental health worker. Support may also mean directing people towards or creating spiritual and social supports. Every solution will require us to step outside the walls of our churches and enter into the messiness of real life with people who are suffering on our streets. 

The kinds of care addicts need

Spiritual and social needs are diverse. I have a client who lives in a tent but goes to Niagara Falls every chance he can get, because “people like him there.” I have another client who is sleeping outside but goes on dating sites on a daily basis, because he “wants to share his life with someone.” I have a client attempting to convert to Orthodox Judaism (the requirements are intense), an Indigenous client who experiences healing and spiritual cleansing from smudging, and many Christian clients who experience the love of Jesus every week through traditional Christian services. Every client is unique, but almost every client I meet wants someone to listen to them and show them empathy. 

Anthony himself claims to have been “saved” by a few specific folks who worked with a Christian homeless shelter he often frequented as an addict. Anthony still has little interest in adopting the Christian faith, but this Christian organization means everything to him. 

While the Church has often been good at supporting folks through providing food, medical support and other physical supplies, we have often dropped the ball on spiritual needs, social supports and trauma-informed care. Many clients I know who are now housed or are doing a little bit better feel abandoned by the community that helped them. When we are working with vulnerable people, it can be easy to focus so much on basic survival that we forget they are more than just a body. Our neighbours experiencing homelessness have just as many unique spiritual and social needs as you and I. Resources need to address these holistic needs and acknowledge the daily trauma they face.


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