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FROM HOMELESSNESS TO HOPE

How a Fredericton man found safety, sobriety and compassion after years on the streets

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On a viciously cold winter night a few years ago, Craig Victory curled up on the concrete floor of a gazebo in downtown Fredericton and tried to fall asleep.

Homeless, mentally ill and exhausted, he thought his life could be about to end.

"My feet were like ice," he says. "I was trying to sleep, and I couldn't sleep because my feet were too cold. And I remember saying to myself, 'I don't even care if I die in my sleep. I want to go to sleep.'"

Craig1

Then, Craig heard a voice in his mind. It sounded like a military general giving him orders.  

"Get up," the voice commanded. "And go and get a pack of cigarettes and coffee."

And so, Craig walked up the street in his thin boots and second-hand coat, bought coffee and smokes at a gas station, and spent the night wandering outdoors.

"I didn't like the cold," he says. "Nobody would like the cold."

For Craig, a burly 50-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, life has changed dramatically since that desolate night in the gazebo. With years of homelessness behind him, he lives in a special care residence near Fredericton. He is being treated for schizophrenia. And after decades of living for his next beers and joints, he is sober.

"I've been on my medication for four years straight," he says. "The place where I'm living, they pay me to do odd jobs and stuff around the house. I have my own room, which is good. I read a lot."

Craig's transformation was fuelled, in part, by Flexible Assertive Community Treatment (FACT). Under the direction of the New Brunswick Department of Health, Horizon Health Network launched FACT in early 2017 as a pilot project in Fredericton and Woodstock. FACT teams go into communities to support people living with serious mental illnesses. The program has expanded throughout the province.  

"We are a mobile team and work closely with clients, family and community partners," says Andrea Astorino, the FACT Team Coordinator in Fredericton. "I work with the most amazing, energetic and caring team I've ever worked with in my 27-year nursing career."

FACT has nurses, social workers, human services counsellors, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and peer support workers. Since its formation almost two years ago, the Fredericton team has helped more than 150 people.

Craig3(FACT) Horizon's Fredericton FACT Team

 "Many of our clients have a long history of hospital admissions," Astorino says. "We try to be creative in connecting with clients and bringing them into service. If a client needs the food bank, then that is the hook. If a client wants a job, we work with that in mind. If they need to have medication administered, we look at pairing that client with a FACT nurse so they can attempt to build a rapport."

The kind of rapport is easy to see as Craig sips coffee and jokes with FACT team member Claudia Rogers at Horizon's Victoria Health Centre. A registered nurse, she has been his case manager for more than a year.

"I knew Craig when I was a student," says Claudia. "He was the guy you would see pushing a cart of bottles. Now, he looks so good. He's pretty relaxed and mellow, and more playful. It's quite a change."

For Craig, peace and sobriety have come after a lifetime of turbulence. In his hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, he was an alcoholic by the age of 15, and he broke into bars to steal booze. He went to prison for two years when he was 16. As a young adult, he had trouble controlling his thoughts and was obsessed with God. At 25, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"I was hearing voices and stuff, but I can't really remember what those voices were saying," he says. "I tell you I was scared because I had heard about schizophrenia and stuff. No, it wasn't fun. That's for sure."

Craig spent close to 15 years in Ontario, where he married, became a father and eked out a living delivering flyers and collecting bottles. After the family moved to New Brunswick, the marriage fell apart. Then, one day, Craig realized his ex-wife and three kids were gone.

"They just up and left," he says. "I didn't know where they were. So, I went on the street right after that. I was just really depressed and angry. My kids were gone. I was used to seeing them every day. And that's when I ended up on the street."

In desperation, Craig pitched a tent deep in the woods across from the RCMP "J" Division Headquarters in Fredericton. Every day, he pushed a shopping cart down Regent Street, collecting bottles along the way. He would stop at the soup kitchen downtown for a meal - and then take the bottles to a recycling depot.

"It was rough," he says. "I was lucky for the bottles and making money because I was able to go to restaurants. Like McDonald's is open all night. And Tim Horton's - I don't know if it's open all night now, but it was. So I got to sit in there and have coffee and stuff. But mainly, I just kept moving around. I found if I kept moving, I wasn't cold."            

Police put Craig in jail at least eight times for being drunk in public. One night, he was arrested for threatening to stab a hospital security guard with a thin spike. He was found not criminally responsible and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Campbellton for two months. After being released, he started drinking again and shouted in the street.

"So, they ended up arresting me again and sending me back to the hospital," he says. "The same hospital, because I was under orders to keep the peace, take my pills, see my doctor. I wasn't seeing my doctor. I wasn't taking my pills."

Craig was released in 2016, but with conditions. He had to behave, live in a special care home, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and follow up with mental health professionals.

When he first connected with FACT in April of 2017, Craig was unhappy and bored living at a residence 45 minutes outside of Fredericton. ("It was a three-hour walk to the store," he says.) FACT found him a home closer to the city, the team's occupational therapist helped him pick up odd jobs, and Claudia started monitoring his meds.         

"The FACT team has been good," says Craig, who now has contact with his two eldest children. "They make sure I stay on my medication. They come see me once or twice a month to make sure I'm doing OK, and if I need anything, they're there for me. I get along good with them. They're good people."

This year, FACT was with Craig during his annual review board hearing. Three FACT team members, including a psychiatrist, recommended he be given an absolute discharge because of the positive changes in his life. The board agreed he was no longer a threat to society and dropped all of Craig's conditions.

"So, I'm allowed to leave (the special care home) any time I want," Craig says. "But I've been there seven months after my discharge. I decided to stay, although I miss living on the street a little bit. I don't know if it's actually being on the street that I miss, or maybe the collecting the bottles, the people and stuff like that."

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After a meeting with Claudia on a Tuesday morning a few weeks ago, Craig walked behind the Victoria Health Centre and lit a cigarette in the misty autumn air. Nearby, two young men dropped a big blue box of beer onto a park bench. People stood near the door of the soup kitchen and talked. And in the brush just below Fredericton's pristine walking trail, a tent was pitched by the Saint John River.

With the wind getting colder and winter drawing nearer, Craig got in a car with a FACT staff member and returned to the warmth of the special care home.

"I feel sorry for people that are out in the bitter cold," he says. "When the winter months come, I'll thank God where I am."

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