A Homeless Man’s Journey

A Homeless Man’s Journey

Dominic Desmarais    Files Itinerance

homeless-man-journey-dominic-desmaraisThe homeless are not born, they are made. Every homeless person has their own sad story, their reasons why they ended up on the street.

Some, like Bernard Martin, have to dig back into childhood to understand how you end up living on the margins of society.

Bernard is 55. He is small, wiry and energetic. His 2 ½ room apartment is cluttered with the assorted objects one picks up over the course of a nomadic, hard life on the streets. Many ex-homeless persons are hoarders, and Bernard is no exception: his place is an Ali Baba’s Cave of art, paintings, furniture and curios.
To an outsider, it looks like an untidy jumble. To Bernard, these objects are priceless.

Here, with a roof over his head, he spreads himself over his couch as he talks to us. He is at rest after his long, tortuous journey.

For Bernard, a cupboard full of food is heaven. From his sofa, he scans his apartment wide-eyed, as if he can’t believe where he has ended up.

Alcoholic Parents

Bernard wasn’t born on the street. As a young child he learned to stay away from home for as long as possible, wandering his neighborhood. It was better to be outside than inside. At Bernard’s family home, a storm was never far off the horizon.

With alcoholic parents and 10 brothers and sisters, Bernard did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His basic physical needs were not taken care of; even less so, his psychological needs.

“My father liked to go after us,” Bernard recalls. “He’d hit us with whatever he could get his hands on. It was tougher on us mentally than physically. He was always ready to whack us in the back of the head, or kick us in the ass.”

Bernard’s cousins also endured the same treatment. Misery gripped his extended family as well. They inhabited one large family ghetto. Life was fraught with instability. Bernard’s basic need for love, encouragement and support went unfulfilled.

As a gifted student, Bernard skipped grades. This carried no weight on the home front. The Martin family did not feel that education was a priority. Though smart and curious, Bernard’s scholastic achievements went unrecognized. He was self-motivated to learn. Yet going to school reminded him that he was poor: “I went to class on an empty stomach, wearing ratty clothes. It was embarrassing.”

Steals to Survive

Bernard realized that his parents would never provide the necessities of life. And if he wanted luxuries, he would have to spoil himself. He and his cousins would shoplift from convenience stores. They’d hang around on street corners and get into fights, often with each other. They reveled in street life. As tough kids, they escaped their misery through booze and pot…

“I learned to lie when I was very young,” Bernard recalls. “When my dad went to buy wine or beer he’d pay me to hide the bottles. My mother was always watching him. She didn’t want him to drink without her. So she’d pay me off, and I’d tell her where I’d hid the bottles. I was 7, and I already knew how to play one side against the other.”

Bernard was placed in foster homes on 3 occasions. But no adult could tame him. He’d return to his own family, who didn’t care.

When he was 12 their home burned down. The 11 Martin children were passed around throughout their extended family. Bernard was sent to live with his grandparents.

“Grandpa was a prison guard,” he remembers, “a man with a heart of gold. He used to board recently released prisoners to make a bit of money on the side. I hung around with them. I learned a lot.” Here, Bernard found the recognition he’d sought in vain from his parents. These ex-cons had started out small, as petty thieves, just like Bernard. Now he had role models. He made contacts. He broadened his horizons.

A Hardened Criminal

In his early teens Bernard began dealing drugs. He was already taking soft drugs. He was approached by the Popeyes, the predecessors of the Hells Angels: “I was making tons of money! But things were going bad in my own life.”

At 15 he quit school and moved in with two friends in Quebec City. Together they made a daily commute to the smaller local town of Rivière-du-Loup. With a population of about 10,000, Rivière-du-Loup was famous for its cement factories. Bernard went about conquering Rivière-du-Loup.

“We learned to use violence to put the competition in its place,” he says. “We quickly made a name for ourselves. When people saw us on their side of the sidewalk they crossed the street to avoid us. When something happened, the local police headed right for us.”

Threats, intimidation… for Bernard and his associates, the 1970s began in violence. The unruly, impossible-to-control child had grown into a hardened criminal by the age of 15. He was the king of Rivière-du-Loup. He had money and power. But personal happiness proved elusive.

Falsely Accused

At 16, Bernard’s life reached a turning point. He was arrested and charged with a murder he did not commit. A Rivière-du-Loup taxi driver, also involved in the drug world, was found dead. Suspicion focused on the young thug who controlled the territory for the Popeyes.

News of Bernard’s arrest created a stir.

“Rivière-du-Loup was a small place,” he recalls. “For a month and a half, until the real killer was caught, the media linked my name to the crime. When I was cleared, that didn’t change. People’s minds were made up. Folks fled when they saw me. Crooks came up to congratulate me. Criminals came to me for advice. It fed my ego. I got into the big leagues of drug trafficking!”

Famous and admired, Bernard was floating on cloud nine. Many saw him as an important man. He didn’t care that the people who looked up to him were from the underworld. After all, even these underworld figures were themselves looked up to and respected by a lot of people.

Bernard spent the next few years yo-yoing between two worlds. For periods, he lived like a pasha, flush with money and power; at other times, he found himself confined to a jail cell, or out on the street with nothing.

By the time he reached his early 20s he had become sick of the merry-go-round. He wanted to remake himself. He dreamed of a normal life. “I’d always heard that in the federal prison system they helped you. They had therapists and trade courses available. I was fed up. I saw what was happening to others and I wanted to turn my life around. I knew I was a hard worker. I had a lot of potential. I wanted to develop into a better man.”

Drugs and Jail

He was sent to Leclerc Prison, the jail designated for members of the Hells Angels. He felt safe. The story of the taxi driver made the rounds. Even though he’d only been 16 at the time, the tale still opened doors for him. “I gained self-confidence,” he says. “I’d proven myself. I retold and even exaggerated the story. I never said I was innocent, that it hadn’t been me!”

Inside this federal institution, Bernard took advantage of their training programs and counseling. He was given a job as a pest exterminator. He had rare and privileged access to every wing of the prison. He went back to the drug trade. “I could do all my deliveries, take all my orders” he says. “I went everywhere. I had access to the warehouse where my pest control products were kept. The odor was strong. It masked the smell of my drugs. The sniffer dogs couldn’t smell my merchandise.”

Bernard simply couldn’t live a stable 9 to 5 life. As a kid he’d wandered the streets to stay away from home. Released from jail, he was equally unstable.
“I slept in shelters in the downtown area. When you leave prison you have nothing. They give you a cheque for $50, then they kick you out. You get stoned to forget the 2 years you spent behind bars.” Homeless, he yearned for the high life.

“Despite all the prison programs I’d taken I still wasn’t ready to leave behind my thug life,” he says. “I stayed quiet for a year. Then I got involved in some small-time crime and ended up right back in jail.”

For 40 years this is how Bernard Martin led his life.

Change, But How?

Whenever he left prison his number one priority was always how to get enough money to buy drugs. Fraud, fencing, theft… any petty crime would do. “I had enough money to cover my rent, but I preferred to spend my cash on getting stoned to smother my emotions. Homelessness is a vicious circle.”

He says that shelters provide an accessible place to live, but that this very accessibility can encourage a life of crime: “When I got my welfare cheque, I’d spend it on getting high, and I still had a place to crash,” he explains. “Shelters provide free food and clothing. At the time, I led this lifestyle without really questioning it. I had emotional problems like everyone else. But I dealt with them by getting wasted. Between paying the rent and getting stoned, the choice was easy.”

Bernard found ready companions among his fellow itinerants. He was good at networking. “When I was on the street, all I wanted to know was where I could find a pusher, and how much the drugs cost. You look for easy money. When the money ran out, I headed for a homeless shelter.”

He drifted from shelter to shelter, getting into arguments with social workers and staff. He burned his bridges – he had fewer and fewer places he could turn to. One day he found himself at the Welcome All shelter. Here, he made his first tentative steps to get off skid row.

“You could stay there 3 months if you volunteered,” he recalls. “I felt safe. They had a dormitory and a cafeteria, which meant you didn’t have to get up and leave at 6 or 7 in the morning. Because in most shelters they get you out of bed early, give you a coffee and a slice of toast, then shove you out the door. You walk around looking for things to do until they let you back in at 5 p.m.”

A Turning Point

His stay at the Welcome All lasted a month and a half. He pitched in and helped out. Social workers from the Douglas Hospital, a Montreal psychiatric facility, visited the shelter. They were working on a federal government project, Chez Soi (At Your Home), aimed at getting 500 itinerant persons off the street over a 5-year period.

“I was interviewed, and chosen for subsidized housing.” That meant the project’s interveners would help Bernard find an apartment, and pay the rent. “It took me 8 days to find a place. They gave me all new furniture,” he beams proudly.

Bernard gushes with compliments when talking about the team from the Douglas Hospital, who he says treated him with dignity – not something down-and-outers are used to. “I felt respected immediately. They visited me each week to see how I was doing. They took care of everything from A to Z.”
Sitting in his cluttered apartment reflecting on his life, Bernard Martin is certain that he has turned his back on skid row. Bernard does everything he can to shed the rebellious attitudes that had led him to street life.

He wants to remain a good citizen. He sees a counselor at a community centre every week, “to help me understand why I drank and did drugs in the first place. I go to the YMCA every week. And when I can’t make it there, I know where to turn thanks to the good folks at Chez Soi. That’s the shame about homeless people. They don’t know where to find the resources that can help them.”

Home, Sweet Home

“For the last year or so I’ve never gone back downtown, where homeless people hang out,” he says. “I have no contact with the people I used to get high with. No one visits my apartment. I don’t want visitors. I have a home. I don’t need anyone else. I’m content with my life. On the street I learned to lie, to myself and to others, in order to get drink and drugs. I didn’t respect myself.”

After a lifetime of drifting, crime and addiction, Bernard has finally found inner peace. Decades of street life led to this happy ending. But now he’s finally ready to live the quiet life.

It took Bernard Martin 40 years to learn just how sweet normalcy can be.

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