PHOTOS: First talk puts a face to homelessness and addiction in Maple Ridge
Navjeet Chhina graduated from a high school in Maple Ridge with high enough grades to get into the University of British Columbia and pursue a degree in science.
But two serious accidents left the now-29-year-old injured, addicted to heroin, lonely and nearly homeless.
During last night's first talk on homelessness at The ACT Theatre, Chhina was one of four panel members to share their knowledge and experience on the "who, what, when, where, and how" of homelessness.
With tears in his eyes, Chhina recounted several memories during his time as a percocet and heroin user, and the friends he lost due to drug overdoses.
"My whole life was evolved around pain," he said.
Growing up in Maple Ridge, Chhina "was always kind of a nerd," and had poor self-esteem, he explained.
He also grew up in a family who was strict and stressed the importance of good grades while in high school.
In Grade 12, he was "allowed to party a bit," which helped his sociability and confidence.
"I always felt so constricted," he told the crowd. "As soon as I had a little bit of alcohol, I was free."
While going to UBC, he took "easier" courses in order to garner a 3.6 GPA, while partying four days a week.
From percocets to heroin
But Chhina's life took a "serious turn," during a set of accidents that led him to medicating with prescription drugs.
During a vacation in Williams Lake, Chhina got in an ATV accident where he was ejected from the vehicle and hit a tree.
Two weeks later, driving to his first day back at his job as a drywall packager, Chhina was in a second accident – this time involving a bad left turn that crushed his vehicle on impact.
"My front tire was six inches from my head," he recalled, adding he had a broken leg from his hip to foot.
This was when Chhina was introduced to the pain medication percocets – made up of a combination of acetaminophen and the opioid oxycodone.
"You love it as much as you love another human being," he said of the drug.
Chhina continued to take percocets, in order to deal with the death of a friend due to an overdose.
He was needing quick money to maintain his addiction, so he turned to the world of crime and illegal drugs.
And having access to heroin at one-fifth the cost of its street value turned Chhina's addiction to percocets into an addiction to heroin.
"I took a bad trip down and I was just as broken by the end of it," he said through tears.
His family suffered while watching him use.
"My mom was a shell of a human being," he recalled.
Meanwhile, Chhina described his life at the time comparable to being in hell.
"I tried to overdose so many times," he said.
He eventually lost his condo and most of his possessions, which he would pawn off to pay for drugs.
He went from making money to being upwards of $50,000 in debt. He "couch surfed" for close to a year while using up to $9,000 in heroin a month.
Soon after, his friends – even ones he made through his drug use – stopped trusting him.
His parents made one last attempt to save their son, with the option for Chhina to enter a long-term rehab program. He agreed.
Advocating for the addicted
Today, Chhina's a manager for a construction company, and still lives in Maple Ridge.
But he told the crowd he'd never forget the "good people" he met while in rehab.
He met a doctor, a pilot, and a mom who turned to prostitution to support her disabled son.
"I met people from all walks of life that had such amazing lives... they were good people, very good people, and their lives had just taken that one fateful turn," he said.
"I didn't do a percocet with the intention of one day ripping every single person I knew of... manipulating, lying, cheating, stealing – just being a scumbag. I didn't think of that when I was taking a percocet to get over the deaths of my friends."
To conclude, Chhina stressed the importance of compassion for those who are addicted.
He grew up believing the homeless "deserve it," he admitted.
"The homeless people are every which member of society that just slipped through the cracks."
To prevent drug addiction in the community, he suggested discussions taking place in elementary school classrooms.
"This needs to be taken care of at a Grade 7 level when they're dealing with self-esteem issues," he concluded.
Highlighting the how of homelessness
Also taking the stage, Dr. Paul Kershaw discussed the need for a national housing strategy that acknowledges young people in the country struggling to afford rent and home ownership.
Through graphs, Dr. Michael Krausz presented who makes up the majourity of addiction and homelessness, and why.
Two-thirds of adults in prison, on the streets, or using introveness drugs suffered some form of childhood trauma, he said.
"It's nothing to be blamed for," he continued, noting residents don't see the suffering behind the drug use.
Similarly, Dr. Mike Pond, shared his experience as a psycho-therapist turned alcoholic.
Now sober more than six years, Pond said community members need to start looking at the addiction as a mental health issue, and how the cycle of addiction correlates with the cycle of homelessness.
In May of 2016, a report on homelessness stated 43 per cent of homeless people suffer from a mental health issue, he noted.
And it's wrong to look at users and alcoholics as "morally flawed and not mentally addicted," he continued.
Pond suggested that in order to minimize homelessness, treating addictions in their early stages is key.
"We don't wait until stage 4 to treat cancer... This is routine for addiction," he explained.
But if addiction is combated early "with compassionate, evidence-based care, we dramatically reduce our homeless population."
In case you missed it: Check back to The TIMES for a link to a full video of last night's homeless talk.
See photos from last night's talk below: