A complex interaction of mental health issues, addictions and inadequate coping mechanisms took the life of Bob LaChance in 2007. He was a 45-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse and left behind a wife who loved him dearly even if, by the end, she couldn't live with him.
It was then that the idea for a support mechanism for families and people suffering from mental health issues and addiction began in Donna DeSimon's broken heart and her daughter, Angie DeSimon was eager to join the mission.
"That is why we do what we do, because, if a place like this was around when he was here, he could have benefitted from this so much. He probably could have been saved. But if we can save one person and their family, then that’s all," Angie told SooToday.
And it was when they started the support group that eventually led to the hub on Gore Street that Donna's heart began to heal.
"I always tell people that's how you help yourself, by helping others," she said.
The group is located in a long narrow space that is filled with chaos, concern and compassion at 133 Gore Street.
The Compassion Hub
In fact, that's what the place is called. The Compassion Hub, and it's operated by Addictions and Mental Health Advocates, the group Donna and Angie founded with the support of a group of friends and associates. Donna and Angie are the co-chairs of the group
The hub is located on Gore Street close to where the Neighbourhood Resource Centre was.
"They trust us so they come to us," said Donna. "We help them where we can. I'd like to do more."
Donna and Angie, both nurses, had been volunteering with the resource centre before it was closed and got to know a lot of the regulars well.
They call the regulars their people.
"The big thing is the food. They’re hungry. They love the Sunday dinners," Donna said. "Every day we have something on cooking here, like some soup or something, because you don’t know how hungry these people are. They come in asking, ‘what do you have to eat, today? Do you have any snacks?’"
There's a great sense of urgency right now as the shelves at the Compassion Hub are nearly empty. The group has started their second GoFundMe to try to raise money to buy food for the hub and to help keep it going.
"We can't apply for a lot of grants and programs right now," Angie explained, "Because we're so new."
The centre only opened in February and the group was only incorporated a short time before that. Its formation grew out of complex and profound needs in the community and Donna is candid about the issues faced by regulars at the hub.
Angie, Donna and other volunteers have been trying to find donations of food to prepare for people coming into the hub. Sometimes they pay for it out of their pockets but it's getting harder as food prices rise.
Helping the helpers
Early this winter, Village Media Chief Executive Officer Jeff Elgie saw the need and put out a call for help for Addictions and Mental Health Advocates. His friends, family and staff at Village Media came together to find the support the group needed and support its first GoFundMe campaign. The doors to the hub were opened but now they need to find some more consistent community support to keep them going.
The hub offers visitors access to computers, phones, the internet and a number of other things that both make their lives easier and give them some respite from the challenges they face.
Those are all bills that need to be paid every month along with utilities and rent.
"We are extremely grateful for all the community support that we’ve gotten," Angie added. "I want to put it out there."
Sometimes that help comes from the people who need help the most.
"They come here, play music, do whatever needs doing. They do things like shovel outside, sand everything, wash windows, and help sweep the floor because they really try to give back to us," she said. "We also found that, when you give them some kind of purpose, they want to help themselves more and they come around more. They want to help more."
Donna agreed, saying, "We have a worker here that this place is everything to him. He comes every day like it’s a job. He helps out every day because it gives him a sense of purpose."
Who else helps out?
Other agencies are sending representatives to help at the Compassion Hub as well.
The Canadian Mental Health Association, John Howard Society, HIV & AIDS Resource Program (HARP), Victim Services of Algoma, and Ontario Housing Aboriginal Services are among the agencies that have representation there, so far.
"We’re working with other agencies to try and get it almost like the resource centre so that, instead of them trying to go out and navigate the system, which is horrible, they come here. We meet them where they are," Donna said. "We also send a lot of them to other agencies. Like, recently, CNIB, the reserves. If
somebody needs specific help, we’ll make referrals for them and hope that they get the help they need."
People respond best to peers and with peer support when they are trying to navigate the system, Donna and Angie say. Being with someone who has been through something like what they are going through means there's generally more trust from the person seeking help and less judgment from the peers offering it.
Peer volunteers at the hub advocate for people in need as they try to navigate the system to find homes, clothing, food or other things while Donna, Angie and the team of frontline workers from the agencies coming to the hub bring resources to the table to try to meet their needs.
The team consists of volunteers (often peers), agency representatives, and students on placement from the Sault Ste. Marie campus of Canadian Career College as well as Donna and Angie.
What they do
"Sometimes they just want to sit here and talk," Angie said. "They just want a hug. So, we do that a lot."
The team also helps people at the Compassion Hub with resumes, taxes, ODSP, and life skills training.
Visitors to the hub can also find things to do, wear and keep them warm. People have donated puzzles, makeup, nail polish, games, blankets and gravity chairs.
"We have a little craft area. They’ll come in and they’ll colour and do puzzles - they know that there’s something here that they can do. We have makeup and nail polish," Donna said.
"They come in and they do their nails. It makes them feel great to be able to do that," Angie added, saying it's important to people in crisis to be able to just escape into something mindless and mundane like doing their nails or a puzzle. It gives them a break from the crushing feelings of stress and anxiety they experience most of the time.
Some also have difficulty sleeping at the shelters or on the streets where they feel like they have to constantly be hyper-alert and the team will see them nodding off in a chair. They'll bring a blanket to keep them warm and just let them sleep where they are, watching over them to keep them safe.
And then there are the times they have to do the most they possibly can.
"One day, when we were first opening up, we had someone come in and say there was someone lying in the road," Donna said. "They thought the person was dead."
The person lying on the road was someone they knew, someone they cared very much about.
"He was blue-black," Donna said.
"We saved him," Angie said. "We Narcanned him, we resuscitated him. We brought him to before the paramedics got here but we were so scared. My God, he was black. He was dead. We love him. He’s so sweet."
The young man is now staying at the Verdi Hall shelter as he continues to struggle with drug use and mental illness.
"He had mental health housing but he got kicked out because they apparently found needles," Angie said.
"Whoop-de-doo, of course, they’re going to find needles. What do they expect?" Donna added, "They know he’s a drug user. They know he has dual problems. Like, come on!"
"It should be low-barrier housing because that’s what they’re dealing with," Angie added.
Angie and Donna say it can be very difficult to cope with the things they see, the pain the people they are trying to help are experiencing and the lack of understanding from many in the public.
"It’s difficult. It’s really hard," Donna said. "How do we cope with that? I don’t know. It’s really difficult. Some nights we don’t sleep."
"Some nights are really hard," Angie added. "I feel everything. But, I like being able to have this family that we have here. That’s how we get through it. We talk about it. We sit with them (survivors left behind) and cry with them and hold them."
Support from the supported
The women agree that the community they have become a part of has also become their support system.
"We all have each other," Angie said. "more than anything else, because they understand, and so do we, how that feels when you’re with these people every day and they pass away."
"It gets in your blood," Donna added. "It's who we are."
This is why the two worry so deeply about securing support for the Compassion Hub.
"I’m always looking for something that we can apply for. It costs a lot of money to run this place," Donna said. It’s a labour of love. We don’t look at it as the work we do."
Donna and Angie say problems with mental health and addiction are closely intertwined and they affect every community but, per capita, this city is really bad.
Every coin has two sides.
While worrying about the friends they've found and the community they've built can keep them awake at night, they can also help them sleep.
"When we leave and their tummies are full and they’ve hung out with us all day, I know they’re okay - I can sleep at night. And then tomorrow, we do the same thing over again," said Angie.
"Same but different," Donna said with a chuckle. "It's different things every day but with the same goal."