SUDBURY, ONTARIO — Loss and death led to the bottle. It got the best of him and 25 years ago, George Stephen, 50, found himself living on the streets, a transient moving between Vancouver, Winnipeg and Sudbury, as well as points in between. A heroin addiction took him west, where the drug was cheaper.

“On a typical day, I’d wake up under a bridge, where it was safer, just jonesing for a hit,” he says. “I’d go walk around, looking for drug money or food. I was never a good thief, so I just panhandled.”

A former OPP officer in Kashechewan, his hometown, Stephen, who has a fine arts diploma, is soft-spoken, but candid.

Nine years ago, he quit the needle and five years ago, he put down the bottle.

“When I was in prison for 14 months (for assault), I was kept in solitary confinement,” Stephen explains. “I went crazy in there. I tell people I had to clear my insanity with insanity. I guess God spoke to me. There was a voice I heard. I truly believe He was speaking to me through an eagle feather. He showed me some visions in my crazed mind, and some of them came true — to never pick up a needle or bottle again. Now, I have no use for drugs or alcohol. I don’t want it. I don’t like the smell of it.”

These days, Stephen lives in Hanmer and spends his time giving back to the community on whose streets he once stumbled. He offers workshops for at-risk youth, volunteers at the N’Swakamok Friendship Centre, translates to/from Ojibwe and Cree for Health Sciences North, cooks for the elderly and fixes second-hand computers, which are then donated to low-income children.

He has not forgotten the years he spent living on Sudbury’s streets.

“I make bannock (for street-involved people) — I put them in baggies, with jam or butter, or whatever they want,” he says. “They like it. They start talking about home, or getting a home, so they can cook their own. That’s what I’ve been doing. It worked for me.

Stephen was part of a homelessness panel that took place on Thursday evening at the South End public library. It included Carol Kauppi, as well as representatives from the Samaritan Centre, Downtown Sudbury and the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (SCAP).

Carol Kauppi, a professor at Laurentian University and poverty researcher, told the crowd there are between 600 and 1,000 people living on the streets of Greater Sudbury. While substance abuse and mental illness contribute to homelessness, she noted there is lack of affordable housing in the city.

“There’s a $400 gap in the amount people have to pay for housing for a one-bedroom apartment, and the amount they receive through Ontario Works,” she said. “That’s just one example of a group of people who just can’t make ends meet.”

Despite Canada’s affluence, Kauppi said poverty and homelessness are on the rise, due in part to skyrocketing housing costs.

Christy Knockleby, a member of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (SCAP), argued the community needs to change its perceptions of homelessness. Poverty is often not a result of irresponsibility, mental illness or addiction. Employment does not guarantee security, as the minimum wage remains 20% below the poverty line. People are “stuck” and the face of poverty in Canada is changing, with more women, families and elderly at risk of homelessness and chronic food insecurity.

And as the mercury drops, the need for shelter becomes more urgent.

“There are people’s lives in the balance … people will die if they have to be out in the cold,” said Gary Kinsman, a Laurentian University sociology professor who attended Thursday’s event.

Earlier this month, the Elgin Street Mission announced that after six years, it would no longer remain open 24 hours per day through the winter months. It will open as a warming station only when the city declares an extreme cold weather alert.

“Convincing the city they need to put money into providing somewhere warm to go at night, would be one of the things (we can do now),” Knockleby said. “The city needs (emergency shelters). Getting the money for CHPI (the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative) would help prevent putting people on the streets.”

Stephen told the Star that too often, homeless people are invisible.

“We’re not acknowledged in life,” he says. “People walk right by us, right through us and just push us out of the way.”

Recently, he lost two local “street sisters,” women he considered friends, one of whom was a 29-year-old mother of three. He said she died from a “street” illness involving her liver.

Originally published in The Sudbury Star on Nov. 25, 2013