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Solvent Abuse Is Nearly Legal and Ra­­mpant in Winnipeg

While some of Winnipeg’s homeless choose to numb the pain of their lives with alcohol, prescription drugs, or narcotics, a growing number are choosing to abuse what many consider the dirtiest, most damaging substance you can ingest into your system...

by Sheldon Birnie
Sep 5 2013, 8:25pm

Photos by Greg Gallinger.

On any given afternoon, the crossroads of Winnipeg’s Higgins Avenue and Main Street is a hub of activity. Dozens of people mul­­l about, sitting or sleeping in the shade of buildings, trees, bus shelters, and benches. Some are residents of nearby North Main or Point Douglas neighbourhoods, others are temporary residents of the nearby Salvation Army or Siloam Mission shelters, or the Main Street Project’s Bell Hotel. Still others are homeless, spending their days and nights on the street.

While some of Winnipeg’s homeless choose to numb the pain of their lives with alcohol, prescription drugs, or narcotics, a growing number are choosing to abuse what many consider the dirtiest, most damaging substance you can ingest into your system. These people are solvent abusers.

Winnipeg’s solvent abuse problem is longstanding. But it was recently brought to national attention during the inquiry into Brian Sinclair’s death. Sinclair died in September 2008, after waiting over 34 hours in Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre emergency room for treatment of a blocked urinary catheter.

Sinclair was a double amputee who was bound to a wheelchair and deemed mentally incompetent. Like many of those who spend their days at Higgins and Main, he was homeless, and a solvent abuser, a point that was raised in the inquiry into his death by Dr. Marc Del Bigio, a well respected neuropatholist who examined Sinclair’s brain during the autopsy.

According to a 2011 Street Health Report, 6.3 per cent of homeless respondents admitted to regularly abusing solvents, a number three times higher than reported levels in Toronto. However, the report admits that “there’s a lot of stigma attached to sniffing or using solvents and inhalants, meaning the actual number of people using them is likely to be higher than reported.” Since the report was issued, those numbers have been on the rise.

“The problem is getting worse,” admits Sean Gaudet, longtime pastor at Lighthouse Mission, just south of Higgins on Main Street. Lighthouse offers drop in services, hot meals and coffee to many of the area’s homeless residents, and is one of the only homeless service providers who do not maintain a strict “sobriety” policy. As a result, Gaudet estimates that of the 200 or so people Lighthouse serve each day, “between 40 and 50” are solvent abusers, or “sniffers.”

“The sniffer population in the Point Douglas area can vary from around 90 to a couple hundred people a day,” Gaudet explained. “But they’re spread out. It’s not just concentrated in my area.”

Empty plastic bottles and discarded rags were strewn across every corner and littered the green space around the corner of Higgins and Main, just north of the Lighthouse. It is not uncommon to see solvents being very openly used in this neighbourhood throughout the afternoon and into the evening. And it is, unfortunately, not unheard of for sniffers to be dangerously oblivious to their own personal safety, walking into oncoming traffic, or passing out in the freezing winters on the sidewalks.

A solvent user in Winnipeg.

Michael Foster is the program director at Main Street Project’s, where he has been working with Main Street’s homeless population for over eight years. Foster does not believe that solvent abuse is that much different, in principal, from other addictions.

“It’s just a matter of which substance one is introduced to,” he told me over the phone. “They’re quick action, they’re relatively cheap, and I think people use them as a coping mechanism, just like they would use any other substance.”

Why-Why (a street name) is a friendly man from the remote community of Berens River, Manitoba. He has been living on the streets of Winnipeg for the past seven years, after moving south in 1998, and agrees with Foster’s opinion on how solvent abusers get into it. Why-Why mostly uses alcohol to cope with his problems—though he is currently struggling to clean up—but he was a recreational solvent user since he was “about ten.”

“I don’t really remember exactly [when I first used],” he explained in a Tim Horton’s on Portage Avenue, citing years of alcohol abuse and frequent solvent use as a child for his hazy memory. “The people I knew would do it. It’s there. You’ll try it.”

Users often describe a euphoric high, sometimes hallucinatory, which lasts between five and fifteen minutes.

“It was good,” Why-Why recalled, citing boredom and isolation of his hometown for much of his solvent use. “You see visions, hallucinate. That was what I liked, the hallucinations. It was something that was funny. Something entertaining.”

“The feeling I didn’t like was the feeling after coming down,” Why-Why said. “The bad headaches.”

Why-Why claims he hasn’t used solvents in years. However, he recalls “when I was out on Main Street, there’s a lot of people I knew there doing it. Sniffing everyday, all day long.

Solvent abuse is a way for people—most of whom are in incredibly dire situations—to briefly escape from loss, trauma, and pain. The side effects are unsurprisingly awful—including major brain damage and massive harm to one’s bodily and cognitive functions.

“The harm that it does is so quick and so significant,” said Foster. “There are a lot of folks we’ve been working with for years who we’ve watched their physical and cognitive capacities die. And they’re wonderful people, with skills and wonderful pieces of their personalities. Those things slowly start to fade away, and their capacity to do the things they love fades away.”

Distributing solvents is only punishable by a municipal infraction, just like a parking ticket. There are no federal or provincial laws barring it, either. With no real risks to a solvent dealer plying his or her trade at the corner of Higgins and Main, the problem is not going anywhere anytime soon.

“There is a way to do something about it,” Pastor Gaudet believes. “But all three levels of government don’t see this as a problem. They see [solvent abuse] as a scab. They see it as toilet paper on their feet.”

“They don’t care,” agreed Why-Why, shaking his head over a Triple-Triple. “They just don’t care.”

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