In 1981, a small group of individuals established the 127 Society for Housing to meet the need for decent and affordable housing for the low-income residents of downtown Vancouver. The Society now operates three buildings, and is looking to expand to four in the near future.

Within a 3-block area the existing three buildings provide bachelor and one bedroom apartments for almost 300 individuals. Rent is geared to income and there is a long waiting list. Each building was built in partnership with a different combination of the municipal, provincial and federal governments. Their operation is subsidized by federal or provincial governments.

For the past ten years the 127 Society for Housing has received a significant portion of its funding from the Diocese of New Westminster’s former outreach program Stewards in Action (SIA). This year 127 is still receiving funds through the new Diocesan Going the Extra Mile (GEM) initiative. However, the funding is substantially lower and may only run through 2007.

The purpose of this article is not to retell history, but to let TOPIC readers know about what is happening with the people who are the beneficiaries of this ministry. Here’s one person’s story.

Ruthie was born 54 years ago on Vancouver’s South Side and raised in the area commonly called Oakridge. She is very slender, restless to the point of being frenetic, warm, friendly, bright, articulate and focused. She has been a resident of the Wellspring since it opened in 1997. Ruthie described her childhood years to me. ‘Dysfunctional’ is the best word to use.

Ruthie’s assessment of her mom is that the terrible upheaval of the escape from Russia where her family lived in relative affluence, to starting over with nothing, in a new land, led her to become increasingly paranoid and neurotically acquisitive.

Ruthie’s father never learned to speak English well and he was violent and abusive. Ruthie’s disconnect with her family reality was severe, and at age 9-10 she mentally moved into a rich and complex fantasy life. In her world under the dining room table she established five different imaginary families containing various individuals with distinct character traits who also had complex interpersonal relationships with each other.

At the age of 15 Ruthie started purging. Bulimia was a rare condition in 1967, but her intake and elimination of food was something she could control in a life where she had no control.

A year later her father died and she met the first love of her life. This relationship was her entry point into the world of heroin and drug addiction. More importantly she was welcomed into her partner’s family. The large family was open and loving and combative and real, everything she had missed in her own family and she stayed connected for 13 years.

During the next 13 years she had a pretty good time, she was one of the coolest of the cool kids. They would run the streets, do petty crimes, turn tricks and laugh at the squares and the suckers they saw heading off to work by bus.

However, this kind of life is not fun forever and addiction eventually takes its toll. Ruthie found herself single, depressed, suicidal and moving more and more into a world where the family atmosphere of “cool young street kids” in the 70’s had shifted into a life of danger and risk.

Ruthie with her cat Nelson, residents of the 127 Society for Housing’s projects, The Wellspring, in downtown Vancouver.

She wanted to be a “someone,” she wanted her plight to be recognized, she wanted those in authority to know who she was – a legal heroin addict with a name and identity, not a faceless statistic.

In the 1980’s the quickest way to achieve that goal was through the methadone program. But methadone did not work for her. After a month of use methadone no longer relieved her pain and she became reliant on valium and alcohol. For yet another 13 years she remained addicted and was in a more desperate situation than her years as a heroin addict.

Between 1994 and1996 she slept under bridges, on or in cardboard boxes, and she lost the ability to speak. It took her two years to get it straight in her mind that her life–although without responsibility–was certainly no longer cool and the people on the buses going to work weren’t the losers. She called a detox centre.

The night before she was to enter detox was the hardest night of her life, she knew if she was going to live she had to do this but everything she knew would have to change.

She was in detox for 5 weeks and then another 4 years in 12-step programs and care. At this point in her life, entering her mid-forties, she would sit at AA meetings slumped in a chair, defiant with a backwards baseball cap and her legs spread. Her development had pretty much been arrested when she went into her fantasy world all those years ago.

Then a special individual came into Ruthie’s life. Her AA sponsor modeled correct behaviour. She had Ruthie stay with her; she did not allow “street behaviour” and met Ruthie’s inappropriate behaviour with tough love.

In 1996 it was time for her to move on and she relocated to a recovery house where she heard about the 127 Society for Housing. Construction of the third 127 facility called The Wellspring was almost complete. Ruthie applied and was accepted. She moved in as soon as the doors opened with nothing but a green garbage bag containing her few belongings.

Ruthie’s life since she came to Wellspring has been busy. She became very involved in AA, in fact it became her “job.” Ruthie completed one year of a two year BCIT program in photography, she completed numerous courses in marketing, and public speaking and she is currently working on her Associates Degree in Liberal Arts Studies from Capilano College.

She sits on the local board of the Canadian Liver Foundation and appeared at a major fundraiser as recently as mid-November. She supports and sponsors many individuals who are in recovery programs and works at least 40 hours a week as a volunteer leader in those communities.

She loves her life at The Wellspring. The facility is safe and comfortable, the staff are wonderfully supportive and the atmosphere throughout the entire organization is one that nurtures and offers success, acceptance, belonging and support. A great example of these levels of support she attributes to the dedication and commitment of Wellspring’s community workers.

Ruthie admits that she is not ready or able to leave the Wellspring yet but her goals are to be: self-supporting and full of purpose. More than anything she wants to reach her full potential.

As a speaker and a resource for others who live with the horrors of drug addiction and resulting illness, Ruthie will be a huge help because she has 30 years training and a PhD in life on the streets.

This article first appeared in Contact, the newsletter of Christ Church Cathedral.  The Wellspring is one of three buildings operated by the 127 Society.