“There is pain here. There is loss:” Working on the frontlines of the opioid epidemic

By Racheal Walser

I wrapped her dolls carefully. Each, in a new baby blanket. I wrapped it around their waists, tucked the blanket under their arms, and gently slipped them into a cardboard box.

This is the way Melissa liked to wrap her dolls. Each of them her baby.

She would have whispered sweet things to them, calling them each by name, articulating how she loved them. She would have slipped a finger gently along their cheek and said good night. She would have turned off the lights with a warning, and quietly slipped out the door – if she were still alive.

If she were still alive, her clothes would not be folded neatly into clear bags and loaded onto a cart but strewn about as she focused on making the perfect outfit. Her shoes would have made little mountains that she tripped over running back and forth to pose in the mirror.

She was braver than me – not afraid to layer patterns or worried that something made her look fat.

She was more confident, too. She would have left the room, without watching her reflection glimmer in the hazy finish of the lock, with a tune in her mind, and danced down the stairs into the fresh air of a city so gentrified its building condos right next to an emergency shelter.

The shoes she picked would have carried her along down the sidewalk as she wound her way through the construction zone of Frederick Street heading towards downtown, listening to the horns, sirens, train terminal sounds, and distant yelling if she were still alive.

But the truth is, she isn’t.

The YW is sad to announce that we have lost another client to the opioid epidemic.

We’ve lost another person who filled our hallways with laughter, who was there for people having a hard day. Melissa was always the first to run for Narcan when it was needed, to hold someone who was crying, give away her last cigarette when she knew someone else just needed a win. She was someone who accepted that everyone was different, that she was different, and that’s part of what made her special.

Truth it, this isn’t the first person we’ve lost in recent weeks. And it won’t be the last as we continue to move deeper into the grip of an epidemic held in place by a slowed movement for safe substance supply and trauma counseling.

This city’s space for marginalized community members is shrinking under the shadows of housing for people who spend more money on a car than most of our clients will ever see in their lifetime. It shrinks under a “housing-first” system without housing, inaccessible trauma counseling, and a safer supply program that took 20 years to get started because of the pervasive “Not in My Backyard” attitude sometimes demonstrated by the signs people place on their front yards.

But the impact our clients leave is long-lasting. It echoes through us every time someone new comes to our door or when a landlord rejects a housing application. It’s present when families come to the door looking for someone or when a member of the community offers their help.

I feel like too often I write about hope. And there is always room for hope. But there is pain here too. There is loss. The cost of living with mental health and addictions in Waterloo Region doesn’t have a price tag.

Like Melissa, our clients are mothers, sisters, daughters, brothers, sons, fathers, cousins, friends, family members, neighbours, and students in a city that drives by our Emergency Shelter and wonders why someone is outside yelling.​

We stand with the people outside yelling.

Racheal Walser is our Intensive Housing Support Coordinator. 


Consider donating to the YW Kitchener-Waterloo today and help us house women and families in need through this especially difficult time. 

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