Homeless man's blog lays bare his struggles

Thomas Francois blogs about his experiences of being homeless from a computer at The Gathering Place.
by RANDY FIEDLER/Advocate staff

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Thomas Francois enjoys blogging.

He dreams of getting his master’s degree in psychology and teaching at a university. But most often, he dreams of stabilizing his medications — for depression and bipolar disorder — and finding safe and affordable housing.

Francois is homeless.

He is candid, almost blunt, sitting in front of a computer with his left leg crossed over his right knee. His blog, or personal online journal, filled the screen with its straightforward prose. Beginning on Jan. 6, the entries chronicle Francois’ experience with homelessness and mental illness.

“I wanted to feel I could empower myself,” he said. “I really wanted to try and raise awareness.”

In the past six months, Francois, 44, has tried to hold down three jobs and lived in four homes. He has spent four nights outside: two in Calgary, on steps between two buildings; and two without sleep, walking in Red Deer.

Francois has been homeless for around two weeks, finding beds in shelters and couch hopping.

Educated with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies, majoring in history, and two years in seminary, Francois spent 20 years as a social worker for various aboriginal agencies in the Toronto area.

Looking back, he can point to the first signs of mental illness in his teens. In his 20s, Francois was hospitalized after a serious suicide attempt — his only attempt.

“I could be really down when things looked great,” he said, describing the cycling of emotions that grew worse with age. He often “self-medicated” with alcohol.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Francois moved to British Columbia, where he worked for Prophet Muskwa Outfitters, trailing horses into remote hunting camps.

Francois said he moved to rural Alberta when he started a relationship with a woman. He loved his time with her and her dogs, but couldn’t control his cycling moods. He left when he started drinking heavily, trying to cope.

Alcohol wasn’t a solution, so Francois gave up drinking and checked himself into Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre five months ago, where he stayed for two weeks. He was discharged with medication, some answers and a psychiatrist he sees bimonthly — more if needed.

But he finds his illness debilitating.

Waking in the morning, he can be overwhelmed just considering the tasks he must accomplish that day. Even brushing his teeth or taking a multi-vitamin can feel like an insurmountable obstacle.

“Sometimes it paralyzes me until the last moment,” he said. Declared unemployable, and put on a 12-month medical, Francois was placed on new mood stabilizers two weeks ago, in addition to anti-depressants.

Francois said he makes four or five inquiries into housing a day. “Past that, I start to get really discouraged,” he said.

With a $450 a month maximum housing budget, and no desire to share a house where drugs and alcohol are an issue, Francois has been unsuccessful.

“There’s just really not enough available in the city for those who need it,” he said.

He often spends part of his day at A Gathering Place, a downtown drop-in centre for people with mental illness. Centre manager Deana Thompson said as many as 30 people come into the centre daily to take advantage of resources or activities there, including a library, Pilates and an art club — or just to escape the cold.

The centre has a computer room with four machines, where Francois can work on his myspace.com page and blog. Since opening his page in the fall, he has had 427 original viewers. But blogging is new to Francois.

“It’s really helped me stay focused on what my personal issues are,” he said, sitting at the corner computer.

He bundled against the cold with layers: a blue dress shirt under a green knit, V-necked sweater under an open paint-stained black hoodie. His dark hair, graying at the temples, was pulled back in a low ponytail.

Francois doesn’t pretend to know how to end homelessness.

“I think there always will be homeless people,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of answers. I just know how difficult it is for an individual.”

And every story is different.

“A lot of people I hear back from here,” he said, pointing to his blog, “are middle-class people one paycheque away from the same thing.”

He has received offers of help online from people in other provinces, but urges them to help in their own community. He thinks it is important to educate people against the stigmas and stereotypes attached to homelessness and mental illness.

Francois wants people to ask themselves: “How do I make it personal?”

His blog entries are as hopeful or desperate as he feels at the moment, but always personal and candid — sometimes poetic.

“The lives of people who are in crisis need that extra touch of concern,” he wrote in one entry. “It is in this heart of sincerity that the human soul, touched by something divine, is able to retain its humanity.”

Visit Francois’ blog at reddeeradvocate.com or myspace.com/pwagun.

Contact Heather Schultz at hschultz@reddeeradvocate.com