Max Kerr began his summer this year with little more than the common perceptions of addictions.
But the 18-year-old, who graduated this year from Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford, said that perception has shifted monumentally after working for a non-profit revolving around addictions and homelessness.
Through the federal Summer Jobs Program, Kerr spent his summer working with the local chapter of Drug War Survivors, a network of current and former drug users. Kerr is working to become a firefighter, a career in which he will also witness, through the lens of first responders, the overdose crisis currently rattling the province.
Throughout B.C. last year, 1,450 people died of suspected overdoses, and in Abbotsford, 52 people died of suspected overdoses last year. Eighteen more deaths tied to overdoses were recorded in Abbotsford through the first six months of this year.
In an interview on Thursday, the day before International Overdose Awareness Day, Kerr reflected on his changing view of addictions.
“When I came to my first meeting here, I kind of just kept to myself, and I was really nervous. I didn’t entirely want to shake people’s hands because all the perceptions I had were: homeless people are grimy, they’re dirty. And anyone I told about this, they said ‘Well, be careful that they don’t try to manipulate you into giving them money or drugs or something,’” he said.
But even at that first meeting, Kerr said his perceptions were already shifting.
“As soon as I met them, I knew that my perception of them was wrong. I think a lot of people probably know that, too, but they don’t listen to that thought,” he said.
Kerr said he heard “shocking” stories from members of the Drug War Survivors committee, and began to see them in a different light. On the contrary, Kerr said he has now heard more frequently about issues like homeless people coming home to their tents to find bear spray had been used inside.
“People are worse than I expected. There’s things they’ll do to hurt the homeless population, and any of my friends or my family, I don’t see them doing that. So when I hear that other people are doing it, it doesn’t make sense to me.”
The dialogue around addictions has been shifting, with health and government officials formerly viewing it as a legal issue, but now beginning to see it as more of a health issue. But Kerr said he believes it will take some time to get the wider public body to view addictions that same way.
“It’s going to be difficult, because I think for a lot of people, they have to meet these people and learn from them and hear their stories, which a lot of people just generally don’t have time to do,” Kerr said.
For himself, Kerr said he now applies some of the lessons he’s learned in his life more broadly.
“I won’t judge a book by it’s cover, basically,” he said.
“There might be somebody who looks like they’re going to be a jerk and not that nice, so maybe I wouldn’t go and talk to them normally. But now I might try to talk to them, and they’ll turn out to become one of my best friends, possibly.”