Tom Smithwick has written a new book, Knocking On Freedom's Door, about his experiences advocating for a drug addiction treatment program in Kelowna. (File photo)

‘Knocking On Freedom’s Door’: A retired Kelowna lawyer’s insights to mental illness, addiction

Freedom’s Doors advocate Tom Smithwick shares what he has learned from experiences of treatment program clients in new book

When people ask the question of how to deal with Kelowna’s drug addiction social issues, retired lawyer Tom Smithwick is ready to offer an answer.

As a leading proponent for Freedom’s Door, an initiative to assist men facing mental health and drug addiction challenges launched in 2002, Smithwick has found access to what he feels is the solution to helping those who end up experiencing homelessness in Kelowna.

And, he has capsulized his views and those of some Freedom’s Door clients in a new book Knocking On Freedom’s Door, Smithwick’s account of hope-filled stories of addiction recovery and healing.

Smithwick said people had often suggested he should write a book about his Freedom’s Door experiences.

His common refrain would be “I don’t have time to write a book,” but then one day in March 2018 his thoughts on the subject began to change.

From there, it took him a year to write the rough first draft, and longer to complete the final version. He sought the guidance of other local writers including Sharron Simpson and Claire Bernstein, and he offered the opportunity for Freedom’s Door clients to share their stories.

He says up to 80 per cent of people living on the streets or shelters are suffering from mental health issues, stigmatized wrongly as people who made bad choices of their absolute free will.

“On that level, it makes it easier for people to walk away and ignore the problem, but another unfortunate component to this is we now have a Charter of Rights which has turned into protecting a person’s right to stay there,” Smithwick said.

“That person can be 25 years of age, mentally ill, abused by drug dealers, but our societal obligations to help that person who may be suffering from mental health challenges is wiped out.”

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He feels the medical system has given up trying to help those battling mental health issues who live on the street, drawing a comparison to seniors stricken with dementia who receive an immediate medical response “so fast it will make your head spin.”

Today, the volunteer-created Freedom’s Door owns seven homes in Kelowna neighbourhoods housing 64 men, assisted by eight paid staff and more than 50 volunteers.

Homeless men trying to address issues in their lives are given a faith-based life structure to find and hold jobs, learn about what is ailing them physically and mentally, and how to address those issues in their lives moving forward.

Smithwick said the program is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous program started in 1935.

“That program has helped millions of people so we thought that was a pretty solid foundation upon which to base Freedom’s Door.”

The first step in recovery, he says, is to acknowledge being powerless to self-control your addiction, and infuse in individuals the support network that offers something else to rely on beyond yourself to face mental health challenges or overcome drug addiction.

“The principle of AA is creating a positive brotherhood of support, that you are not alone, that you realize you can’t do it yourself and there is a community of support out there to help.”

Smithwick said it is well documented now how addiction often comes from childhood trauma, events in a person’s life too overwhelming to address so drugs become a way to hide the pain.

“Dealing with that pain, addiction is so much about masking deeper problems. It is how we are in society today, let’s take a pill to deal with a medical issue rather than face the core of a problem that is leaving someone depressed, confused…why not look at why someone is depressed, to begin with?”

Referring to Freedom’s Door clients as “wounded warriors,” Smithwick says their stories share similarities – abandonment is a huge issue, sexual abuse, finding solace on the streets as safer than being in a dysfunctional family home.

He says initial entry into the program is a required 90-day stay, followed by an optional opportunity to stay longer to help put their lives back on track in a structured environment lacking for many of them if left on their own.

“The majority stay longer than 90 days. Many stay longer than that, up to two years in some cases. You can stay as long as you want.

“Our longest stay resident is with us eight years now. He is employed part-time but because of mental health challenges would find it difficult to cope outside of the structure provided by our program.”

Freedom’s Door is now expanding its boundaries on a broader scope around affordable housing, with an application to develop a facility in Glenmore pending grant support from BC Housing.

“It is about a $16 million project. We have a design for the building with 43 rental units planned. It is going through the rezoning process but Kelowna council has given their support,” Smithwick said.

Freedom’s Door previously proposed a dry recovery house facility for McCurdy Road three years ago but it attracted opposition from the immediate neighbours.

The grant application from BC Housing for that project was ultimately denied, and BC Housing subsequently went ahead with a facility of its own on the site, which just recently opened its doors to homeless clients.

“So in three years we’ve gone full circle…we’ve taken a step beyond being just a recovery facility to providing affordable housing for low-income people who need it.”