BY TONY MCLELLAN
This is the first of a two-part series.
As the soft-spoken man in the cherry red shirt talked in his calming, rhythmic voice, no one would guess the tragedies he has faced, the psychological terrors that he has overcome in his life. Throughout his youth he experienced the exact opposite treatment that any developing, impressionable young mind should. He suffered many subsequent hardships because of this stress, from a chronic drug abuse habit to spending nearly two decades on the streets of Ontario. All of this he managed to overcome, and he now tells a story that will educate some and give others hope.
This is the story of Randy Verdone, a survivor of sexual abuse, substance abuse and 14 years as a young homeless man.
“I learnt very young that I was a possession, that I was small, that I was there to please other people,” Verdone said of his childhood. “I wasn’t there for myself. I never learned how to put myself first in any situation and because of that, I ended up learning very young as well that no one was going to take care of me but me.” The sexual, physical and mental abuse that shaped Verdone’s early life was inflicted by the very people who should have been standing by his side defending him from it. Eventually, the stress that was part of every waking moment of his childhood climaxed in his 14 years of existence, and forced him to pursue a new form of perceived happiness.
“Around the age of 14, I started using cocaine just to hide from everything that was going on, and to erase it from my memory,” Verdone said. “That was my plan, anyway, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
After turning to drugs for relief, they would soon take over his life and become yet another obstacle in his already challenging existence. He eventually started to inject heroin intravenously for relief and escape into bliss. The false happiness would quickly turn his life into one devoid completely of happiness.
Eventually, Vedone was ejected from his home, and that was when he began what was to be one of the most eventful and difficult periods of his life as a homeless young man. Even though Verdone was now without a permanent home, he tried his best to not let it affect his education. Managing to first finish high school, Verdone applied to Sault College and was accepted into the computer engineering program. He completed the entire first year without any outside assistance.
“I worked to put myself through school and I lived in a tent in the school’s bush lot” Verdone said of his life as a homeless student. “I would go into the school, use the gym to shower in the morning, then go to my classes, go to work at night, then go back to my tent. I did this for a year.”
However, the drugs that Verdone took on a regular basis would pose a problem, and then become the eventual reason that he dropped out of post-secondary education.
As Verdone speaks of his time on the streets, he recounts the ways in which he managed to make the best of a situation that breaks the spirits of many, in addition to the multitude of challenges he faced on a daily basis.
“Those 14 years, although they have some good memories, are not days I’d want to go back to,” he said.
The life of a homeless person as recounted by Verdone is surprisingly different than that which is commonly portrayed by urban myth. He explains that in the wintertime, the core body temperature drops noticeably in people who don’t have shelter. This drop enables them to sleep outdoors in the dead of winter and not get ill from it, whereas the opposite happens if they go indoors for the night.
“Your skin will start to get a burning feeling and you’ll feel physically in pain,” Verdone said. “That sudden change to warmth doesn’t actually help you. It messes things up.”
Sleeping outdoors, especially in the winter, still holds many risks for the homeless person, even if they’re accustomed to living in the harsh conditions. Sometimes, the risk comes from other people.
“I remember one winter Friday night I fell asleep in my sleeping bag. It had been raining the previous night, so it drenched me,” Verdone said. “I woke up and my sleeping bag was frozen solid. When I came to, I found a group of people, probably from the surrounding bars who were surrounding me. These people were also urinating all over me while I was sleeping. This was stuff that we, as homeless people, lived with,” he said. “I don’t want to say this is typical, but it does happen more often than anyone would want to admit.”
This is just one of many incidents that Verdone experienced first-hand as a homeless man. He also had people try to fight him out of the blue in the name of amusement, or those who would lead him somewhere with the promise of money or free food and leave him stranded. Combined with the issues he already had with drugs and emotional stress, the homeless life forced Verdone into a deeper pit of anxiety and despair.
“With people treating me like this, it just reinforced all that negative thought that I had in the first place, that people would just use and abuse me,” Verdone said. “I didn’t want that so I just withdrew even more.”
Verdone rarely got sick, despite living without professional health care for most of his time spent on the streets. He was able to accomplish such a feat through his intimate knowledge of the urban landscape, from the wild plants that could be used as food to the proper techniques used in dumpster-diving. Verdone also shared his knowledge of panhandling, and how it involved much more than simply begging for cash.
“For three years I sat at the 7-11 at the corner of King and University,” he said. “I would actually put in an eight-hour shift. It was my job, the only work that I could do. People say that panhandling’s bad, but I’m here to tell you that it’s just as much work as any other job. There’s a lot of mental and emotional work that has to be done.”
Verdone compares panhandling to telemarketing, in that “telemarketing focuses on selling something, and receiving something. Panhandling is the exact same,” Verdone said. “When you give a panhandler money, it makes you feel good inside, and you can go to bed with a smile on your face, and the panhandler gets money. It works out for everyone.”
Verdone explained that a smart panhandler, one who wants to stick primarily to one spot to conduct his business, would often develop a symbiotic relationship with the store or business he would set up outside of.
“I kept people from robbing the store,” Verdone said. “If there were fights, I’d break them up. I would clean up the parking lot after the party crowd left, and other small tasks like that. In exchange, the manager of the 7-11 would let me sit there at night and panhandle. It helped the manager, the employees and me. Everyone was happy.”
Verdone has been drug-free for over five years, and in possession of a home for even longer than that. After being a homeless drug addict for many years, he eventually managed to summon the courage and strength to go into and commit to rehab and therapy. Over a lengthy, intensely focused period of time, Verdone cast off the chains that once restrained his success.
“Once I had got over the feelings I had as a child, as an adult I was able to reclaim that control,” Verdone said. “In claiming that control and power, I was able to adjust my thinking and get some self-confidence and start building on that. Today I’m doing excellent because of this. I don’t have those problems anymore. All I can tell other people who have gone through this is to go out, get help and take that power back.”
Next week: A look at Randy Verdone’s business, Peering Your Peers.