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How this Hamilton man overcame addiction and homelessness to reunite his family

Daniel Schutt said he is sharing his story to help others avoid and escape drug addiction and homelessness. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)
Daniel Schutt said he is sharing his story to help others avoid and escape drug addiction and homelessness. (Bobby Hristova/CBC - image credit)

Daniel Schutt sits near his wife Sarah Schutt in a warm living room inside a townhome in Fort Erie, Ont.

He leans forward in his chair, sticks his right leg out and pulls his pant leg up, revealing a scar that cuts through his colourful tattoos.

The scar is a permanent reminder of the life he and Sarah managed to escape — a life on the streets of Hamilton he describes as being consumed by addiction and surrounded by violence.

"I've never felt this good in all of my adult life," Daniel said.

He and Sarah are sharing their story to help people understand drug addiction, homelessness and how they left it all behind.

The path to addiction

Daniel, 42, said he started using drugs around 20 years ago after a break-up with his former fiancée who was pregnant with his daughter.

Sarah, 41, said her drug use stemmed from prescribed painkillers for an incurable chronic medical condition that makes her bones brittle and has forced her into more surgical rooms than she can count.

They met in 2004 in Narcotics Anonymous and were thriving. They started living together and had three children, but things went downhill.

Sarah's health got worse. Daniel said he lost his business in the 2008 recession and lost contact with his daughter.

In 2015, they both started abusing painkillers after a string of family deaths.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

Two weeks before Christmas in 2018, a fire destroyed their home in Hamilton.

Daniel and Sarah wound up in separate shelters while their sons — today aged 11, 14 and 18 — eventually ended up with Daniel's father in the Niagara region.

That's when they met fentanyl.

"We didn't use fentanyl until we both believed our kids were gone. It was irreparable," Daniel said.

"I'd put every drug you could think of in a spoon without a care."

'You're either a lion or gazelle out there'

Daniel said he overdosed 18 times in one month from the toxic drug supply on the streets.

Data from the city's website show opioid overdoses have been on the rise, from 450 in 2018 to 814 in 2022.

So far, there have been at least 103 suspected overdoses or drug poisonings in 2023.

At the same time, shelters haven't been able to keep up with the number of people living rough.

The city's website states there were 1,509 people experiencing homelessness in December 2022 but only 515 shelter beds in the city.

Daniel and Sarah said while space is an issue, so is safety. Daniel said he slept with a hatchet in shelters to protect himself.

Suspected overdoses in Hamilton per year from 2018 to 2022

Living on the street isn't safe either, which Daniel said led him to do unthinkable things.

"The violence is pretty bad. You're either a lion or gazelle out there," he said. "I'd take meth to stay up so I could work to get opiates so I could sleep a bit and the cycle would start again."

Daniel said he and Sarah also resorted to shoplifting from big box stores to try and survive.

In December, 2019 they started visiting a methadone clinic to help pull themselves out of the vicious cycle.

Chance to get kids back was 'enough to want to try'

It was early in 2020 when CBC Hamilton first spoke with Daniel, who shared then how restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic kept the couple separated at different shelters and his fears over long-term recovery and the ability to reunite his family.

Shortly after however, Daniel said he and Sarah were able to stay together at a hotel, part of a program run by Mission Services for people experiencing homelessness.

Dr. Jennifer Brasch, the lead for addictions psychiatry at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, worked with Daniel and helped him on the path to recovery.

She said the hotel stay was key for the Schutts because it's "extremely difficult" for people to overcome addiction if they're sleeping on the streets or in open areas of the shelter, without privacy or safety.

Daniel and Sarah echoed those thoughts.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

"In the hotel … there are drug deals going on right in front of you. It's all the same stuff that keeps you trapped in there —except that we could lock ourselves away," Daniel said.

The other important aspect that the hotel stay provided, according to the Schutts, was access to a phone.

Staff from the Children's Aid Society could have direct contact with Daniel and Sarah, which gave them a pathway to reunite with their kids.

"The big thing was getting a chance to have our kids back," Daniel said. "It was enough to want to try."

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

Over time, they earned back the trust of their family, left the hotel and rented affordable housing with the help of Daniel's dad.

Daniel eventually got a job building recycling bins. Daniel and Sarah moved into a house in Fort Erie with Daniel's dad and their three sons in November 2020.

Daniel was also able to start communicating again with his daughter, now 19, and said he helped her pay for college.

Barriers for people still on the street

Brasch said barriers other people living rough face include not having supportive friends or family and not having access to methadone rather than using street drugs which could be a lethal cocktail of substances.

She said most people don't end up with a good outcome like Daniel and his family, with only a quarter of people winding up with a similar happy ending.

Wwhat people can learn from Daniel and his family, Brasch said, is the importance of having huge incentives to get clean and stay clean.

Bobby Hristova/CBC
Bobby Hristova/CBC

"They have obligations and commitments and they have a good life. They don't need to escape from reality," she said.

"We need to find ways to do that for people who are still using ... People can leave the world of drug-use behind when staying in reality is better than being intoxicated.

I wish we were doing a better job at that as a community."

Daniel and Sarah's message is simple — don't give up.

"Watching my kids thrive, that's my new high," Sarah said.