Homeless and addicted to drugs: Family uses son's death to raise awareness

David MacLellan wanted to have a house to call his own, to reunite with his estranged father and to witness his own mother get clean.

All of those dreams were ripped away when David died in March after an accidental drug overdose at the age of 23. Some of his old clothing sat on a table near a collage of pictures illustrating happier times of David's life at a celebration event on Sunday in Windsor.

"Every time he'd come by, he would ask me if I needed anything," said David's grandmother Francine MacLellan, while holding back tears. "From someone who lived on the streets and had nothing, [he] always offered anything."

Family and friends describe David as someone who was generous, full of heart and a hard worker.

Jason Viau/CBC

"David made such a huge impact on the streets, and the people of the streets — he had his own family," said Lisa Whitehead, one of the leaders of Windsor's chapter of Moms Stop the Harm. "He had a great heart; beautiful, beautiful heart and he was loved by so many."

Those traits shone through, Francine said, even during his darkest days of "shooting up" on heroin or ingesting fentanyl. His exact cause of death is still not officially known, as the family is waiting for the autopsy report.

"It seems like one mess after another with him, with no help in between." - Francine MacLellan, David's grandmother

Drug use started at 14

David's drug use began at the age of 14, but not with those narcotics. It started with cannabis. Francine said there were a few traumatizing experiences over his life that lead him down a dark path. David found both his grandmother and mother's boyfriend dead on separate occasions.

"It was too heavy for him to carry" said Francine. "It seems like one mess after another with him, with no help in between."

Problems with support services

There were occasions when David did reach out for help. But Francine said part of the problem is there's no communication between different support agencies.

"Every time he would tell his story, he would go back and have a new worker and tell his story again. He got tired of telling the same old story," said Francine.

Jason Viau/CBC

His story was shared countless times on Sunday, where people hoped to highlight the ongoing drug crisis and homelessness issue in the community. 

Whitehead regularly roams the streets to help people who are homeless and describes what she sees at times as "horrific."

"There are many, many, many young people who are still out there on the streets," she said.

What can be done?

More rallies, a boost in funding, increased political backing and better housing supports for the homeless — those are all things Whitehead said need to happen in order to begin addressing the issue.

Staff at the Downtown Mission deal with death and drug overdoses far too often, said Rukshini Ponniah-Goulin, director of development.

"It's devastating when someone passes away," she said. "[They've] come to know these individuals as friends, as confidants, as even sometimes supports for themselves."

Proceeds from David's celebration event will go directly to the Downtown Mission's Windsor Youth Centre.

Even after David's death, Francine said his old friends still stop by her home just to talk — people she hopes this money will help.

"I need them to know that they have someone," Francine said.