A small but heavy-looking bull’s skull hangs on a thick, black strand around Johnny Folsum’s neck. He’s sitting at the table in his bachelor apartment, talking about the past.
“I was in prison for attempted murders and bank robbery,” he says.
Folsum regrets what he did, but doesn’t consider himself a monster.
“I just look at myself as being a man, a human being that made mistakes, that was f----d up and made mistakes,” he says.
Experts will tell you there’s a strong connection between trauma, mental illness, addictions, poverty, homelessness and crime.
People inside the Wiseman Centre — a St. John’s shelter run by the Salvation Army — will tell you they live it.
There are six homeless shelters in St. John’s.
The Wiseman Centre also has supportive housing units, like the one where Folsum lives.
For the first time in a long time, Folsum feels like his life is turning around.
“I heart ya” is tattooed across fingers that grip a cup of coffee, bringing it to his lips with a shaky hand.
“The big issue for me is my addiction problems,” he says. “I did 21 years in prison, and I’m on a 10-year LTSO — long-term supervision order — which is a 10-year parole.”
That means he can’t even think about touching a drink.
“If I relapse into drugs or booze at all, I’m right back into a federal penitentiary for probably four or five years,” he says.
I can hear the fear in his voice.
Folsum’s hard time includes three four-year terms in federal prisons, halfway houses, and provincial jails, including Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s.
Booze and drugs are what got him locked up each time. He smoked his first joint when he was 12. He grew up in the small, isolated Newfoundland coastal town of Ramea, where he says everyone drank and partied.
Unlike his buddies, Folsum never had dreams for his future or a sense of responsibility, and his life veered down a very different path. Those first joints and beers turned into “just about every kind of drug” — and a lot of them.
He spent eight years homeless in Halifax, a period of his life that he calls “bleak.”
“Doing anything for a fix,” he says. “Not being able to work, ‘cause you’re so f----d up. Not being able to work, what are you left with? You’re left with stealing.”
Folsum doesn’t get into the details of his attempted murder convictions.
“I’ve been told I’m manic depressive. So if they tell me I am, I guess I am.”
He doesn’t seem that convinced.
“I’ve been taking pills for it now for just about 20 years.”
Over on the windowsill of his small apartment, there’s a reminder of a time long gone. Tiny, bright plastic farm animals are lined up just so.
Folsum once worked on a farm in P.E.I., where he had a girlfriend, a trailer and a stable life.
“Everything was under control, all the hard drugs were gone, just smoking pot and drinking,” he says wistfully.
But, “something went wrong,” and years later, he’s still not sure what or why.
“And I did a crime and I paid for it. I paid for it dearly. I don’t look at my life, my time in prison as a big loss. That’s not the big loss.
“The loss is I lost my trailer, I lost my woman, I lost my life,” Folsum says, shaking his head.
“I did life, I did life, it cost me my life. And that’s what crime did for me, right?”
Four harmonicas sit on the table in front of him, along with his cigarettes, salt and pepper shakers, a couple of trinkets, and a placemat with a photo of a harbour somewhere, water sparkling blue.
Folsum came to the Wiseman Centre when his most recent stint in a halfway house was up, just over a year ago. He had roughly $850 a month of income support from the provincial government — but he also had a criminal record. Combined, he was looking at a cheap, no-questions-asked room in a shared house, called a bedsitter.
“Society is very unforgiving of criminals,” he tells me.
So many doors are closed for him; he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to get a job again.
Folsum is blunt about the merry-go-round he had been living on for years, except he knew he had to get off of it.
“It’s impossible for somebody to come out of prison, and to go into a halfway house, and then to be put in a bedsitting room and make it,” he says.
“I consider myself very lucky… to be here today in a pretty secure environment, for me to be able to write and play my music and to be left alone when I want to be left alone, and to socialize when I want to socialize.”
He almost sounds surprised with his new life, his new self.
Folsum started writing poetry in jail, and now uses writing, music and swimming to feel good, the way he once used drugs and alcohol. He says it’s “a holier kind of high.”
At 53 — finally enjoying a stable life — he knows what he would say to 12-year-old Johnny in Ramea:
“You think you’re going to miss out if you don’t do what you’re doing now. But you’re going to miss out on so much. Which is what I did, right? All the simple things about living a simple life with a woman and a job and stuff like that. That’s the things that are real.”
On the edge of downtown St. John’s, the Salvation Army Wiseman Centre gives homeless and vulnerable people a roof over their heads and a hot meal on their plates.
That may either be for the short term, in its emergency shelter units (16 for men, four for women), or for the long term, in 10 supportive housing spots on the third floor — where Johnny Folsum lives.
Housing 30 people at any one time, it’s usually full.
People can show up with nothing — fresh out of jail or hospital, or homeless for any number of reasons. Many of them live with addictions. Complex mental health issues are common.
Staff at the Wiseman Centre will also clothe them, and connect them with on-site counselling, a social worker and spiritual guidance.
They’ll help people get set up with everything they need to move forward in their lives: an ID, monthly funding from the province’s Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour, and an affordable place to live with furniture, dishes and bedding.
No matter where people come from, no matter what they’ve done, they’re safe at the Wiseman Centre.
That sense of security largely comes from executive director Maj. Lloyd George, who’s been in charge for the last 10 years.
“The Wiseman Centre was established to meet the needs of our fellow human beings,” George says in his office on the main floor of the heritage building.
Funded by the provincial government and private donations, the centre has looked after close to 1,600 people — or clients, as the staff call them.
“Our philosophy here is that everyone is first of all persons. They’re all people like you and I. Because of circumstances in their lives, they ended up here,” he says.
Staff at the Wiseman Centre always call their clients by name. It’s one way to prove that they matter; that self-worth is important.
George doesn’t think much of labels.
“It’s unfortunate that we live in a society that people carry labels. Some are labelled alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes,” he says.
“From our perspective, they’re persons first.”
Always smiling, George continues.
“If you treat someone as a person first, they respond quite differently… Society places people on different rungs of the societal ladder.
“But I believe God doesn’t have a ladder; we’re all on the same rung in the sight of God.”
George has seen things at the Wiseman Centre change a lot over the years.
“In the early days, we had people who were working, who had some issues with families or issues with some mild addictions, and they needed a place to stay while they were working through those issues in their lives,” he says.
“They needed very little support; it was just a place to stay at the time.”
But over the past five years, he’s noticed a stark difference.
“The Waterford [mental health hospital] is sending more people out into the community, and it wasn’t really working in some instances in the community, so they found their way here.
“We’re dealing with more complex issues with people. But they’re people like you and I. They’re great people,” George says, beaming.
He’s talking about people who have had some traumatic experiences, and who have even hurt people.
Not every story is a success, which can take its toll on everyone. Some clients will come through the Wiseman Centre for help several times, but they will never be treated like failures.
“You’re never a failure until you give up,” is the motto George maintains.
Many clients go on to live happy, productive lives either in the Wiseman Centre or somewhere else.
But even if they don’t, George says it’s worth it just to know that — for a period of time — their addictions were curbed, and they had food on the table and a safe place to sleep. Things were good.
That’s what keeps the staff at the Wiseman Centre going.
“They leave an impression with you. They leave a part of themselves with you, even when they leave. Because it’s not all sad memories, there’s good, happy memories here,” he says.
One person who’s left an impression on the major is Aaron Walters, 55.
He left home in Rocky Harbour, on Newfoundland’s west coast, when he was 17, moving to Ontario for a while. He had trouble holding down a job. His alcohol addiction didn’t help.
To this day, Walters doesn’t know what head trauma he suffered as a child.
“We were not a family that spoke a lot,” he says.
His issues culminated when he was in his 20s — he vandalized some property and was put in front of a judge.
“The RCMP brought me to the Waterford. Mainly because I exploded in court, and I said, ‘OK let’s go to the Waterford.’ That was the beginning of the determining factor,” he says.
“I didn’t want to be obligated to be taking medication or to admit the fact that I’m mentally ill. That’s a very difficult thing to comply with.”
He’s been at the Wiseman Centre for almost nine years. The comfort of his bachelor apartment is a stark contrast to the life he once lived.
“I have lived in apartments that should not have been rented to me because a human being didn’t deserve to be put in such a place,” he tells me, noting that poverty is a difficult thing to deal with.
“I’ve been in bedsitters, and I’ve seen people who’ve lived in bedsitters, and all they’ve got there is a bed. Some guys only got a mattress. It’s a breeding ground for crime, abuse of drugs and alcohol, animosity."
“What I’ve got here, I’ve got a private washroom, private room. Extra money, free telephone, laundry, television, free bus pass," Walters says.
"Much better than a bedsitter.”
Walters now has the freedom to do as he pleases.
That includes burying his nose in books.
He says he has a strong desire to know who he is, so he reads to find the words to explain it, something that’s helped him talk to his psychiatrist.
“I would not be as mentally well as I am if not for this place,” he tells me.
Watch the full documentary here:
For Aaron Walters and Johnny Folsum, and others, there’s a name for the Wiseman Centre’s supportive housing floor: “home.” Many others, though, will move into residences outside these red-clad walls.
Housing co-ordinator Lana Reid helps them get there.
“Knowing that a client goes into a place, that we get it furnished for them, that it’s a safe and secure place — for me, that’s great,” she says. “It’s like Christmas.”
Reid checks out potential apartments before bringing a client to see them.
“I sort of think, if it’s a place that I would consider living [in], then it would be suitable for the client,” she says.
That often means bedsitters are out.
But the shared houses can often be the only places clients can afford on the roughly $850 a month they get from government, or are the only landlords who’ll rent to them without references and clear criminal records.
Reid says she looks for places with rent of about $600, or up to $700 if utilities are included.
“Anything beyond that, clients can’t afford [it],” she says matter-of-factly.
These days, finding those spots in St. John’s is a challenge.
“There was a time at the centre when people were moving really fast. Now, we have a tendency to have clients for a little longer, but it’s because it’s harder to find affordable, suitable housing,” she says.
The average stay in the temporary shelter is about a month, while they line up the pieces for a transition out of homelessness.
Over the past year, Reid has built a network of landlords willing to work with her to help clients move into their own homes.
They are not typical landlords. They won’t discriminate against people coming out of prison or living with mental health and addictions issues, and they will sometimes drop the price or waive the damage deposit.
“They know what clients are looking for,” Reid says.
“If an individual’s going into a place that’s suitable, they’re obviously going to stay there longer, so there’s less swinging doors.”
In between bites of a sandwich and fries in the dining room, Craig Strickland and Jody White sing the cook’s praises.
“Good cook, hey Fraser? One of the best cooks on the island,” White says.
Strickland — who’s from the small community of Lamaline, on the Burin Peninsula — endorses his buddy’s review.
“Homelessness is bad, period. But it’s good to have a place like this. I’ve been all over Canada and this is the best place ever, it really is. They look after you, good staff,” he says.
Every inch of this building is cared for — the place is pristine, cleaner than our hospitals.
“In Ontario, if you go to a shelter, you’re put in a gymnasium with about 300 people, and you could wake up with knives in your back, your stuff gone. It’s horrific.”
Strickland and White are both staying in the temporary shelter on the second floor.
White, who’s from Salmon Cove, a small town in Conception Bay North, carries on with Strickland and other clients as if they were old friends.
But White says he only knew a few of the guys before he showed up here. He knew them from jail.
“Met ‘em years ago, in the Pen. I was only in there 90 days, two years ago. Caught with weed.”
He’s twisting his keys between his fingers, with two keychains from Narcotics Anonymous (NA): a white one for 24 hours clean, an orange one for 30 days. He got the 30-day keychain the night before; it happens to match how long he’s been at the Wiseman Centre.
“I had nowhere else to go. I was homeless,” says White, who was hooked on the powerful painkiller oxycodone for a decade.
“It was just an addiction first. Having a scattered sniff with a few people, then it turned into every day, then it turned into 10 times a day. Just took my life over,” he says.
After relapsing and going downtown to party “on a pile of drugs,” White lost everything he had. He found his way to the Wiseman Centre, and to NA.
“That’s the type of program you need to be in, in order to get help ... People that don’t understand it just thinks you’re a drug addict,” he says.
“What you need when you’re an addict or you’re down like that, you need support … that’s hard to get. But here, it’s not.”
Art Callahan, a retired teacher, knows many of the Wiseman Centre residents well. He takes them to their medical appointments, or to get groceries. When there’s conflict between the residents, he helps sort things out. He’s there to give them a hand with whatever might come up.
“It’s not a high degree of support, but it’s an important degree of support,” says Callahan, who’s the dedicated support worker for Walters, Folsum and the other men living in the centre’s third floor supportive housing units.
Callahan, who is also a passionate proponent of supportive housing, explains that in the past, people were given accommodations — but without the right help.
The consequences, he says, can often be predicted.
“Too many of these people now, sadly, end up in HMP. They end up on the street,” he says. “Because when we deinstitutionalized, we didn’t provide all the necessary supports.”
Now, with secure housing, they’re doing well.
“This is not just a place to stay, it’s your home. And that’s really nice and I think very important to these men,” Callahan says.
“I think it’s like a family. We have all types of families, but I think we have our Wiseman Centre third floor family as well.”
When people come to the Wiseman Centre, they often need more than shelter.
One of the people they will quickly meet is Carolyn Reid, who supervises the social workers there.
Who comes looking for help?
“It could be anybody. It could be you, it could be me,” she says.
“If relationships break down, if there’s an issue that people can’t pay the rent ... people need somewhere to stay,” Reid says.
“There’s no kind of homeless person, as one set kind of people. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and it could be any of us experiencing that at any time.”
For many who turn up at the Wiseman Centre, she says, it’s their first time experiencing homelessness.
The first time they’re not connected to anything in their lives.
That’s where she and the rest of the staff come in.
“We want to connect them to what’s available to help with homelessness, mental health, addictions, even if it’s just income support from the Department of Advanced Education and Skills,” she says in her office.
Reid (no relation to Lana Reid) juggles a number of challenges in her job, but she says wait lists are the most challenging.
They’re a constant, “even when somebody is ready for addictions treatment or ready for maybe, right now in this moment, going into detox, and the beds are full,” Reid says.
Still, Reid sees progress in terms of tackling homelessness, mental health and addictions issues. There are more supportive housing units opening up in the city and there is more co-ordination between different organizations that are helping homeless people.
But it can take a long time to get someone into a suitable home, or to get them the help they need.
Reid says whenever a client says ‘thank you,’ or talks about how nervous they may have been to go to the Wiseman Centre and how welcomed and supported they felt — that’s what makes the hard days worth it.
“I always say, ‘Once a Wiseman Centre client, always a client,’” she says.
Back in Johnny Folsum’s room, it’s getting close to lunch. The routine of three meals a day is something that residents weren’t used to.
He plays his harmonica. It’s a simple activity, one that relaxes him and sets his mind at ease. Not that long ago, he turned to drugs for that very reason.
But that is in the past.
“I set the circus down,” he says.
“My life was a circus. I set it down, the system set it down for me or I set it down or whatever. But the circus is down.
“And that’s where I want it to stay.”
Producer: Jen White
Reporter: Meghan McCabe
Videographers: Bruce Tilley, Sherry Vivian, Paul Pickett
Video Editor: Paul Pickett
Text Editor: John Gushue
Executive Producer: Peter Gullage
Special thanks to the Salvation Army Wiseman Centre staff and clients