British Columbia

'He's terrified, he's outside, he's freezing': A mother's ordeal trying to help her son off the streets

A mother in Regina says she has run out of ways to help her 23-year-old son, who is living on the streets in Victoria.

Pam Sanderson says she has run out of ways to help her son who is living on the streets of Victoria, B.C.

Pam Sanderson and her son, Keith, at her home in December 2018. (Submitted by Pam Sanderson)

Pam Sanderson remembers when her son Keith Cathcart, her "little miracle baby," was born. 

"He was so small. He was like the tiniest little guy ... no bigger than my hand," Sanderson, 48, said from her home in Regina. 

Keith is now 23. Sanderson says a cognitive disability, mental health issues, and a drug addiction have led her son to spend the last few years cycling through jail and sleeping on the streets in Victoria.

"It's really difficult. It's terrifying. As a mother because you love your kids so much. And I get those phone calls in the middle of the night where he's terrified, he's outside, he's freezing," she said.

She says she's growing desperate trying to help. 

Pam Sanderson in her home, holding up a picture of her son, Keith Cathcart. (Submitted by Pam Sanderson)

In 2016, Sanderson witnessed one of his psychotic episodes and went to court to get him admitted against his will to a Regina hospital for a psychiatric assessment. Cathcart spent two-and-a-half months getting psychiatric treatment.

Sanderson says it was "wonderful" and for a brief period it felt like she had her son back.

But Cathcart soon returned to street drugs and jail. Eventually troubles with a gang forced Cathcart to flee to B.C., where he now lives on the streets. 

In 2018, Sanderson went to the Saskatchewan Legislative Building to complain about gaps in addictions and mental health services.

Sanderson says her son has fallen through the cracks in two provinces.

She says Cathcart currently refuses to seek help for what she says are serious mental health problems. Sanderson says he has been banned from certain shelters and soup kitchens due to his behaviour and violent outbursts. 

In an interview last week at Victoria's Centennial Square, Cathcart said he would appreciate getting housing support, but told CBC he doesn't have mental health issues. 

Parents can ask a judge to order a psychiatric assessment for their adult children, but parents don't have the power to force their adult children into treatment against their will for addictions or mental health issues. Sanderson would like to see a provision in the Mental Health Act that would give her the capacity to force her son to get support.

"There has to be something that provides a safety net for them," she said. "They can't ask for help because first of all they don't acknowledge that they need it."

Listen to the interview with Pam Sanderson and her son, Keith, on CBC's All Points West:

A common plight

Al Tysick, the founder of the outreach group the Victoria Dandelion Society, says Sanderson's story is not unique.

"I hear from families all the time," Tysick said, saying it is incredibly hard to watch someone spiral out of control without intervening. 

But as an adult, Tysick says, you're allowed to live your life as you choose. 

A statement from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions also acknowledged a fine balance between personal autonomy and providing health care.

"There are currently no considerations or provisions that would allow parents to put adult children in treatment," it read. 

However, it went on to point out the ministry is working to build a system of care that can meet these complex needs so that families have peace of mind that their loved ones are receiving effective compassionate care.

Listen to Al Tysick on CBC's All Points West:

Police as the only resort

In the meantime, Sanderson says the criminal justice system and the police seems to be the only resort left for her son. 

She says she will often call 911 when her son calls her distraught and disoriented.

"I don't know what else to do. There's no other services," she said. "I'm in touch with the VicPD and with the Saanich PD on a regular basis."

On Wednesday, the cycle seemed to begin again when Cathart was arrested and jailed for punching a shelter worker. 

With files from All Points West, Bonnie Allen