I often get asked, why I feel so passionate about ending homelessness. I always answer that I am passionate about this fixable problem, but have never publicly shared where it all started. I attend national conferences on ending homelessness, follow podcasts, listen to experts, and support the homeless anyway I can in my community, but I have never shared my deep down, true, "why." Today, I am here to share my story.
National Conference on Ending Homelessness, Hamilton 2018
People ask if I have ever experienced homelessness, and the answer is, no. I have been very blessed to always have had a warm place to put my head that I can call my own. I have been surrounded by loving family and friends, and there has never been a point in my life that I haven't felt safe or unsure where I would rest my head that night. However, I have watched first hand how homelessness can quickly become a reality.
This story begins on October 7, 1985, when the most beautiful baby boy was born. In a home with 2 daughters, this blue eyed, baby boy was a happy surprise. My gorgeous brother, Lucas Harrison Austin was the missing piece to complete our family, and now, as my Dad wrote in a poem, "we numbered five."
Lucas, age 1.
Lucas was born with very serious health conditions, but he fought through it, and survived life threatening surgeries before the age of 1. He was a fighter, and a tough little cookie, but life dealt him a tough hand from the moment he was born. As a family we were forced to ask: "why? why him?" but he made it through and continued to grow healthy, go to school, graduate high school, have deep friendships, experience love, and travel the world.
Lucas age 25, India.
On the outside, Lucas had it all. He had incredible friends, was extremely smart, a deep critical thinker, well travelled, exceptional at any chosen hobby, and very handsome. He was kind and charismatic. He walked into a room and everyone turned. He was deeply sensitive and his language was love. He was on the Dean's list at Dalhousie Architecture school, and he was on his way to becoming an architect! Lucas was the "whole package". He was a good brother, a loving son, and a passionate uncle.
Lucas, age 28
Lucas' interior, sadly, did not match his exterior. Although never diagnosed, we believe Lucas was depressed, anxious, and suffered deeply from mental illness. He showed symptoms of poor mental well-being through his adult life, but it was so difficult to identify clearly because of his charming personality, deep intelligence and engaged social life. But, I knew something wasn't right, and pushed too hard at times for answers.
I believe Lucas always had poor coping strategies, and maybe this came from a mixture of being the baby boy who almost died at birth, and was overly protected. Maybe is was part of his own personality at birth; maybe the bullying he received as a child left deep scars. Maybe the death of our father in 2013 was more painful than he led us to believe. Maybe, it was a combination of everything. But, Lucas had a deep hole inside and started to fill that sadness with drugs. First it was pretty harmless drugs, then party drugs, and then they became highly addictive drugs.
Lucas, age 28, one of the last photos of him
Within 8 months of Lucas using drugs to numb his pain, he had lost everything. He was kicked out of his apartment, his friends no longer trusted him, he was asked to leave architecture school, and his family was frustrated and exhausted. We were spending our weeks answering desperate calls from friends and from Lucas who was spinning out of control. We were in out of hospitals, calling help lines, and pleading for help from anyone who could give it. We were calling the police begging them to arrest him just to get him to stop using. We called doctors trying to get him committed to the mental health ward. We were breaking down doors and fighting drugs out of his hands.
The saddest part was, we knew Lucas didn't want to use drugs. He wanted the life he dreamt for himself. We knew he was trying to get clean, but the addiction held too deep of a grip. At one point, he even checked himself into the mental heath hospital and spent 2 weeks there. However, his anxiety grew out of control, and he felt so unloved inside, that he felt he had no other choice other than to numb his pain.
One night in a parking lot after he relapsed, and I was so angry, he told me that he knew what we was doing. He knew he could die. He knew he was hurting us. He just couldn't handle the deep, dark pain, and he needed to black out so he didn't feel it anymore. There in that car that night, I saw my infant brother once again, fighting an unfair fight, but this time he was losing the battle. My Mom, sister, his girlfriend, and I collectively tried to fight for him with every fibre in our bodies, but we just couldn't win.
This is the last photo I had taken with Lucas, 2 months before he passed away.
On November 15, 2014, after being missing for 2 days, I received the worst phone call of my life. I was driving to an event, and my husband asked me to come home. But I could tell by the quiver in his voice, that it was the phone called I feared I would receive, but never actually believed I would... he had relapsed one last fatal time. I turned around, made it to my Mom's and looked at the woman who had just lost her son to an unfair battle. We picked up my sister a day later from the airport and saw a sadness that I knew mirrored my own. A loss so profound had struck our family and not one of us knew how we would continue. What would life look like without the blue eyed boy who challenged our own world views? Who would make the thoughtful, creative gifts every year at Christmas? Who would smile at us and melt our hearts?
The family that numbered 5, now numbered 3. The Austin family: 2012
My sister, mom and I are all mothers and we needed to pick up the pieces and navigate through the grief. We all decided we weren't going to lose our own battle and we were going to fight. We had to make a different choice, and that choice needed to be living a fulfilled life. For the past 4 years, we have all been balancing joy and tremendous grief at the same time. Deep sadness knocks us down when we least expect it and punches us where it hurts the most. Some days are almost unbearable, and debilitating. But other days are happy, amazing, and beautiful. These happy days exist because we were so lucky to have Lucas in our lives for 29 incredible years.
Lucas never lived on the street, because my Mother took him in, one last time. But, I witnessed for the first time, how someone so quickly can lose everything and become homeless. I realized that everyone has a story and is fighting an invisible battle we know nothing about. I discovered that there was so much pain in this world, and it is our job to spread love and help those hurting. I decided in my grief to follow the lesson Lucas was always teaching us, to "lead with our hearts."
In 2015, I started My Home Apparel, a business built on sharing stories, helping those who need it most, and spreading kindness. After experiencing everything Lucas went through, I began looking at people on the streets, experiencing homeless very different. I discovered they too have a story, that needs to be heard and a kind hand extended to them.
I feel I found my purpose, which is to be an entrepreneur that is dedicated to making an impact. Lucas showed me that life is so precious, that we can't waste a second, to live this life with compassion, and let our hearts be our compass. Lucas gave me these tremendous gifts.
I know Lucas would be proud of my Mom, sister and I for living out our happiness and chasing joy. I know he is with me everyday and cheering me on when things get tough. I know he is encouraging me to share my story, and help share the stories of those who can't. I know he is reaching out, and making this world a better place by sending messages of love and kindness. I know he is telling us all to hug our friends and family, and embrace strangers. He is continuing to lead us through this amazing journey, as only Lucas could.
May you all lead with your heart,
My Home Apparel
This blog post is written in memory of Lucas Harrison Austin.