Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poet, father lost inside a sniff rag

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Benny Meeseewaypetung has two immediate problems.

He's sitting splayed out in the middle of Henry Street, forcing a yellow semi-truck to slow down and carefully manoeuvre around him.

And he's removed a shoe and one brown sock, exposing his foot and twig-like ankle to one of the first really cold days of the year.

As many chronic solvent users do, Meeseewaypetung is trying to rip off the top of his sock to use it as a sniff rag. His worn white runner sits beside him, along with his only remaining aluminum crutch. He is droopy-eyed and drooling.


Meeseewaypetung, slight and stiff and lost in a dirty oversized ski jacket, is the kind of guy people walk around on the way to the Centennial Concert Hall, preparing themselves for the inevitable panhandle and holding their breath against the waft of solvents coming off him.

"You started sniffing in the middle of the road, Benny," says Downtown BIZ outreach worker Dustin Schollenberg with gentle reproach as he arrives on the scene.

"Help me get your shoes on," says safety programs supervisor Wraylynn Black as a car waits patiently for her and Schollenberg to set Meeseewaypetung on his feet again.

As the red shirts chatter to him, get his shoes sorted and check his sleeves for hidden sniff rags, Meeseewaypetung becomes more lucid. Acute sniff highs last for only 10 or 15 minutes, and the Downtown BIZ workers will stay with him while it passes so they know he's safe.

A few minutes later, in a soft voice and for no reason in particular, Meeseewaypetung recites an impromptu version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Meeseewaypetung says he is a poet himself, which turns out to be true. A few years ago, friends, including those at the Main Street Project where Meeseewaypetung lives, helped him publish a small anthology of poems, mostly about love gone wrong. Meeseewaypetung often sells them for $5, the price of a few ounces of solvents on the street.

Longtime friend Father Gary Killen, the Roman Catholic chaplain at St. Boniface Hospital, says Meeseewaypetung writes snippets of verse on toilet paper, cigarette packages or old grocery receipts he picks up downtown.

Killen has known Meeseewaypetung for more than 10 years through the Manitoba Native Legbracers Association, a group that helps disadvantaged disabled people get access to orthotic leg braces. Meeseewaypetung is the group's former president, Killen its executive director.

"He's a totally honest person," Killen says.

"He has that sense of ethics and honesty. I could leave a $50 bill around, and Benny wouldn't touch it."

When Killen first met Meeseewaypetung, he was pushing a shopping cart through the downtown to keep himself upright because solvents had damaged his ability to control the muscles and nerves in his legs.

Meeseewaypetung has tried leg braces -- they helped his mobility but got wrecked within a week on the street. Now, he makes do with crutches, but often misplaces those, too.

Originally from Grassy Narrows in Ontario, Meeseewaypetung's parents were alcoholics -- not abusive, but neglectful. Meeseewaypetung and three of his brothers were taken into foster care, eventually landing with a family that lived near Detroit, Mich. Killen says the family was good to Meeseewaypetung, even taking him on trips to New York City and Chicago. But in his teens, he returned to Grassy Narrows, eventually moving in with a girlfriend.

When he was 17 or 18, his solvent use became so extreme it landed him in hospital in Kenora, blind and paralyzed in the legs. At the time, he was sniffing leaded gasoline on the reserve, largely out of boredom, Killen says. He got cleaned up and his sight returned, but his legs have always given him problems.

Meeseewaypetung says he became homeless after a girlfriend kicked him out for cheating. Today, he lives at the Main Street Project's Mainstay residences, where he has his own room and access to a computer, giving him some stability.

He gets about $200 a month from social assistance but often either spends it all on welfare day or loses it to thieves.

Most days he roams the 10 square blocks around the Main Street Project, stopping in at the Lighthouse for afternoon soup, often accompanied by Sophie Morris, his girlfriend, another solvent user.

"She's ONE of my girlfriends," he corrects.

Asked whether he has kids, Meeseewaypetung says he has four daughters, including his oldest, Felicia. He doesn't see them very often, he says, as his face squeezes with emotion.

Killen says he's resigned to the possibility that his friend will remain a sniff addict for the rest of his life. He goes into rehab a couple of times a year, but it doesn't stick. And he's not hugely motivated to get clean. His life and his friends are on the street.

Last year, Meeseewaypetung says, he spent time in the Migisi alcohol and drug treatment centre in Kenora. His most vivid memory was an invasion of deer in town.

"The deer were so calm you could touch them," he says, reaching out his hand.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2011 J3

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