Tom Regehr is living proof that, with a little bit of self-love and outside care, anyone can turn their life around.
Recently hired by a small working group in Haliburton County committed to addressing issues surrounding homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse, Regehr has the kind of lived experience that enables him to connect with some of society’s most disenfranchised citizens. For 25 years, he has travelled across Ontario, positioning himself as a voice for the voiceless when it comes to understanding issues stemming from deep-routed trauma.
“I’ve had success because I’ve been in the exact same position,” Regehr told The Highlander in a recent interview. “A lot of times, people like me feel like they’ve been failed by the system. Left behind, with nowhere to turn… now I spend a lot of my time showing ‘us’ that there is a way back.”
After being exposed to multiple traumas during his childhood, Regehr turned to drugs and alcohol during his early adult life, seeking an escape from the memories that he said poisoned his mind. Based in Brampton, it wasn’t long before he found himself on the streets, where he lived for over six years.
“I was lost, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was so messed up, I went two years being completely street entrenched, meaning I didn’t see the inside of a building,” he said.
His salvation came in 1994 in the form of a stranger he struck up a random conversation with. He opened up about his struggles and was offered a place to stay for three months. It took some getting used to, and there were several setbacks, but Regehr eventually found his path to sobriety. He has been clean since 1995.
While adjusting to his new life, Regehr decided it wasn’t enough for him to simply find a job that helped him pay his way. He wanted to make a difference. In 1999, he was hired by a regional health organization serving Peel and Halton regions to run focus groups designed to “get the voice of the street” and help direct those with troubles towards supports.
While he’s honed his craft over the past two decades, the basis of Regehr’s work remains. He’s been working closely with people like Marg Cox in the Highlands to provide respite to some of the community’s most vulnerable people. That collaboration has led to the formation of Voice Haliburton, a new countywide support group designed to bring people of all backgrounds together in a supportive, non-judgmental setting to share their personal stories.
Voice will hold its inaugural meetings next week, Feb. 8 in Haliburton and Feb. 9 in Minden.
“When I was in early recovery, I had an opportunity like this to be with people who are also struggling and I think that experience has been one of the biggest factors in my success,” Regehr said. “Just being with other people, not being judged, not with huge, elaborate goals presented from the get-go. Usually there’s food available.
“The biggest thing is just showing people that, no matter what, they are not alone. They can find a sense of belonging,” he added.
He’s spent weeks in the community trying to connect with people, and tell them about Voice, but found Haliburton County is different from other communities he’s used to working with in the GTA.
Drug use rampant
“Drug use is rampant in the County. Class A substances, fentanyl and other opioids, they’re everywhere. The one thing that is unique in the County is the lack of a condensed geographical spot for the disenfranchised to gather, which can then give the impression that [homelessness and drug use] isn’t really a problem,” Regehr said.
He’s trying to gently push those that he has encountered towards his sessions and said others can do so by being realistic about what people should expect.
“One thing you don’t do is scare them with the idea of an easy, positive future, because there’s no such thing for people like me. Saying things like ‘just do this, you’ll be fine’ doesn’t work for us. It just alienates us further,” he said. “What you try to do is talk very broadly about what they want, what they’re working on… most people want to find that path back, sometimes they just don’t know it. They almost always have no idea how to do it.”
Following these introductory sessions, Regehr said he’s planning to run bi-weekly meetings in both of the County’s main urban areas. He wants to inspire change one person at a time.
The meeting in Haliburton is Feb. 8 at SIRCH from 6:30 to 9 p.m. and in Minden at the Lions Club from noon until 2:30. A virtual session has also been scheduled Feb. 13 via Zoom from 7 to 9 p.m. To learn more, visit voicehaliburton.weebly.com, or email email@example.com.