How this Hamiltonian overcame addiction and homelessness to reunite his family
Daniel Schutt sits next to his wife Sarah Schutt in a warm living room in a townhouse in Fort Erie, Ontario.
He leans forward in his chair, sticks out his right leg and pulls up his pant leg, revealing a scar cutting through his colorful tattoos.
The scar is an enduring reminder of the life he and Sarah escaped – a life on the streets of Hamilton that he describes as consumed by addiction and surrounded by violence.
“I’ve never felt so good in my entire adult life,” Daniel said.
He and Sarah share their story to help people understand drug addiction, homelessness and how they left it all behind.
The road to addiction
Daniel, 42, said he started using drugs about 20 years ago after a split from his former fiancée, who was pregnant with his daughter.
Sarah, 41, said her drug use stemmed from prescribed painkillers for an incurable chronic condition that is making her bones brittle and has forced her into more operating rooms than she can count.
They met at Narcotics Anonymous in 2004 and blossomed. They started living together and had three children, but things went downhill.
Sarah’s health deteriorated. Daniel said he lost his business in the 2008 recession and lost contact with his daughter.
In 2015, after a series of family deaths, they both began abusing painkillers.
Two weeks before Christmas 2018, a fire destroyed their home in Hamilton.
Daniel and Sarah ended up in separate living quarters, while their sons – now aged 11, 14 and 18 – eventually ended up with Daniel’s father in the Niagara region.
That’s when they met fentanyl.
“We didn’t use fentanyl until we both believed our kids were dead. It was irreparable,” Daniel said.
“I would put any drug imaginable in a spoon without a care.”
“You’re either a lion or a gazelle out there”
Daniel said he overdosed 18 times in one month from the toxic street drug supply.
Data from the city’s website shows opioid overdoses rose from 450 in 2018 to 814 in 2022.
So far in 2023 there have been at least 103 suspected drug overdoses or poisonings.
At the same time, shelters have not been able to keep up with the number of people living in harsh environments.
The city’s website said 1,509 people were homeless as of December 2022, but only 515 shelters in the city.
Daniel and Sarah said while space is an issue, so is safety. Daniel said he slept in shelters with a hatchet to protect himself.
Suspected overdoses in Hamilton per year from 2018 to 2022
Life on the street isn’t safe either, which Daniel said made him do unthinkable things.
“The violence is pretty bad. You’re either a lion or a gazelle out there,” he said. “I took meth to stay awake so I could work, to get opiates so I could get some sleep and the cycle would start all over again.”
Daniel said he and Sarah also resorted to shoplifting from major department stores to try to survive.
In December 2019, they began attending a methadone clinic to break the cycle.
The chance to have kids back was ‘enough to want to try’
It was in early 2020 that CBC Hamilton first spoke to Daniel, who at the time opened up about how restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic were keeping the couple separated in different shelters and his fears about a long-term recovery and the ability to reunite his family .
Shortly after, however, Daniel said he and Sarah could stay together at a hotel that is part of a Mission Services program for people affected by homelessness.
dr Jennifer Brasch, the director of addiction psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, worked with Daniel and helped him along the road to recovery.
She said staying at the hotel is key for the Schutts because it’s “extremely difficult” for people to break the addiction when they’re sleeping on the street or in open areas of the shelter with no privacy or security.
Daniel and Sarah repeated these thoughts.
“In the hotel… there are drug stores right in front of you. It’s all the same stuff that’s keeping you trapped there – except we could lock ourselves in,” Daniel said.
The other important aspect of the hotel stay, according to Schutts, was access to a phone.
Children’s Aid Society staff were able to contact Daniel and Sarah directly, opening a path for them to be reunited with their children.
“The most important thing was getting the chance to get our kids back,” Daniel said. “It was enough to want to try.”
Over time, they regained their family’s trust and left the hotel, renting affordable housing with the help of Daniel’s father.
Daniel eventually got a job building recycling bins. Daniel and Sarah moved into a home in Fort Erie with Daniel’s father and their three sons in November 2020.
Daniel has also been able to communicate again with his daughter, who is now 19, and says he helped her pay for college.
Barriers for people who are still on the street
Brasch said other rough-faced people don’t have supportive friends or family and don’t have access to methadone instead of using street drugs, which could be a deadly cocktail of substances.
She said most people don’t have a good outcome like Daniel and his family, only a quarter of people have a similar happy ending.
What people can learn from Daniel and his family, Brasch said, is the importance of strong incentives to get clean and stay clean.
“They have commitments and commitments and they have a good life. You don’t need to escape reality,” she said.
“We need to find ways to do this for people who are still using … people can move beyond the world of drug use when staying real is better than being drunk.
I wish we would do better as a community.”
The message from Daniel and Sarah is simple – don’t give up.
“Seeing my kids thrive is my new high,” Sarah said.