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Richmond-born activist fights stigma of drug addiction

Guy Felicella recently spoke with city councillors and city staff about his experience with homelessness and drug addiction and how he overcame these.
Guy Felicella (left) and Richmond city councillor have a long history.

One had a legal gun, the other an illegal one.

An early-morning armed robbery at Denny’s in Vancouver, an arrest and an eventual acquittal due to a technicality is the mutual history of two Richmond sons in the early 1990s – one as a cop, the other as an armed robber.

But to see them chatting over a cup of coffee 30 years later – with the former cop asking the former robber to help educate the City of Richmond on addictions and homelessness – their camaraderie and mutual admiration is obvious.

Richmond city councillor Kash Heed, a former VPD cop and former solicitor general, and Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the BC Centre for Substance Use, recently sat down with the Richmond News to talk about old times but also to look forward to how the City of Richmond could better tackle the toxic drug crisis, people living on the streets and the mental-health issues that often lead to these.

Harkening back to when the former Vancouver cop was following Felicella, Heed described it – on both sides – as an adrenalin-fuelled “game.”

“I happened to have a legal gun on my hip – he happened to have an illegal gun on his hip,” Heed said.

Even though they were on the opposite sides of the cops-and-robbers game, Heed said the issues Felicella had that led him to a life of crime and eventually addiction and living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for almost 20 years, aren’t far from the addictive qualities he himself has.

The difference is, for Heed, it led him to a career as a police officer. After their encounter at Denny’s, Guy’s life started going downhill, leading him to living on the streets, while Heed started rising in the ranks, eventually ending his policing career as chief constable of the West Vancouver Police.

“I hit my pinnacle and he hit his bottom, and guess where we’ve come right now, sitting across from each other at the same level,” Heed said.

Heed recently facilitated a meeting for Richmond city council and city staff to speak with Felicella.

The meeting wasn’t open to the public, rather it was an informational session.

Felicella said the point of speaking to Richmond city councillors and city staff – in the city he was raised in - was to humanize people who struggle with addiction and remove biases and judgment. He wanted to talk about his childhood in Richmond and about the challenges he faced as a youth.

While his history is filled with crime, poverty, homelessness and addiction, Felicella was eventually able to overcome these - after much hard work - and is now married with three children and works as fierce advocate for people who are going through what he experienced for many years.

With his lived experience, he sees the barriers put in front of people trying to overcome an addiction.

For him, a turning point was when people started seeing him as a human and saying “enough of punishing this guy, enough of stigmatizing this guy, let’s try to effing help this guy,” he found the strength to stop doing drugs.

Drug crisis behind ‘picket fences’

Both Heed and Felicella are critical of the media’s portrayal of the drug crisis with stories often linked to images of the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Instead, these stories should include images of white picket fences, because that's where drugs are being consumed and people are dying.

In fact, in 2022, 14 out of 29 people in Richmond who died from toxic drugs died in private residences.

When Heed was with the West Vancouver Police, a 14-year-old girl died from an overdose. This led to outrage in the community and a full police investigation.

When police interviewed young people, however, they told them the question shouldn’t be who is using drugs, rather, who isn’t using drugs.

“The frequency of use by kids in their teen years (in West Vancouver) was moreso than the inner city of Vancouver,” Heed said. “The only difference was these kids in West Van weren’t committing crimes to buy their drugs, they were getting money from their family.”

“Don’t show the Downtown Eastside, because it’s your own backyard where you’ll find the problems,” he added. “And, if you look in your own backyard, those are the areas where we can make most of the difference.”

Felicella’s years of crime and eventual addictions and homelessness started behind a figurative white picket fence.

Felicella recounts his childhood in Richmond growing up in a middle-class family, attending McKinney elementary and Hugh Boyd and London secondary schools.

But at 12, he was already dipping into a life of crime and, at 14, he was incarcerated for the first time and spent the rest of his teen years in foster care and in juvenile detention.

Undiagnosed ADHD played a huge part in the path he took, but he also attributes it to influences from his peers.

For Felicella, while he was involved with gangs in the Lower Mainland in the 1990s, the gang shootings scared him enough to push him out. With nowhere else to go, he ended up on the Downtown Eastside for 20 years, struggling with both addiction and homelessness.

He changed his name to Tony “because it was too painful to be Guy.”

Finally, when Felicella started overdosing – a total of six times – and he saw the physical toll that was taking on him, he found the strength to finally quit.

It wasn’t a straightforward journey of “just say no” to drugs, however. He went to treatment a dozen times, got out of the Downtown Eastside, then attended a day program for a year “like it was my job,” he explained.

But the treatment system often made him feel like a failure.

He would relapse while in treatment – a very common thing to happen – and he would get kicked to the curb.

The message of abstinence is dangerous, Felicella said, because when an addict relapses, they feel like a “a bag of shit.”

“People didn’t celebrate that I was trying, I was f*** trying,” Felicella said. “I’m not getting the outcome that I wanted, but I’m still trying.”

In fact, some treatment programs don’t allow methadone or suboxone while others require, if someone is on methadone, to taper off while in treatment.

The irony is people in recovery homes on ADHD medication are considered “abstinent” but “if you’re on methadone or suboxone, you’re not clean,” Felicella explained.

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m not putting a needle in my neck, get over it, I’m clean,” he said.

“Basically, you’re trying to get your life together and we’re going to put you in withdrawal and you’re going to have to go through that, while you’re trying to put your life together,” he added.

As an activist and through his work, Felicella sees others struggling with the issues he dealt with for years. And he sees the same barriers he faced. 

Too often, the mental-health and addictions system tells addicts “we have it our way, we’re not doing it your way,” he said, but, in fact, they need “a pathway out of their addiction.”

And there’s no cookie cutter way to do it.

But a good start is harm reduction services such as safe-injection sites where an addict can build relationships and connect with people supporting them.

“This is why people are dying alone - you don’t have a place to go to get support,” Felicella said.

Richmond doesn’t have a sanctioned safe-injection site, but Vancouver Coastal Health has recently expanded some daytime safe consumption services.

Accessing a safe-injection site for a drug user is a choice he or she makes to take care of him or herself, he said. And being in a place where they're supported, they may ask for treatment or other help.

Felicella does talks at schools, speaking about what went wrong in his life and how he overcame his challenges, but also telling them he still lives with anxiety.

“Lived experience: You can’t buy it but it sure costs a lot,” he said. “But when you can pass that along, it’s so valuable in kids’ lives because you become a guy that’s overcome all these challenges.