Six years ago, a chance encounter brought a homeless addict to the national stage through the documentary Lost in Woonsocket. Today, that man is on a mission to make sure the help that’s out there is getting to the people who need it.
By Steve Diogo
Many people know Normand Cartier as the drunk who no one thought would make it in the film Lost in Woonsocket. (If you haven’t seen it, see it! You can start with our interview with director John Chester and go from there.)
Five years after the film’s release, Cartier is far from the 122-pound alcoholic living in a tent in the woods near Woonsocket, R.I. He’s the leading heavyweight in the street-level fight for recovery services throughout the United States. As spokesperson and executive vice president of transitional housing and social development for the nonprofit Lost and Found in America (lafia.org), Cartier leads the charge for improved coordinated services for addicts and the homeless, and he is pursuing his vision to create a transitional housing network to get people off the street and into recovery. Oh, and he continues to travel with the film on educational tours of detoxes, hospitals, prisons, churches and other organizations that request a showing.
We caught up with Cartier in his new home of Winnemucca, Nev., (the only town name better than Woonsocket, says Chester), where Cartier was celebrating six years of sobriety and his recent marriage to his new bride, Candace.
Renew: You’re a long way from Woonsocket—geographically and, it seems, spiritually. How does it feel to look back? What has the film meant to you?
Normand Cartier: It’s really hard for me to watch it or to even recognize that the person in the movie is me. Honestly, I try not to remember those times. But it’s a real gift, and the gift is when people see the film and they get it. That’s what makes me proud. The power for me is when people see it and they come back and tell me, “That movie got me into detox.”
At one point after the movie came out, I was answering 400 to 600 emails a week. They wanted to know, “How did you do it? What’s your secret?” I got no secrets, man. I’m no different from anyone else out there. It’s one day at a time, and I stay connected. What John Chester and Andre Miller were doing in the film, maybe without even knowing it, was what the early AA crowd did: Go out into the street, and find people to help. I don’t know many people in recovery who do that even though it’s the very heart of the program, but here’s this guy who isn’t a drunk, just going out to see if he can help people, and he’s doing it.
That’s how I learned—from John and Andre. Today, I do it out there on my own. Five years ago I was terrified to talk to people. Now, I’m not afraid of anybody. These are my brothers and sisters on the streets. I’m not afraid to walk up to somebody on the street and offer him my help. I learned that from John and Andre, and I’ve done it time and time again. Other times, people have seen the movie and they recognize me, and they come up to me for help.
It’s a gift.
The important thing is to know how to help, to know what services are available. Whenever I’m in a new area, first thing I do is get familiar with the hospitals and the detoxes, then anybody who comes to me for help I try to get them in there.
Renew: That’s really been your focus, fighting to get services that already exist coordinated and delivered to the addicts on the street. How did you get started on that path?
NC: I was sitting at home in Pawtucket, R.I., and I got this invitation in the mail from the Pawtucket Working Homeless Group, and I thought, “What the hell is that?” Out of curiosity I went, and I’m sitting in this room with people from Gateway, United Way, Access Rhode Island, Rhode Island Housing Department, pastors from the area. … They’re all introducing themselves, and they’re all wonderful organizations. But I point to Gateway, and I ask United Way, “Do you know what they do?” No. I ask it the other way. No. I go around the whole table, and none of them knew what the other ones did, and I’m thinking, shouldn’t you all get on the same goddamn page here? How are you supposed to help if you don’t even know where to send the people who need help?
I looked at them, and I said, “I was living in a tent for four years, and not once did I ever hear of any of you.”
They said, “Well, we’re in the local newspapers.”
I said, “I’m an addict. You put 50 cents in my hand, you think I’m buying a newspaper?”
I told them, “This is bullshit. I never heard of any of you. You’re supposed to be helping, and you’re nowhere near the problem. You’re sitting around tables talking to one another.”
So, that meeting ends, and I figure that’s the end of me being invited to things like that. Two months later, I get an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a big meeting at a fancy hotel for all the social service organizations in Rhode Island. And I went! I went up there, I loosened my tie and I gave ‘em two hours of attitude.
I said, “You need to hear this: I was out there on the street, and I was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and I didn’t know that any of your groups existed. How many more people are there out there like that?
“Your outreach sucks,” I told them.
So then I get an invitation from the governor. They had a meeting at the state house on my behalf for my work in getting these organizations together. They gave me a citizen’s commendation. I said, “You know, this is going to look pretty on my wall, but what are you doing for my brothers and sisters on the streets?” Finally, all the organizations started pulling together and working with one another. Now, when people needed help, I knew where to send them. That was a gift.
Renew: It seems like a simple message.
NC: It is simple. If you’re talking about people on the streets, if I don’t know who you are, then these people don’t know either. So what kind of help are they giving? Now when I speak to these groups I ask them, “Are all you people going to get together?” Don’t give me this bullshit about newspapers. Outreach means you gotta get out there. It’s not that these groups are bad. They have great intentions. They probably have flyers in the local soup kitchens and whatever, but when I went to soup kitchens, I wasn’t checking out the bulletin boards. I was getting my food and getting out.
So I’m trying to get there and educate these organizations and learn everything I can about their services so when I’m there, I know exactly where to send people for the type of help they need.
That’s my outreach.