The Last Post

One year ago I stood before a bank of microphones, cameras and journalists in the lane behind the police station at 312 Main Street to announce the launch of Eastside Stories: Diary of a Vancouver Beat Cop.

In the months prior, a young woman named Ashley Machiskinic had fallen to her death from the window of a Downtown Eastside rooming house. Activists who insisted she must have been murdered had staged a sit-in at the Vancouver Police Department’s Main Street station. They engaged in a public campaign to suggest that police were doing little to investigate Ashley’s death, or to protect vulnerable women in the Downtown Eastside.

Other pressure groups had long complained that police in the Downtown Eastside did little more than pick on the poor, write petty tickets and arbitrarily arrest people for minor offences.

As a member of VPD’s Beat Enforcement Team, I knew this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I had seen police officers literally pick up and dust off Listerine drunks who were passed out in snow banks, and help them out of the cold when nobody else gave a damn.

I witnessed one police officer practically save the life of a man who had been stabbed in the neck during a knife fight, covering the gash with his bare hands to stop the man from bleeding to death.

I had personally lent my shoulder to people who had no-one left in the world to cry on.

Moreover, I’d seen the personal toll all this takes on the men and women who don the police uniform in the Downtown Eastside.

I wanted to help people understand what we actually do, the pressures we face and the frustrations we endure while policing one of Canada’s toughest beats. I wanted to give people a taste of what it’s like to be a police officer in the Downtown Eastside, and to help put a human face of the people who live and work here.

During the past 12 months this blog has introduced readers to a number of characters in the Downtown Eastside. There was Whistling Bernie Smith, the old-time beat cop who walked these streets in the 1970s, long before anyone had to worry about political correctness or the Charter of Rights.

We’ve met the man with three degrees and seven languages who wanders the streets of the Downtown Eastside, having lost his family, his job and his aspirations to a heroin addiction.

Then there was my favourite, the Ice Cream Man. As far as I know, he’s still fighting the good fight. And though I’ll probably never know for sure, I’d like to think I had something to do with his decision to get clean.

There are 18,000 people in the Downtown Eastside, and each one of them has their own story of heartbreak, tragedy and success. And while I’d love to stick around long enough to tell them all, it appears my time in the Downtown Eastside is coming to an end.

The Vancouver Police Department has decided to send me to a new sand box. They say it’s time to broaden my horizons. In two weeks I will be reluctantly re-assigned to a patrol squad in District 2 — the north-east quadrant of the city.

Some of my colleagues have encouraged me to continue my dispatches from my new post. I’d love to continue writing about my experiences in the Downtown Eastside, but I simply don’t believe I can do so with the quality and frequency you deserve.

While District 2 does technically include the Downtown Eastside, I will no longer be one of the foot soldiers on the Beat Enforcement Team. Instead,  I’ll be responding to calls from behind the wheel of a police car, and responsible for a larger, and more diverse area.

This blog is branded as the diary of a beat cop, and it would be wrong to suggest I am still slogging it out in the trenches when I am not.

That’s why I’ve decided that now is the time to pull the plug. It’s time to restore a little work-life balance and to focus my energy on some new endeavours.

Authoring this blog has been one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a police officer. I’ve felt more fulfilled writing these stories than I did in nearly a decade working as a newspaper reporter (my previous career).

I am indebted to the Vancouver Police Department for allowing me the opportunity, and for taking such a hands-off approach. I was never told what to write or how to write it, and never once chided for wading in on sensitive or controversial topics.

I am even more indebted to everyone who took the time to read, to comment and to send me their personal stories during the past year. I’ve been touched and blown away by the passionate and heart-felt responses.

It has been a privilege.

– Steve

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On sticks, stones and male pattern baldness

I’m bald.

Been this way for a decade — ever since I saw a picture of myself in the newspaper I used to work for and realized just how badly my little smoke-and-mirrors trick had failed.

I was 23 years old then, with a 40-year-old’s hairline. Up until that point I had feared becoming bald. But in trying to coif those last little whispies into something that resembled a hairstyle, I had become something much worse than bald. I was balding.

I decided that day to wrestle control of my failing folicles back from Mother Nature. After work I went straight to the barber shop and told him to shave it all.

It didn’t take him very long, and I could tell he was a little uncomfortable accepting payment for such an easy job.

The weekly trips to the barber soon became costly, so after about a month I went to Costco and picked up the Gigantor-size package of razers and shave gel.

I’ve never looked back.

I don’t miss my hair, and I certainly don’t miss the looks of pity I used to get as the grocery store clerk rang through my tubes of Dippity-Do.

And while being bald has its advantages, it also comes with a few drawbacks. For starters, I like to go running with my hat turned around backwards, which usually leaves a funny red semi-circle smack in the middle of my forehead if I forget to lather up with sunscreen.

Secondly, as a cop, I’m frequently forced to endure the laundry list of lame-o taunts from bad guys and looky-loos who think they can get my goat by calling me “chrome dome” or “cueball.”

Like last week. Four beat officers, including myself, were trying to help one of the locals who had fallen off the rails. A paranoid schizophrenic with a predilection for speed and cocaine, he’d gone AWOL from his addictions treatment centre. Now he was high, off his meds and in a foul mood.  We handcuffed him for our safety — and for his — while we waited for an ambulance to take him back to the psych ward.

It was quite the scene, which drew the usual crowd of cop critics and members of the iPhone paparazzi, convinced that the Downtown Eastside beat cops were trampling the rights of the downtrodden.

The man was amped up, so the paramedics asked us to escort them to the hospital. My partner climbed into the back of the ambulance to assist. As I crossed Hastings Street to my car so I could follow them to hospital, I heard one of the cop haters cat-call.

“Hey baldy. Use a crosswalk.”

I considered stopping to explain the situation, but I learned long ago that it’s useless trying to reason with an unreasonable person. And with four camera phones pointed my direction, I didn’t feel like being baited into a YouTube clip.

So, I ignored the taunt and carried on, feeling a little disappointed. I love a good one-liner as much as anyone, and here I had served one up like giant, glowing softball. It was just waiting to be hit out of the park. Still, all I got was another “Hey Baldy”  (this particular cop hater has since taken to calling me “skin head,” which is equally lame and unoriginal, yet definitely more offensive).

While I can’t do much about donut jokes and people who insist on saying “It wasn’t me” when I walk into bars, over the past decade I have certainly heard my share of original and unoriginal bald-guy barbs. Here’s a list of my top 5, intended to inspire something a  little more creative than “Hey baldy” the next time I run into the peanut gallery.

1. “Yo Powder. Use a crosswalk.”

2. “Hey Sinead O’Conner. Take the handcuffs off.”

3. “Constable. You look like a stick of roll-on deodorant.”

4. “Hey Telly Savalas/Mr. Clean/Lex Luther/Moby…”

5. “Excuse me. Aren’t you the guy from “The Scream?”

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News Flash: Vancouver has a drug problem

One of the lead news stories in Vancouver today was a study which found that illicit drugs are rampant on the streets of Vancouver.

The B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS reported that drugs such as heroin, cocaine, meth and marijuana can be bought on Vancouver’s streets in as little as 10 minutes.

Go figure. And in other news, a plane landed safely today at YVR.

I’m not sure what’s more frustrating — that this problem continues to fester after years of enforcement, education and even harm reduction, or that some people are just waking up to the fact that it’s about as easy to buy crack in Downtown Vancouver as it is to find a Starbucks.

By the way, there’s a Starbucks on just about every corner.

What appears of particular concern to the study’s authors is that street drugs are just as accessible to young people as they are to adults, if not more.

“Among the 330 youth aged 14-26 involved in the study, nearly 63% reported accessing crystal methamphetamine in as little as 10 minutes, compared to 39% of adult users. Young drug users also reported significantly easier access to marijuana, with 88% saying they could obtain the drug within 10 minutes (versus 73% of adults),” said the press release posted online by the BC Centre of Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

I’m not sure what else you would expect with the slapdash assortment of marijuana cafes, pot dispensaries and crooked corner stores that line Hastings Street — a 10 minute walk from four separate SkyTrain stations. Not to mention the army of drug dealers, many of whom are barely adults themselves, that litters the lanes of the Downtown Eastside and operates with near impunity. It’s not as if people who make their living by pimping poison to drug addicts are going to suddenly have a moral epiphany when a 16 year old customer waves $20 in their face.

Yes, Vancouver does have a drug problem. I’m waiting for the study that shows us the solution.

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The Beat Season II

You may have noticed that lately I haven’t been blogging quite as frequently as before. While I certainly have not run out of things to say, I’ll admit it’s been a challenge this summer to find time to sit down and write.

Fear not. Things should be back to normal in a few weeks.

In the meantime, you’ll be able to get your fix starting tonight, when the first episode of The Beat Season II airs on Outdoor Life Network (word is, I may make an appearance or two in the show).

Here’s a promotional clip I pulled from You Tube for the first season of the show, which aired a couple years ago.

The Beat Season II is a 10-part reality series that was filmed over several months this past winter and spring. The film crew embedded with Beat Enforcement Team members to document the work we do and the challenges we face while trying to police the Downtown Eastside.

Can’t wait to see the finished product.

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She made her decision, and it was the wrong one

Five days past her 18th birthday, she was hooting on a crack pipe near the corner of Hastings and Columbia. She tossed the glass pipe to the pavement as we approached and tried to blend in with the crowd.

“Please don’t arrest me,” the pretty redhead pleaded as I grabbed her arm to prevent her from running away.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I just want to talk to you.”

My god, she looked young. Dressed in jean shorts and a button-up shirt that was tied in a knot just above the belly button, she looked like she should have been riding a tire swing at the family cottage, not getting high on Hastings Street. Though her hair was unwashed and her face was breaking out in sores, I could tell she was still early in her suffering. The addiction hadn’t fully taken control of her.

I wanted to help her.

We talked as I ran the girl’s name through the police database. Her story reminded me that addiction does not discriminate between race, gender or class.

The product of a tony West Vancouver neighbourhood, she began experimenting with hallucinogens — magic mushrooms and LSD — at age 15. She managed to get clean for eight months, but soon was looking for new ways to get high. Which brought her to Ground Zero in the Downtown Eastside — still frighteningly oblivious to the dangers surrounding her.

She’d been staying with her new boyfriend — a 38-year-old she met five days ago — in a room at the worst slum hotel in the city. It’s infested with cockroaches and rats, and the rooms reek of urine and dirty cat litter. (When we stopped by later that night to suss out the boyfriend, we found his room littered with empty beer cans and condom wrappers.)

A pretty, new face like her’s is easy prey on these streets. And with a habit to feed I figured it was just a matter of time before she’d be selling her body to buy drugs — either for herself or for the boyfriend whose last name she still did not know.

The young redhead assured me that wouldn’t be the case.

“Don’t worry. I’m against prostitution.”

She said it with such righteousness and confidence that I knew this girl just didn’t have a clue. I told her about the young lady I spoke to a few months ago who stands on the street corner and gets into strangers’ cars — sometimes 10 a night — just to support her heroin habit. I told her how that girl knows that every car she gets into could be the last.

Her lip started to quiver and her eyes welled up with tears. I asked if she really thought that any of the girls who sell themselves for drug money are actually in favour of prostitution. A tear rolled down her cheek, and we both knew she was only fooling herself.

It’s not often that we see any kind of vulnerability or emotion from the men and women in the Downtown Eastside. Life can be so hard down here, I think most learn to shut off the emotions, or simply bury them so deep that they can’t be seen. You have to be tough to survive in the Downtown Eastside, and vulnerability makes for easy victims.

But the tears in this girl’s eyes told me she wasn’t that far gone, that there was still a chance to save her.

I offered to help her. I promised her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go — so long as it was away from skid row. I knew this was likely a now-or-never moment. She thought about it for about a second, then asked if she could go see her boyfriend instead.

I wanted to tell her that she couldn’t, that she had to come with me. But the reality was I could not force her to make the smart choice. The crack pipe she had tossed on the ground had already been trampled on and crushed, and I really had no authority to hang onto her.

I told her she was an adult now, and that the decision was her’s to make. She could choose to stay, and risk being sucked into a lifetime in sex, drugs and disease. She could choose to go, and maybe have an outside chance of getting her life together.

“You’re an adult now,” I said, cringing as the words left my mouth. “It’s your choice.”

She wiped the tears from her eyes, then darted across the street and back toward the slum hotel to see the boyfriend who was old enough to be her father.

As she disappeared into the sea of disorder somewhere east of Columbia Street, I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d see her again. By that time, it would likely be too late.

She had made her decision, and it was the wrong one.

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No easy answers

A young hipster in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt stopped me on West Hastings Street the other day.

“So, when are you gonna start arresting some of the drug dealers out here?” he asked.

It was a bit of a sarcastic comment, so I dished a little of the same back his way.

“Sure,” I said. “You point ‘em out to me and I’ll go arrest them.”

We were standing outside the Burns Block, a century-old building and former low-income hotel that was recently converted into 30 “micro-lofts.” It’s part of the so-called gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

This hipster had apparently just moved into the area, likely wanting to live in Vancouver’s edgiest neighbourhood, but perhaps not quite realizing his front door was just steps away from ground zero in the city’s open-air drug market.

‘They’re everywhere,” he said. “I walk down the street and all I get is people trying to sell me drugs.”

Despite the cheekiness of our initial exchange, I could tell he was genuine. I empathized with his frustration. He felt like the police were not doing enough to deal with the drug problem in the area. Looking around at the mess, I could see his frustration.

For decades, the seedy strip along Hastings Street has been a postcard for poverty. Once it was the commercial centre of a young city. Over time the legitimate businesses were replaced — first by pawnshops and beer parlours,  then by methadone clinics, shady corner stores and run-down rooming houses.

Now, after decades in the dumps, investment is slowly creeping back. Those tired old landmarks are being replaced with market housing, trendy eateries and a whole new population that’s heard about, but has likely never really seen what the Downtown Eastside was all about.

It’s made for a bit of a culture clash.

I’ve had more than a few unsuspecting twenty-somethings flag me down after having their iPhones ripped from their hands while their heads were buried in a text message. For them, it’s a $400 investment down the drain. For the thief who snatched it, it’s something they can sell for $30 and buy some rock.

And like the fellow I was now speaking to on West Hastings, I’ve also had my share of newcomers ask why the police aren’t doing more to arrest the drug dealers who litter the streets.

To understand why, one must first understand how this drug market works.

By and large, drugs are brought to the Downtown Eastside by young, non-addicted males in their 20s. They’re low and mid-level drug dealers, many of whom work for a larger organized crime groups.

I call them predatory drug dealers.

They strut around with hundreds, if not thousands of dollars wadded up in their jeans, while the people they profit from scrounge around from hoot to hoot, and from hit to hit.

I explained this to the young hipster, but it only fed his indignance.

“So why don’t you go arrest them all?” he asked again, not quite understanding.

I’d love to, but it’s not that easy.

Over the years these predatory drug dealers have learned to insulate themselves from the police. They rarely, if ever, actually do the drug dealing. Instead, they bring the drugs to the area, stash them in shady businesses or rooming houses, then “hire” addicts to do their dirty work.

It’s the addicts who take all the risk. They huddle in alcoves and stand in laneways, peddling flaps of heroin and chunks of crack cocaine for $10 or $20 apiece. Meantime, the predator directs traffic, collects the money, imposes arbitrary debts, and metes out beatings when those debts don’t get paid.

So if they’re taking all the risk, why do the addicts do it?

If they’re lucky, the addicted workers will get paid with enough drugs to feed their own habit for the day. If they’re unlucky, the cops will come along, arrest them and take them to jail. And when they get out the next day, it’s almost guaranteed they’ll be forced back to work in order to make up for the drugs and money they lost to the cops.

As a cop, I can walk around all day and do nothing but arrest addicts for flipping $10 rocks or passing a few flaps of heroin. One school of thought says I should, and on many days I tend to agree. But the other school of thought questions what, if anything, that would accomplish.

See, for every crack- or heroin-addicted drug dealer who gets busted and carted off to jail for the night, there’s a handful of others lined up to take their place. It seems like a never-ending cycle.

We arrested a young lady for selling heroin not long ago.  I asked her why she chooses to sell dope. Her answer was hard to argue with.

“I’m an addict. I’d rather sell drugs than sell my body.”

She told me she got paid $80 a day to sell drugs for one of those predatory dealers, and she feared she’d get beaten if she tried to quit. Still, it was better than standing on the street corner and getting into strangers’ cars.

One dealer Dan and I spoke with last week said he wished the police had busted him a long time ago. After 12 years schlepping dope, he’s now so far entrenched — and likely in debt — he doesn’t know if he’ll every get out of the business.

“They have all these programs for drug addicts…all these services to help drug addicts get off the streets. But they don’t have any programs to help drug dealers,” he told me.

I thought he must be joking, but he was dead serious. There is one program, I told him. It’s called jail.

“I wish you guys had put me in jail a long time ago,” the 30-year-old admitted.  ”Maybe if I’d been charged a couple of times I would have gotten out of here.”

I wish someone had put him in jail, too. But in reality, it’s not that simple, especially for drug dealers who know how to play the game.

Knowing someone’s a drug dealer and proving it in a court of law are two entirely different things. And because they rarely handle the drugs, gathering enough evidence to lay a charge on these guys takes skill, resources and a whole lot of good timing.

Prosecutors are often reluctant to approve charges against someone who isn’t actually caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and even when charges get approved, convincing a judge to convict can be difficult.

Besides, the Downtown Eastside has been a mess for decades, and so long as there’s unlimited demand for drugs, there’s going to be people there to peddle them. Though I’d love to put these guys in jail, I’m not naive enough to think we can arrest our way out of this epidemic. If that were the case,  it would have been done a long time ago.

I explained all this to the hipster in the skinny jeans, hoping he’d understand that the problem wasn’t so black and white. I told him that the issues here — be it prostitution, poverty, drug dealing or disease — are complex ones with no quick fixes.

In the end he just shrugged his shoulders, cocked his eyebrows and gave me a look of resignation.

“What are you gonna do,” he asked rhetorically, as he turned toward the door of his apartment building.

I didn’t have an answer.

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Skunky 1, Steve 0

During night shift I often use my meal break to squeeze in a midnight run around the Stanley Park seawall. It’s a good way to burn off a little steam and forget about work for a while.

While I usually head out alone, tonight I convinced a co-worker to come along. It was nice to have a little company as I ticked off the miles. Unfortunately, it appears my friend and I got a little too caught up in conversation. While cruising along one of the trails that cuts through the park, we apparently failed to see that we were barrelling down on one Skunky McSkunkerson.

I saw him at the last second and tried to jump out of the way, but Skunky had already lifted his tail and let one rip. It was a direct hit.

Needless to say, I cleared out a good chunk of the office when I got back to work, and upon returning home was advised that I would be spending the night on the couch.

If anyone has a home remedy for skunk spray, please send it my way.

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Catching up with the Ice Cream Man

If you’ve been following Eastside Stories, you might be familiar with my friend the Ice Cream Man. I first wrote about him before Christmas, after we shared a two a.m. heart-to-heart outside the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings.

A heroin and cocaine addict for most of his adult life, he had lost just about everything that was important to him. His wife, his daughters, his ambition and his self esteem were all smoked away in the back alleys of the Downtown Eastside. Now, barely 40 years old, he was convinced he would die alone in his one-room, bug-infested apartment on skid row.

His honesty — and his accountability — struck a chord with me.

I call him the Ice Cream Man because of how proud he was that night just to have ice cream in his freezer. For you or me, a tub of ice cream is inconsequential. For an addict who spends every last dollar on crack and heroin, it’s an enormous building block. At least that’s the way I saw it.

I tried to keep tabs on the Ice Cream Man after our little street-corner therapy session. I sensed he was at a crossroads, even if he didn’t yet know it, and I wanted to make sure he had at least one ally on these streets.

In the weeks that followed I stopped to say hello whenever I saw him out front of the Carnegie Centre. I convinced him to share his story with a couple of youth groups that I toured through the skids. And on the eve of his 40th birthday I made sure to pull the car over and wish him a happy one.

Sadly, he seemed to be getting worse, not better.

Then one day I realized that he was gone. I’m not quite sure when it happened, or how long it had been since I’d seen him.

Generally, there are three reasons people disappear from the Downtown Eastside. They either die, go to jail, or get clean.

I asked around, but didn’t get very far. Down here people rarely go by first names, and I didn’t suspect that anyone else knew him by the street-name “Ice Cream Man.” It lacks a little bit of that Eastside toughness.

I popped by the single-room occupancy hotel where he rented a bug-infested room with a bed, an end table and a TV. The staff were not very helpful.

I knew he wasn’t in jail, and I probably would have heard through the grapevine if he had died. I had heard rumours of ill health, and I knew he’d been in and out of hospital a few times.

I popped by the hospital and managed to sweet-talk the charge nurse into checking the patient list for me. She tapped his name into the computer, then pointed down the hallway and told me to follow the blue line to the elevator. When the elevator doors opened on the 10th floor I could tell the nurse at the end of that blue line was a little taken aback. They’re not exactly used to seeing the police in the palliative care section.

“What’s your name,” she asked.

“It’s Steve. I’m with the police.”

“Is he expecting you?”

“Ah, no..not really. But he’s not in any trouble.”

I could tell she was a little apprehensive. She disappeared in a room across the hall, apparently to ask my friend if he wanted a police visitor.

The Ice Cream Man stuck his head around the corner. The look of angst on his face — an instinctive reaction after years of trying to avoid the cops — faded when I smiled and extended my right hand. He responded in kind, and gave my hand an extra hard squeeze as a show of strength while guiding me into his room.

It had been about three months since we’d last talked, but my friend looked like a new man. His once-sallow cheeks had filled with colour and were covered in a thick, dark beard. His healthy paunch spilled over the waistline of his Levis and the sleeves of his cotton shirt were pulled tight around his biceps — possibly a product of the Muscle and Fitness magazine sitting on the hospital bed.

The nurse, her mind apparantly at ease knowing that this was indeed a friendly police visit, made her exit and left us alone.

I had a lot of questions — more than he had time to answer.

I sat at the end of his bed while he explained how he checked himself into hospital after doctors told him he was about to lose his foot. A skin infection that had for years gone untreated had gotten so bad that he had two choices — stay on the street and get it amputated, or check himself into hospital and get clean.

He rolled up his sleeve and unwrapped the gauze that tied the IV line to this inside of his right arm. The constant drip is what was fighting the massive infection in his leg.

He talked about the first few weeks he was at hospital, and how he would sneak out on his day passes and head down to Hastings Street to get his fix.  He talked about the withdrawal process,  how he would throw tantrums inside the hospital ward, and how methadone treatment has started to ween him off heroin.

When I asked him how long it had been since he last used, he reached over the bed, pulled a calendar off the wall and began flipping through the pages until he found the box marked with an X. It’s here where he’s kept a tally of his sobriety, as well as a count of his relapses.

There have been a few of those, too, he admitted. The most recent relapse was a couple of weeks ago, when he got his welfare cheque, signed out on a day pass and went down to Hastings to get high. Old habits die hard, I guess.

But funny thing, he said, the heroin didn’t do anything for him anymore. And he didn’t like the person he became on crack. So that night he checked himself back in to the hosptial and decided to stay clean once and for all.

As if searching for proof to validate his claim, he dug his right hand deep into the pocket of his blue jeans and pulled out a wad of cash, all left over welfare money.

“I can’t remember the last time I had this much money,” he said, showing it to me.

“I used to spend it all on drugs.”

I asked him about his family, and whether he’d had any contact with his five daughters, but he shook his head and quickly changed the subject. That’s not a step he’s ready to take, he said, at least until he proves he can stay clean once out of hosptial.

And that test was fast approaching. In a few days he would check out of here, and check into his new home in a drug treatment facility located, of all places, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. That’ll be the true test, and he knows it. He’ll be the proverbial kid in the candy story, with every street drug under the sun available wherever he wants, whenever he wants.

I told him I liked him, I warned that I wouldn’t hesitate to throw him in jail if I caught him using again — not for kicks, but for his own good. He laughed, then reminisced about all the previous times I had traipsed him off in handcuffs for selling bunk on the street corner.

“You know, we got off to a bit of a rocky start” he said, “but I like this little rapport we have.”

He didn’t have to say it, but I knew I was likely the only one who had visited him in the hospital.

I wanted to continue our talk, but I could see the nurse was waiting in the hallway and growing slightly impatient. Besides, duty called.

I wanted to give him some words of encouragement, but I’m sure anything I had to say would have seemed like a platitude.  Phrases like “stay stong,” or “take it a day at a time,” just seemed trite and underwhelming given the circumstances.

Instead, I told him that I was proud of him,  then handed him my business card and told him to call me if he needed anything.

He tucked it in his back pocket, smiled, and extended his arm for another handshake.

“Thanks officer, but I think I can take care of myself now.”

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Downtown Eastside by the numbers

4,600 intravenous drug users live in the Downtown Eastside

587 drug injections happen daily at the Supervised Injection Site; this includes people who return multiple times a day

20 per cent of people in the Downtown Eastside are homeless

87 per cent of the population has Hepatitis C

200 people died of drug overdoses in the Downtown Eastside in 1993, the worst year on record

1997 was the year a public health emergency was declared in the DTES

270, 000 tax dollars were given to VANDU – the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users – last year. VANDU advocates, among other things, for “the right to obtain, prepare and inject drugs, and to be intoxicated on drugs”

49 per cent of police contacts in the Downtown Eastside are believed to be with someone who has a mental illness

80 per cent of Downtown Eastside residents have been previously incarcerated

1 year is the new mandatory minimum jail sentence a repeat offender who is caught selling drugs; 2 years if they’re near a school or caught selling to youth

Sources: VANDU, Supreme Court of Canada, Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health, NAOMI Project, Vancouver Courier, Canadian Department of Justice

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…but instead…

The following is a contribution by fellow Beat Enforcement Team member Tyler Urquhart, inspired by some of the people he’s met along Hastings Street. He says it’s “kind of a poem.”

A Grandfather,
Bouncing grandchildren on his knees.
Burgers, ribs, the family barbecue,
Stories of ‘how things used to be’,
chasing girls, a classic car, old friend,
Wisdom, command,
always an unspoken respect for the Patriarch.

… but instead …

An old, worn-out man long past his due date.
An addict, a recluse, full of delusion, full of disease.
Erupting in anger and compulsive put-downs.
Spare change? Spare change?
Missing pieces…missing places… farther from human.
Alone.
Cursed.

A young Mother,
A shy toddler, spying, hooked on her leg.
Coffee with old girlfriends.
Other little ones mingle.
She checks the time on her Iphone,
Loving husband still at work,
Family time soon,
with talk of another little one on the way.

… but instead …

Soaked to the bone,
crouched on wet cement in a nasty alleyway.
Poison in her bra.
Rock? Rock? Up? Down?
There are no children back here.
Waiting for her turn to fix.
‘Where’s my money bitch?’
The dealers’ had enough … she’s short again.
Time to pay up.
No family … No hope … No life,
Only misery and thoughts of the next fix.

An educated young man,
Top of his class,
Proud parents,
Head hunted, sought after.
Set to make more money than he ever imagined possible,
A lady-killer,
On top of the world,
Success.

… but instead …

A scabbed-up, jib-head thief.
Those who would have spoken highly of him, he has stolen from.
A loser, beyond desperate for another mind bender.
Suicidal thoughts,
Stuck with cockroaches and bed bugs.
Constantly running,
Running from the drug dealer he owes $150 to,
Running from the cops who want to lock him up,
Running from the truth of his existence.
Screaming…
Hoping to be listened to.

A mother, father, son and daughter.
Family. Close, full of love, hope, support.
Holiday turkey dinners.
Hallmark cards and balloons every birthday.
Father and son watching the game,
Mother and daughter embrace and recognize the unspoken trust.
No one goes hungry here.

… but instead ….

Forever a mother and father.
Up all night with worry.
Father can’t help but cope with 3 fingers of 90 proof.
Mother can only cry.
The shadows of addiction have taken those most precious.
Had to change the locks on the house.
Had to stop answering the phone.
Unreliable, untrustworthy, unstoppable.
Addicts no longer welcome.
Forever a mother and father,
Up all night with worry.

A few in a cast of thousands in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
What could have been…but instead…what is.

- Tyler Urquhart


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