Happy to be proven wrong

“Tap, Tap, Tap.”

I jolted up, and nearly spilled a half cup of lukewarm Tim Horton’s double-double into my lap.

They train you at the police academy to always be alert when you’re on the street. They call it keeping your head on a swivel. If your head’s on a swivel, you’re always on the look-out for the guy on the corner doing a quick drug deal. You’ve always got an eye out for the guy trying door handles, or for the guy up the street who just did the one-eighty because he has a warrant. Most importantly, if your head’s on a swivel, you’re always looking out for dangerous situations, like someone who may want to sneak up from behind and hurt you.

Or, in this case, for a 95-pound waif tapping your patrol car window with the point of her umbrella.

“What happened?” she asked, pointing her umbrella toward the ribbon of yellow police tape strung up across the entrance to the south lane of the 1oo East Hastings.

I’d been parked there for the past hour and a half, making sure nobody got past the tape. It’s a rotten detail, but I was working alone this day, and this was a one-man job. While working alone has its benefits, it also means you get saddled with many of the less-desirable jobs — like idling for hours on end outside a crime scene.

“Somebody got assaulted in the lane,” I said. “Know anything?”

She shook her head side to side. We both knew that even if she did have information about what happened, she wasn’t likely to tell me and risk being labeled a rat.

“How was welfare day?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation rolling.

“Sucked,” she said. “I blew all my money. Now I got nothing left.”

There was an awkward pause. She began to walk away, then stopped and looked back over her shoulder.

“So, I’m getting out of here,” she said. “I’m going into treatment…getting picked up in an hour. After tonight, you won’t see me down here no more.”

I’ve met my share of hard-done-bys since being posted to the Beat Enforcement Team nearly five years ago. Out of all of them, this young lady ranked among the worst. She was an addict, a thug and a thief. I once caught her trying to steal a car, after she pinched the keys from the pocket of a drunk who was looking for a cheap date.

The only time I’ve ever heard her mutter the word treatment was when she tried to guilt me into letting her go on a warrant arrest by suggesting she’d lose her treatment bed if I put her in jail. I didn’t believe her then, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t believe her now.

But as I spoke with her through the window of my police car, I recalled a conversation I had about this girl a year earlier with my former partner, Tyler.

“I can see her being one of the girls to get cleaned up and to get out of here,” he said, ever the optimist.

Tyler is a real glass-half-full kind of guy.  He always seems to see the potential in people, even if it sometimes requires blind faith. I’m not so much a pessimist, but more of a pragmatist.

But maybe Tyler was right. Maybe this girl could get herself cleaned up, kick her addiction to heroin and crack, move herself out of this horrible neighbourhood and actually make a life for herself.

“Well, here’s hoping I never see you again,” I said, raising my Tim Horton’s cup in a half-hearted salute.

She started to walk away again, then looked back and gave an equally half-hearted wave.

“You’ll probably see me again,” she said. “Just not like this. I’ll be clean.”

With that she wandered back towards Hastings Street and disappeared around the corner.

That was more a year ago.

In the weeks and months that followed, I often wondered what had happened to the girl. I’d asked a few people on the street if they’d seen her, but most just shook their heads. They probably thought I was trying to track her down on another warrant.

I’d heard rumours that she’d made it to treatment and that she was busy proving me wrong. I hoped that was the case. Still, I kept expecting to one day find her tucked in an alcove with a crack pipe hanging off her lips.

Weeks turned to months and months became a year, and eventually I just stopped asking.

Truth is, after a few years working in this place, you get used to seeing people drift in and drift out. It’s a familiar pattern. Go to jail, get out and come back to the skids. Go to treatment, slip up and come back to the skids. Go into hiding, get found and, well, you get the idea. Like I’ve said before, this place is like the Hotel California — you can check in, but you can never leave.

So even though I hadn’t seen her for more than a year, I always just assumed I would see her again. I know it sounds defeatist and pessimistic, but that’s the sad reality down here.

Several weeks ago I caught wind from some other police officers that the girl was not only clean and living in the burbs, but that she wanted to come by the old police station at Main and Hastings to say hello to some of the cops who walked the beat when she was here. I was asked if I wanted to meet with her, and I jumped at the chance.

It’s rare in this neighbourhood for police to get the opportunity for a heart-to-heart with the people who live here. Too many people are worried about being seen as a snitch, and others are simply too distrustful of the police. Others who could use an ear to bend are too often lured away by the draw of the needle and the hoot of the crack pipe. As a result, police officers rarely get to hear the real stories about people ended up in this neighbourhood.

I felt a little nervous as I stood in the lobby of the police station waiting for her to arrive. I had traipsed her through the front doors of the old police station at Main and Hastings many times — both as a suspect in handcuffs and as a victim in tears. The last time I’d seen her, she was a 95-pound addict with needle pokes in her arms and crack-pipe burns on her lips.

In my mind, that’s who I was expecting to see again, and if I hadn’t been awaiting her arrival, I probably would have walked on by without recognizing her.

She was healthy, happy and — for once — wanted to be at the police station.

“I’m a new person,” she said, looking just as nervous as me.

We stood and talked for more than an hour about how she ended up in the Downtown Eastside, what finally got her out, and how she plans on staying clean. They weren’t simple questions.

She talked about being the child of an alcoholic mother, and how she first got drunk as a child. She explained how the booze turned to pot, and how by her early teens she was using party drugs like ecstasy and hanging around Hastings Street with her boyfriend. She explained how the party drugs led to crystal meth, how the meth led to heroin and cocaine, and how the heroin and cocaine led to nearly a decade of lying, cheating, thieving and scamming her way from fix to fix in the Downtown Eastside.

Now 28, she told me about how she used to rip people off so she could get money for drugs, and how she would rob men, first by posing as a prostitute, then by stealing their wallets when she had them alone.

She told me about her last few weeks on skid row — about hearing rumours about a hit on her and about being afraid to go outside.

Then she talked about rock bottom — the night she almost died at the hands of a man who tried to buy sex, then forced himself on her and nearly strangled her to death when she declined. The man was eventually caught and convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

We talked about the tortuous journey to get herself out of the Downtown Eastside, to get clean, and to stay clean. We talked about what it was like to testify against her attacker, and what she does whenever she craves drugs.

I asked her if she felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store, standing inside the police station in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, with drug dealers plying their trade just steps away from the front door. And while she insisted that she wasn’t tempted to use, there was no chance I was letting her take one unchaperoned step outside.

So, when she asked to go out for a smoke, I knew I had to join her. As I stood watching her in the alley behind the police station, I caught her glancing down the lane towards Hastings Street.

I asked her what she was looking at. Between puffs she told me how badly she wanted to wander over to Hastings and say hello to her old friends. They were just around the corner, she reasoned, and they were such good friends.

Friends? I figured she had to be joking. These were people who wouldn’t hesitate to sell her a piece of rock or a flap of heroin — people who could care less that she’d been clean and sober from more than a year.

I don’t know if she was fooling herself, or trying to fool me, but I knew that if I let her wander away there was a damn good chance she’d never come back. So I stayed with her as she finished one smoke, then lit another and power dragged it.

We made idle chat until her ride — another police officer — arrived to take her home to the suburbs.

Before she left, I asked her one final question. I wanted to know what she thought about the police officers who walk the beat in the Downtown Eastside. There is still such an us-against-them attitude for so many people who exist in this neighbourhood, and I could only imagine there was some lingering resentment towards the police who had made it so hard for her to be a criminal and a drug addict.

I was a little surprised when she told me there were no hard feelings, and that she now realized that all those times we busted her and took her to jail, that we were actually trying to help her. She thanked us for the work we do.

It was refreshing and encouraging to hear.

Success stories are rare in the Downtown Eastside, and after a while you tend to get a little cynical. Most people become cops because they want to make a difference in someone’s life. Here, in the Downtown Eastside, chances to do that sometimes seem few and far between. It can be really hard to stay motivated when nothing ever seems to change.

As I waved goodbye, I again told her that I hope I never see her again on the Downtown Eastside. She assured me I wouldn’t.

And unlike the first time she said it, this time I tended to believe her.

I told her she had proven me wrong, and I was glad she did.

I can only hope she continues to do so.

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34 Responses to Happy to be proven wrong

  1. Rick says:

    You are a superb story teller and this is a heartwarming tale.

  2. Sue says:

    There is so much that can be said in reply to this post. First of all, Steve, you are not a pessimist but a pragmatist and realist. Would this young woman ever consider writing her stories for others? And I knew at the end she would thank you. It’s you and your colleagues who did help her change her life around. Be proud.

    • Lori says:

      Your Blog is so well done .I would like to sit down and write stories from all sides, the police , the users , hookers, the johns , the residents, the shop keepers, the business people and the ones that got out. I think it would make a great book. I am going to try to figure out how to do it.

      • Jen says:

        @ Lori

        We don’t refer to the women in the Sex trade in the DTES as Hookers,but survival sex workers.

        Words like hooker,street walker,whore,etc were invented to dehumanize people who work in the sex industry.

        So when a woman goes missing,people would say “Oh it’s just some hooker”.

        And that’s what happened when women went missing from the DTES.

        Also the men who use survival sex workers services,are called Dates. Not Johns.

        I know all this because I myself had a back ground in the sex industry.

        • Lori says:

          I meant no harm and I am so sorry .Please steve delete my comment I eant no disrespect to anyone. I was ignorant.

          • km says:

            Seriously? Surely that is just political correctness running amuck.
            A date now means buying sex? So what do we call it when we meet up to go for coffee or watch a movie?

          • Jen says:

            No Lori

            Steve doesn’t have to erase your comment,I was just educating you about what words to use when talking about women working in the sex industry in the DTES.

            But now that you know I hope you use the word survival sex worker and not hooker.

  3. Jennifer says:

    My brother is down there…he has been there for about 8weeks.I am devastated.
    Sleepless nights,lots of tears.Overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness and despair.
    He has been addicted to heroin since he was about 15…(he turned39 in March )but like most addicted people it certainly isn’t the only drug he uses.
    When we were young we would come to the city for Christmas to be with our family and my Grandfather would take us down to the Union st Gospel Mission to donate the change he had saved over the year.We came from a small town and he was always trying to make sure that we understood what could happen to people that had fallen on hard times and how important it was to be thankful for what you had.
    Who could have known…

    Reading this story has been mildly comforting.Not that I am very optimistic at the moment but it does give me some sense of hope.
    I hope as well that you never see her down there again.
    I commend you on doing a job that would leave me crying myself to sleep at night.
    I hope one day I can tell this story about my brother.
    One thing is for sure,
    he isn’t down there because nobody loves him.

    • Veronica says:

      Jennifer, my heart aches for you and your family. Steve, thank you for your superb writing. I check everyday to see if you have something new to share.

    • Mick says:

      Jennifer. I understand how you feel. I will keep your brother in my prayers.

    • Jay says:

      Jen I can only imagine the heartache you and your family are going through but I wanted you to know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope your brother is safe and soon finds his way back to a family who loves him. Who knows what tomorrow brings.

  4. Liz says:

    Very cool story, thank you for sharing.

  5. Sue says:

    I wonder why except for Rick the rest of the entries here today are from women… just sayin’

  6. Steve (not the cop) says:

    Nice to hear.
    I hope that was her one and only visit to that area for a long, long time.

    Goes to show that we should never give up on anyone. As long as there is life, there is hope.

  7. camal says:

    Nice to hear.I truly hope this women makes it, thank you so much for sharing your stories.make you wish there was more you could do to grab that person the minute they decide to clean up and into a treatment center.Stay optimistic Jennifer a prey that this is the night he says “i have enough” and reach out and their it someone or something there to help him out of that hell hole.I sure hope that women make it.thank you for sharing your experiences.

  8. tracy says:

    That was a great story Steve, and all the more touching for it being so well written. I felt like I was right there with you as it played out. I know the work you do makes a difference every day, even if you don’t always get to see the results but it sure must have been a great feeling to learn how well that girl is doing now. Here’s hoping she stays clean and healthy.

  9. Mark says:

    @Jen:

    There are some sex trade workers that do not take issue with terms like hooker or prostitute. Perhaps they feel they’ll empower the word like black folks in the USA did with the “N” word.

    The one problem with the term “Survival Sex Worker” is that it all too often used to describe women that work as street walkers. Not every survival sex worker is a street walker and some survival sex workers may work indoors. It risks creating a stereotype that “outdoor = unsafe” and “indoor = safe”.

    @Steve The Cop: Changing 1 life and giving a person hope and dignity is no small accomplishment. I’m sure in that beat it’s easy to get cynical, but remember that one soul and remember her words. Hopefully someday they’ll be another.

    That woman has beaten her addictions but the nightmares, guilt & emotional trauma from years on the street will take much longer to heal. I hope she stays strong and that life is uneventful for her.

    • Jen says:

      @ Mark

      Your right Mark,there is survival sex workers of various gender that work in doors and outdoors.

      I myself as a former sex industry work take offense to the word:Hooker.

      Did you read what was said at the MWI yesterday?

      “Missing women were deemed ‘Just Hookers’ and looking for them was low priority.”

      There’s that H word again and it doesn’t seem to be used in a very up lifting or empowering manner.

      Just my thoughts.

      • Mark says:

        @Jen

        Unfortunately Jen, no matter what term used for the women in the MW tribunal they still would have been seen as people who were deemed to have worthless lives. The ugly truth is this society is a long way from accepting women in the sex trade. Society still hasn’t come to the grips that their are different levels & variables when it comes to prostitution. I often read forums & I am shocked at the misinformation & stereotypes that persist. We have a long way to go.

        I don’t know you Jen, but I have an understanding of what life is like as a survival sex worker. I’m happy you made it out and I hope your life is filled with the riches & happiness you desire. You’re a stronger person that most.

  10. km says:

    It really is a great story. Very well written and a happy ending too!

  11. Jay says:

    A great story Steve with a great ending. I hope her life continues to improve.

  12. Jacqueline says:

    Hi Steve,

    I didn’t know how to email you. I read your blog all the time. I found this photographer, who kind of does similar work to this blog. I think you should check out his flickr and the stories behind the portraits if you have a minute (I know you are super busy and super sleep deprived). Here is the link:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/arnade/sets/72157627894114489/

    He also does portraits of those who have recovered.

    Thanks for shedding some light, I think you are great.

    Jacqueline

    • Steve says:

      Very cool. Thanks for sharing. I’d love to be able to copy cat this, but I have to tread a little bit lightly when it comes to identifying people. It’s important for me to maintain people’s privacy, given the position that I’m in. I do appreciate your positive feedback.

  13. Mick says:

    Ok, so I’m on the Island (as in Vancouver Island). It’s April 25 at 10:50 PM. Yet, Steve’s (the cop) last post said it was made Apr 26 at 4:50 AM. How the heck did you do that?

  14. Kay says:

    Thanks for sharing Steve. I am an outreach worker for a homeless outreach program and there are times where it is hard to stay optimistic but stories like these remind me of why I do the work I do.

  15. Tanya says:

    It not only warms my heart to hear stories of recovery, but also gives me hope. my younger sister has been hanging in the Downtown Eastside for over 17 years now. She had three kids within this time and it wasn’t until her last child that she decided to stay clean and raise her baby. She was receiving help through Sheway. They helped her get into her own place with her baby. The only problem I had with that is that the building they moved her into was right down on Princess St. She had her baby for the 1st 2 years and then, unknowingly to anyone in the family she started doing cocaine again. This broke my heart. Eventually my niece was taken away and this had the strongest effect on her. I could see the pain in her eyes and I new right then that she was slipping away from us again. My niece is now 4years old and is living with me as my foster child. I had her now since July/11. My sister has told me many times that she has been clean for 12, 19, 9 or 3 days and that she want to work on being reunited with her babies. I’m like you, its beens so long for her being down there that I’ve become somewhat of a pessimist. Maybe, hopefully one day she will prove me wrong.

  16. Cydney says:

    What a great story. I used to work in a family run restaurant in a small northern BC town. The town being so small does not have the same type of programs in the cities to help people struggling with addiction and living on the streets. The owner used to give the homeless free food saying maybe it would be the little bit of help they needed to get their lives back together.

    I thought he was crazy giving away the food, he had a family to feed and worked 12 hour days at the restaurant. When I said this to him he replied, “One man that used to come here told me he wanted to get clean for his kids, he came here for a few years telling me this. After all this time I didn’t believe him anymore yet still gave him food. One day he didn’t show up, this turned into weeks. When he finally did come back he was clean, had regained custody of his kids and thanked me profusely. Out of all the people that come here I am happy to know I have helped someone, it keeps me going thinking that somewhere down the line I might help another person get off the streets”.

  17. Dee says:

    The way you portray the women when she wanted to go to see her old friends and you intervened, makes it sound like no one on the DTES can be trusted, nor can they actually be good people/friends, “Friends? I figured she had to be joking. “. Yes there are “friends” in the dtes that probably don’t care one way or another about her sobriety but I’m sure there are people down there that would be truly happy to hear of her success. That statement is a broad generalization and one that I have seen proven wrong first hand.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      They’re also the kind of ‘friends’ who can very easily pull a person like that right back into the gutter. Not maliciously, or even deliberately, but these things tend to happen.
      Misery loves company…

      When you get clean, the entire lifestyle needs to be changed – including the people you used to hang out with… because they are part of the lifestyle. There is a very close and natural association between those people and the unhealthy lifestyle you lived side-by-side with those people.
      And so it is only logical and safe that not until you are strong and stable enough – that is, not until you’ve been clean for a few years – should you even think of going to see your ‘old friends’ who are still stuck in the unhealthy gutter you got yourself out of.

      • Mark says:

        Steve (not the cop) is absolutely correct (OMG, we agreed on something).

        Escaping addiction is about escaping more than drugs. It’s about escaping a lifestyle. Go see those friends and she’d remember the “good” parts of the lifestyle because that’s human nature.

      • DJB says:

        I agree completely that the entire lifestyle must change. I left in 2001 and returned in 2003 for a specialists appt. I had been living clean and sober in a different province but had to return to that area for an appt. Long story short, I relapsed for the entire weekend I was there, and was very lucky to have made it back for my flight home. I will never make that mistake again. It has been 11 years since I quit that lifestyle but to this day I still have drug dreams, and know that if I was to return to see ‘old friends’ I could easily start using again. I love my life today, and know that if I ever use again I would die. Plain and simple. It’s all about choice for me today, as I have the healthy mind set that allows me to make that choice to use or not. Back in the day, my mind was so messed from using that I did not feel like I had a choice – it was all about getting high 24/7. I did not know how to do anything else. I do hope the woman in this story maintains her sobriety – it’s a difficult road, but so worthwhile.