A Drop of Human Potential

I try to avoid talking about my job when I meet new people.

It’s not that I don’t want them to know what I do for a living. I just cringe at the barrage of questions I don’t want to answer.

Questions like, “So, what’s your opinion about the Supervised Injection Site?”

Or, “Pot’s legal now, isn’t it? Oh, it’s not. Well it should be, don’t you think?”

And the latest one: “Were you in the riot? Who do you think is to blame?”

Bottom line is there are people who are much smarter than me who haven’t figured out the answers to such political hot potatoes.  So whenever I’m asked about work, I usually try to change the subject and avoid the inevitable game of 20 Questions.

The conversation I like to dodge the most is the one that pops up as soon as someone finds out I work on the Downtown Eastside. It’s a brutal place to work. I see the worst moments of humanity and have a front row seat to people at their lowest. And inevitably, people want to know how it affects me.

I’ve seen people stabbed over $5 of crack cocaine.  I’ve seen people fish packages of expired ground beef out dumpsters because they haven’t eaten in days. I’ve wrestled a drunken war vet with PTSD who was convinced I’m the Taliban and that East Hastings Street is somewhere in Kabul.

I’ve helped a man whose mattress was so infested with bed bugs, that he had to be hospitalized because of the sheer number of bites on his back. I’ve seen people barefoot in rat-infested lanes, sitting in human feces but not caring because all they can think about is hitting the plunger on the needle they’ve just loaded up.

People assume these things must weight heavy on me, that I’m emotionally traumatized or a ticking time bomb. I almost feel guilty when I tell them I’m not.

Perhaps I’m just desensitized. It’s not that I don’t care.  But when I go home at the end of the day I’m not haunted by the horrors I see. I don’t debrief with my partner and don’t feel like I need counseling.

It bothers me that these things don’t bother me more. Sometimes I feel guilty for not taking my work home with me.

I’ve thought about this a lot recently, and I think a big reason is that there’s just such a disconnect between the horrors I see at work and way things are in real life. It’s like I’m watching a TV channel that you just don’t get at home. When the day is done, it’s like the television is switched off.

The truth is, I don’t know how it feels to be an addict, and to spend every waking moment consumed with finding the next fix.

I’ve never been bitten by a bed bug.

I’ve never been stabbed over a drug debt.

And hopefully I will never have my reality clouded by untreated mental illness.

Just when I was becoming convinced that I may never be able to relate to anyone down here, I met someone who changed my mind.

It happened a few weeks ago.  It was about 2 a.m. My partner and I were working in plain clothes. Now, working plain clothes in the skids can be frustrating, to put it mildly, as criminals who work these streets are very savvy. Usually, they see us long before we see them.

But every once in a while you catch one by surprise.

On this night, my partner and I were hunkered under an awning at Main and Pender Street. To my left, about 20 metres up the street, I caught a glimpse of a hand-to-hand transaction.

I recognized her. She’s one of the most hardcore and street-entrenched addicts I’ve come to know. I’ve developed a bit of a soft-spot for her, and her a lukewarm respect for me, despite me having to put her in jail well over a dozen times.

Him, I did not recognize.

He popped the top off a pill bottle, dug something out from inside, and handed it to her. She squeezed it tight in her hand while he re-sealed the bottle and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

My partner saw the same thing, and we both moved at the same time.

Partners who work well together seem to develop an ability to read each other’s minds. Each knows exactly what the other is thinking and what the other is going to do, without having to discuss it.

I pulled back my hood and b-lined for the guy, securing the evidence in the pill bottle. My partner pulled out his badge and headed for the girl, snatching the drug out of her hand before she could toss it to the ground.

Pill pushers and crack dealers are dime-a-dozen around Main and Hastings. You can get anything from crack, heroin and pot to Tylenol 3s, Valium and Percocets. There are so many people selling dope and pills, and so few of us, that we couldn’t possibly put them all in jail. There simply wouldn’t be any cops on the streets. We’d all be writing reports.

Discretion is a skill that is quickly learned when you’re a cop on the Downtown Eastside, and I personally don’t have a lot of interest in putting a poor marginalized addict in jail. So, we kicked loose the female. We were more interested in the guy she was with.

She shuffled away, grumbling under her voice about how we made her look like a rat. No chance we were getting a thank you for the get-out-of-jail-free card.

When we began to debrief her dealer, we quickly learned he was not much of a dealer at all. Which is probably how he was so easily caught in the first place.

In fact, as we spoke under the awning, it dawned on me that he wasn’t much different than me, save for a few bad choices and an inability to lay-off the curve balls life throws his way.

He told me about how he’d been born into a pretty normal family, like me.

He talked about growing up in the 80s in a middle class family with good parents, and how he idolized the punk icons of the day, like the Ramones and Sid Viscious. He explained how their hard-living lifestyles and drug use were romanticized, and how he soon started to emulate his idols and experiment with heroin.

He told me about how he got hooked on heroin in his teens, then kicked the drug after doing some hard time in jail. He told me about the prison beatings, the jail house tattoos and about this recent relapse, which found him wandering the streets of the Downtown Eastside in the middle of the night, and now talking with me.

He went on to explain how he’d been clean for a decade, up until a month ago. He told me about the seven languages he speaks and his three degrees, and how he can’t find work because of his ongoing struggle to stay clean.

This man was smarter than I will ever be, yet it’s worthless to him.

As we continued to chat, he told me that despite all he has lost and all he still has to lose, he is drawn to the skid row lifestyle. To him, the idea of being a junkie remains strangely appealing.

He shared the guilt he feels about stealing from his family just to feed his addiction. There were far worse things he’d done, which he vowed to never share with anyone.

It struck me how this man was so much like me, yet so drastically different. We both grew up in the 80s, in good middle class homes with parents who taught us right from wrong.

But for a few choices, he could be in my shoes and I in his. It’s not like I never had the opportunity to experiment and live life on the edge.

I’m not one to lecture at the best of times, and this man surely didn’t need to be talked down to.

So as we parted ways I hailed him a cab and wished him good luck. I told him I hoped I would never see him again, then told myself I probably would. So far I haven’t, and my fingers remain crossed.

Day-in, day-out on the Downtown Eastside, we see the misery, pain and loneliness that drug addiction and mental illness brings. It’s easy to become cold and desensitized to it all.

Then every so often we stumble into someone who reminds us that not everyone is a lost cause. They remind us that all these people are sons and daughters who were once free from addiction.

They remind us that we could have been them, and they us, save for a few bad choices.

Above all, they remind us that in their seemingly bottomless pool of despair and self neglect, there remains a drop of human potential.

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28 Responses to A Drop of Human Potential

  1. Diana says:

    This is a great insight into the downtown eastside. I found this blog through the vpd twitter feed and think you guys are doing a great job with twitter and now this blog, too. It’s wonderful to see. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. George says:

    Thank you for posting this diary. Many are unaware of the actual misery. I’m not sure if you are able to answer my question, but I’d be interested to know your position on insite.

    There was a time when I would have supported it, but as the years roll by I realize that the numbers for success are just not there. I personally feel we require the 4 pillars, and that doesn’t seem to be part of the equation…

    Thanks for what you do on a daily basis for our city.

  3. Leane says:

    I saw you on Global Noon News today and thought your blog would be interesting to read. The blog about the man who has 3 degrees and speak many different languages was very interesting. I hope also like you that he stays off of heroine and gets back his life and uses his education and turn his life around to be the best he can be. Thanks for doing such a great job and keep it up!

  4. Mel V. says:

    Hi Steve,

    I found your blog through Sandra Glendinning’s recommendation. Thanks for writing. You’re good at it and I’m interested to get a glimpse into a world that my nice sheltered little self has trouble believing exists.

    I’m glad that your work doesn’t haunt you. So long as you’re treating people decently on the job and off it, I don’t think it indicates anything bad about you. It’s great that you have the mental armor to be able to handle a job that is very difficult and very needed without being damaged by it. Good luck to you.

  5. Carolyn says:

    This was a very interesting blog post to read. It is hard for us “normal” people to understand the life of a junkie and the absolute filth and squalor that exist in the downtown eastside of Vancouver.

    Keep up the good work. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  6. Sam says:

    Terrific post.

  7. just a gurl says:

    Wow…kudos to this blog andhow u never judge. You are one of Gods angels here on earth as am I. Just over two years ago I met a guy downtown…and within 5 hours of meeting this guy, he saved my life as I nearly plunged to my death in a freak accident when a window broke and I nearly fell out. Following this event we starting hanging out. We had a lot in common, had both recently been seperated and were in our “post marriage partying time”. He was honest with me and did tell me that he had struggled with addiction years ago but that he had been clean for 7 years. As we spent time together I did not realize he and his brother had started dabbling in heroin again…by the time I found out I was already so deeply infatuated with him I couldn’t turn my back. I spent endless days and nights worrying, crying and checking up on him. He did not hide his addiction, but he never involved me or used around me. Within 2 months he was battling the demon. Around the same time his brother, who had also been going through issues with depression and in his marriage overdosed. This was his twin brother. Regardless of the fingers pointing from his family, the shame and the blame I attended the funeral with him, this was the first time he used in front of me, knowing that he could not be dope sick at his twin brothers funeral. Days later he entered the same rehab program which he had attended before, however ended up leaving after just a few days, as he could not adapt to the structure and discipline. We again were lost not knowing what to do, with limited funds we were not able to get him into a non government funded treatment facility. He was a successful business man who was earning over 15k a month, at his worst he was using more than $300 of heroin a day. While researching addiction, which was all very new to me, I came across an addictions counsellor. He charged $120 per hour to get in to see him but after hearing my partners story agreed to see him for free, an ANGEL from God. He started my partner on medication for his anger issues, which is what a lot of heroin addicts suffer from, they need the heroin to slow their thought process, the problem was how to get off the heroin. My partner was only using a small amount throughout the day at this point, only enough not to get dope sick. The fear of withdrawl was probvably the worst part of the addiction. The itchy legs, the nite sweats, the stopping breathing while sleeping (which is what took his brothers life). It scarred me too. I would stay up all night, and any slight change in his breathing, I would wake him up and sit him up instantly. The counsellor referred us to a clinic downtown. Walking in we were with a bunch of “junkies” but as I looked around I saw they were people, peoples sons brothers mothers sisters fathers …as was he.

    WE FOUND SUBOXONE. Different from methadone, you don’t need to go get it everyday, you take a pill each day. The psychologist assured us that is he started taking this he would not suffer any withdrawal symptoms. He had his last bit of heroin and in the morning was to start the suboxone the following morning when he started to feel sick. Guess what it worked. He was on the suboxone for four months then slowly weaned off.

    I never judged him, never shut the door, and never turned my back. I did whatever it took to save his life. It may have taken me 9 months of extreme stress worry anxiety and fear but he is here today because of that, because on that one night we met God sent him to me to save my life and in return I saved his.

    Never judge never look past, a lot of the people out there need the help but are too sick to even take the first step to get the help they need. Even I, had a really hard time finding and accessing the resources required to get the assistance required.

    I will follow your blog and commend u, keep up the great work. And if you ever need someone to help out feel free to get in touch with us. We would be happy to assist in any way possible!!!

  8. Kat says:

    This is so great. Tremendous work. Our hearts go out to all of you working the DTES. God knows, I couldn’t do it.

  9. Dan says:

    Great blog!

  10. Busy Executive says:

    I came across this article on Facebook and decided to read, I am pleased that I did.
    I work in Gastown at a nice office with great people. My day to day puts me in contact with the downtown east side. Sometimes I fear those who I pass and wonder what they made do to me and if my life is in danger. Most people have such a strong notion that all homeless and all addicts are not worth existing. It’s really quite the opposite, someone else’s misery and unfortunate life is what makes us continue with ours. We look at those less fortunate as people we never wish to be, bottom of the barrel. I however have great respect for those who live in strife, I do not have an ounce of the courage and fight that they do. To make one poor decision or non at all and to live a life in the streets, most certainly inhumane. Lucky for us we are allowed to form our own beliefs and thoughts but sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zone to grow as individuals.

    I appreciate the officer who wrote this, your hard work and dedication to clean the streets that we live does not go unrecognised. Thank you!

    I’ll be sure to send this blog off in my morning report.

  11. Dori says:

    I appreciate your candidness and compassion – I think this must have taken a lot of courage to write these things, but doing so gives me some faith in humanity again.

    I know of two excellent books about addiction (I am including in the objects of addiction not only substances, but also activities like shopping and exercise, as well as states, such as status and power).

    1) In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts was written by Gabor Maté, a Vancouver psychiatrist who actually worked in the DTES. I think it’s brilliantly written: it communicated to me some of the emotional realities of Dr. Maté and the people he worked with, as well as insights from some of the most recent scientific research.

    2) Addiction as an Attachment Disorder by Philip J. Flores, PhD. I haven’t read this yet, but it was recommended to me by someone I trust. It contains in-depth theoretical and clinical material that focus on the myriad of questions about addiction (e.g “Addiction: an attempt at self-repair that fails”) and treatment (e.g. “Rules for Effective Treatment: An Attachment Perspective).

  12. this is a wonderful blog to celebrate the ability to not judge but try to make a difference in the world. kudos for you and thank you for sharing.

  13. Kelle says:

    Thanks for writing this, it’s important for the public to hear more from the people who are working on the front lines, not only policy writers, politicians, and people who just want the problems to go away. I hope your insights can offer people a glimpse of the brutal reality of life in the DTES.

    I also understand how you can “shut off” what you see on a daily basis and not take it home with you. I think people who work in front-line positions have to compartmentalize or disconnect so that they can continue to work there. If you took it home every day you’d be a basket case.

    Thanks for doing this.

  14. Kathy says:

    Loved this post. I also work in the DTES and regard it as my neighborhood, my work one. I say “good morning” to the same faces as I walk from the parking lot in the morning. It’s important never to forget that pretty well every one of the residents of this area was once a little kid in kindergarten, an unknown future of infinite possibilities ahead of them. I’m fairly certain that none of them would have said “drug addict” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

    Thank you for your clear-eyed view of the world, for your willingness to let people follow, and your eloquent and readable account. I’m adding you to Sandra Glendinning as a blog to check daily.

  15. B says:


    This post blew me away. And you have an incredible gift for writing.

    You are breaking all the stereotypes and generalizations about the Downtown Eastside and the VPD. You are writing real, insightful stories- something mainstream media and the news has forgotten how to do.

    Please continue to share your experiences as you will make a difference in the world.


  16. Anthony a heroin addict you don't see says:

    I appreciate your insights, it’s always interesting to find different opinions. Though I do feel you generalize the downtown eastside as well as drug addicts like myself. I have been addicted to heroin since I was fifteen years old. I am trying hard to stop using and it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. Speaking from experience addictions are a social issue not a criminal one. It doesn’t help the addict to take there drugs or shake them down… That will never change them inside. The only that has help me is a loving family and good relationships. If anyone really cares don’t demonize addicts. I’m a heroin addict. I’m clean, neat and organized, everyone deals with addictions in there own way, once again I appreciate your thoughts. As an addict I depend on insite for medical help as well as clean supplies, it scares me that the Harper govt. wants our thousands of intravenous drug users using dirty needles over and again. I may have the extra 5 dollars it takes to buy syringes but most addicts on the downtown eastside don’t. A home assembled injection kit is nowhere near as good as and insite one. Insite also gives you proper filters so your not using stupid things. All and all I just want it to be known insite DOES help people, and not always who you think. I’m a kid from the suburbs and I’ve never had a cop pick me out.

    • Just a gurl says:

      I read your reply and had to respond I don’t know if you read my whole reply but I have to reach out. If you are still using heroin, I understand te hol it has, if you really want to get clean and free from the addiction, I urge you to contact the Yale medical clinic and go meet with Dr saman Miremadi. He can prescribe you Suboxone which was the saving grace for my partner to cut the ties with the demon of his addiction. He could not for the life of him cold turkey the addiction as the fear of withdrawal kept him using. He was Jaime upwards of $300 a day at one point, and on his own got down to $ 40 a day. This drug. Suboxone really really works!!! Dr Miremadi works on Thursday afternoons and you attend once a week to fill your prescription. Do it for your family, your partner, but most of all for yourself. Good luck !

  17. Janice says:

    THank you for your honesty and shariong your thoughts. Addicts ARE people and they deserve the help that they need. Safe drug sites are a way of prevention of spreading diseases and not sharing dirty needles. Government officials are so far removed from anything like this, they just don’t get it. They would rather spend our money on things that we don’t need. I have worked with addicts, homeless, abused men, women and children for many years and it isn’t getting any better out there. We need more compassion in this world and more love. We shouldn’t be judging anyone for anything. God is the only one that can judge.God bless you for sharing and letting people know some of the other side of things. Take care of yourself.

  18. Griffin says:

    It is reassuring to hear the affect this man and his story had on the officer, now imagine if the story wasn’t necessary for us to be reminded of the humanity amidst this all. Despite the graphic disguises that mask who people really are, they are, no matter what they do, a daughter, a son, and potentially is never lost. If it were, a coal would never become a diamond.

  19. Mike says:

    Police get a bad wrap, but they are put in a lose-lose situation sometimes. I think these articles go a long way in helping the public understand the positions you are put in each day. I have been in trouble with the law, I have hated, but it was myself I have to blame. Anyone who has not lived in the area or dealt with addiction needs to realize it can happen to anyone. Thank you for this well written, thoughtful blog.

  20. Meg says:

    Mebbe you’re not a tormented soul over where you work because you are one of the people who ‘get it’. Working in that community is a life changing and challenging experience however what may make it bearable is having peace with the knowledge that most of the people you deal with possess the denominators common to us all ~ their paths, for whatever reason, have deviated to where most of us prefer not to go.

    They are human. Flawed and problematical to be sure but human nonetheless with very human needs and meeting them on that level helps preserve your humanity and sanity and in all likelihood will contribute mightily to your effectiveness. More power to you if it does.

    I could go on but if I continue to follow this blog, I probably will anyway. 🙂 Let me leave you with a quote that is my current Facebook status and see if it works for you as well. 🙂

    “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” ~ Elie Wiesel

  21. alc says:

    I am completely elated I to stumble upon this blog site. I guess my first question is…is what you’re doing legal? do you have to remain annonymous? for your own safety? …idk I just have never come across a page like this and I think it is truly important. a first hand look, and a way to get the word out. I have dealt with people I love dealing with psychosis, and addiction, and all the things that happen where you are on the beat. but to see it first hand by a cop, and to see a compassionate one at that, is really incredible and amazing to me. society ( well at least where i live) cops are always out to get…tag..lock up…find “the wrong”…but you are doing your job, but at the same time remaining a compassionate empathetic onlooker…i think it is great, and something this world needs. i can’t fully express how this blog makes me feel…cuz i don’t know i have the proper adjectives at the moment…but bravo. keep it up. and thank you. I know you will save a life (if u haven’t already) or hopefully more. xo

  22. Lasting Impression says:

    My uncle used to be a resident of the DTES… I am unsure of how he made it out, but he did. However, his demons followed along and he was an addict until the end. I don’t think you are heartless for it not affecting you the way people think it should. I wasn’t able to talk to my uncle for 17 yrs, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t think about or care about him. Sometimes things are what they are and we are who we are and no one should expect otherwise.

  23. L says:

    Excellent blog about life in the DTES as it is today. Now a glimpse into my story… many years ago (in the late 60’s, early 70’s, I was a heroin addict down there. So much has changed since then. I was often jumped and choked and beat by the VPD for the balloon of heroin I carried in my mouth if I was “lucky” enough to have an abundance of dope to sell. When I wasn’t selling heroin I was selling my body. Life was hard. Very often I was caught and sent to Oakalla, an old, antiquated jail for women in Burnaby. Life was hard. We had to scramble to get our fixes and a dirty old hotel room for the night, there was never anyone sleeping on the streets like there is now. Certainly no one would ever fix in an alley or out on the street, we would be caught and thrown into jail and charged with possession. The police would round up people and throw them in the drunk tank if they were found out on the streets for 2 or 3 consecutive nights. If it were not for methadone, I would never have made it off the streets. I wanted more than anything to be a “normal” person who did not have to wake up sweating because I needed a fix, so on to methadone I went for 10 years. But, thank God I was not lost forever. Through the presence of mind, and through the help of Jesus Christ I made a life for myself and moved off the streets. My big escape from that hell hole!! I feel so sorry for the people who are trapped down there. The drugs they use have catapulted them into a long, dark road. It is my prayer that through people like you and your partner that they can receive the help they need. God bless you and keep you safe, may angels walk before you and behind you to keep you from harm.

  24. Gerry Martin says:

    I was homeless for 17 years, mainly in Toronto and Ottawa and a lot through the Maritimes. I was a Homeless Veteran. I sometimes go downtown to the Eastside to hand out smokes and cigs. One time I was going to get arrested for giving a girl 5 dollars for food, (though i know it was for crack). Because I have a criminal record i am treated by the police with disrespect. I am no longer that person, why can’t they just see that. I am married now, own a home. I will never trust a cop in my life. Sorry. I even see a cop and i have a panic attack. Though there are some good cops out there. Far and few inbetween.

    • Janice says:

      It is sad that you find yourself still being treated as a bad guy. My suggestion to you is keep doing what you are doing, those people need all of the help they can get. The next time a cop approaches you, instead of panicing explain to them what you are trying to do and not be on the deffense so quick. I understand your fear, but if they saw you giving a young girl money they assumed the wrong thing quickly, but do you know what that must have looked like to the officers? Keep handing out the cigs and leave your wallet at home. Just a thought.

  25. DTES Vet says:

    I have just left working the DTES after 12 years. A large part of that was working in a certain harm reduction site that you comment on a fair bit. I am pretty sure we met there a few times and possibly at other sites connected with said harm reduction site. I just wanted to say two things. I also went home everyday and didn’t dwell on the day after running into Hastings to prevent someone from getting hit by a car or doing cpr between the coffee shop and work or talking someone down when they thought they were on fire and felt the need to remove all their clothes…it just became part of my life and I thought everyone had days like me. Now that I work out in the Valley I realize how much I miss the days on Hastings.

    I also wanted to say that I know how hard a time your get on your job from both the residents of the DTES and surprisingly many of the front line workers who feel all “six” are evil. I have to say all the many, many times I had dealings with the VPD most of the regular beat cops were great.

    I am glad I found your blog and now I can keep up with the latest on the street. I think it is great that I can name almost everyone in your photo’s and know the alleys just from a small glimpse in a picture.


  26. Vancouver Cop Watch says:

    Steve everyone in the DTES has potential.

    What they lack is the supportive services to help them reach their potential.