An ounce of prevention

Kamloops Blazers toured the Downtown Eastside with Odd Squad members

The solution to the scourge of the Downtown Eastside seemed more black and white when I began working down here. I figured then, as some do now, that the salve for this neighbourhood’s problems was strict enforcement and harsh penalties for people who commit crimes, regardless how petty or severe.

Put a police officer on every corner. Show zero-tolerance. Send a drug addict to jail enough times and he’ll eventually clean up. If not, he’ll at least move out of the area. Right?

Not so much.

That hard-line view is shared by many, including a few who e-mailed to criticize my recent blog post in which I describe catching two people making a drug deal, then letting both walk away without putting them in jail.

While there are few things in this job that are as satisfying as putting a bully, a cheater or a predator behind bars, it’s painfully obvious that we simply are not going to arrest our way out of this crime and drug epidemic. The Downtown Eastside already boasts the highest number of arrests in the city. Still, it continues to be the most violent and drug-adled neighbourhood by far.

So, while putting people in jail is often necessary and quite satisfying for those of us who walk the Hastings beat, enforcement is just part of the fix. The real solution, I’m beginning to learn, is to stop people from getting addicted to drugs in the first place.

Last night I had an opportunity to work with a group of beat officers that is doing just that.

Constables Brian Hobbs, Tyler Urquhart and David Steverding are part of the Beat Enforcement Team. They are also volunteers with the Odd Squad Society, a group of officers that works to educate youth about the importance of making smart choices when it comes to drugs.

They let me tag along as they took a group of players from the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers on a reality tour through the Downtown Eastside. The young athletes, all trying to punch their tickets to the NHL, spent the afternoon and evening touring the back alleys and rooming houses of Hastings Street, and hearing from addicts whose lives have been wasted because they made once bad decision – to try dope.

I walked with them and listened as they talked to people on the street about addiction and how they ended up down here. I was surprised how many people’s hard-wired addictions started with social drinking or smoking a bit of pot, then led to a never-ending search for a more powerful high, a search which took them through every drug and back alley they could find.

We ran into one female at the corner of Hastings and Columbia Street. She had just shot heroin into a vein in her neck, and was still clutching the uncapped rig in her right hand while swaying on the corner. After she put the needle down, she spent 20 minutes telling her story.

An admitted “dope pig,” she talked about how she got hooked on heroin at age 16 and has spent almost half her adult life on skid row. Now 30, she sells her body for sex just to make money and get high. On a good night, she’ll give oral sex up to 10 times, to 10 different men. If she’s lucky, she’ll make $40 a date.

What affected me most was when she admitted that every time she gets in a car, she knows she might not live to get out. But she doesn’t care. The need to get high overpowers her better judgement.

It was a message that was neither lost on me, nor the guys from the Kamloops Blazers.

The WHL team is part of a program created by Odd Squad that aims to get the athletes, who are all role models in their community, talking to students about the dangers of drug use. The idea is that impressionable and at-risk youngsters are more likely to heed the warnings of 18- and 19-year-old hockey studs than they are to listen to another scared-straight message from a group of cops.

Members of the Kamloops Blazers spoke with a drug addict on East Hastings Street

So, each time a WHL team rolls through Vancouver, they spend a day with the Odd Squad, learning about the Downtown Eastside and talking to people who have made the wrong choices in life. Accompanied by RCMP members from their respective communities, the players are sent home with all of the Odd Squad’s presentation material. Their job is then to go into the schools of the towns they play hockey in, and spread the message.

Last year, after receiving a similar presentation from the Odd Squad, players from the Blazers went back to Kamloops and gave more than 20 presentations throughout their community, reaching approximately 4,000 youngsters.

I remember being in the audience for a similar presentation when I was growing up in North Delta. Years later, when it came time for me to make difficult choices, it was that sobering talk that helped me stay on the right path.

As the idiom goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  And if a group of hockey players can convince just one at-risk youth to make the right choice, that’s one less person that’s going to show up on my street corner. It’s one less person whose potential could be lost due to a single bad choice.

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21 Responses to An ounce of prevention

  1. Peter says:

    What a fantastic blog. Thank you.

  2. Ninja says:

    Sorry, just to clarify, I may have missed the part on your feelings towards alcohol and weed specifically. Do you feel neither should ever be done within one’s own lifetime? Or is this a matter of monitoring oneself, how you handle your liquor and how often? Waiting till the right age? I’m curious to know the argument that they are using in their presentations.

    Thank you for this blog by the way, I just moved to downtown for the first time near chinatown station on that gentrified edge, it is certainly colourful and eye opening. Gotta love the adorable schizos screaming in the night.

  3. Chris S. says:

    I came across this web site thanks to the power of Twitter. I am a recovering drug addict from Saskatchewan but lived in Vancouver for a while and, not surprisingly, spent a lot of my waking hours in the Downtown Eastside area.

    I want to thank you for starting your blog. As I approach one year of being clean, I have been proactive in my recovery and have humbly worked through the twelve steps of Narcotics Anonymous. Your blog is a reminder for recovering addicts such as myself just how ugly life on the streets are and, perhaps selfishly, fills me with gratitude that I’m not suffering anymore and have found a new way to live.

    I commend your efforts to bring your experiences as a peace officer on the streets of Vancouver to the public at large. I didn’t start going to NA because life was fun and I was enjoying getting high. Active addiction is a terrible place to be, and the horrors that you see and articulate so well here need to be shared. If your blog helps just one person stay away from drugs you have performed a small miracle.

    I pray that the people you encounter on a day-to-day basis are able to one day find the peace and serenity that is out there. Thank you.

    Warmest Regards,

    Chris S.

  4. Janice says:

    Everyone has a story as to the whys and hows they ended up on skid row doing drugs. The reality is that they did make the wrong choices. We must try to understand that wehn you are in a crisi situation and you have no one around to hep you or listen to you, there is a good chance that you will make a wrong choices out of desperation and stress. Not all of us have good coping skills.Rumnning scared and feeling alone with the idea that there is no where to turn the choice is made to numb the pain. And the ball starts to roll from there. I am sure these people who wander the streets looking for their next fix or a hot meal,didn’t decide that today they were going to become a drug addict or alcoholic. It is a process and it grabs you fast and hard. Insted of judging them I think more of us need to find a way to help and support them.What if , for just one moment that this happend to one of your family members? We need to show compassion and not be so fast to say lock them up and move them along. Doesn’t work that way. I can’t immagine how difficult it is for these lost souls to servive, taking risks getting into cars with strangers let alone doing drugs and maybe overdosing.God bless them all.

  5. Arduinna says:

    Prevention is good, but when you talk with many addicts ALCOHOL and pot are the gateway drugs. That is a scary fact when fact with today’s glorification of binge drinking, starting as young as 14. Prevention needs to come from all of society, including the mass media. Too many people see alohol (and marijuana) as ‘harmless’ and they are not. A change in thinking needs to happen now.

  6. Casey says:

    I have had the privilege to walk with some of the ODD Squad members down on the lower east side of Hastings. I too was hard line in my thinking that more stringent enforcement meant cleaning up the neighbourhood and subsequently the problem. As Mark S showed me on many occasions – reality is different from what we think. ODD Squad are the best! They bring compassion and understanding to those who are caught in addiction while upholding our laws. More importantly, they message to those who will listen the consequences of drug usage. It is not pretty but from what I see it is effective.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Dolores says:

    What a wonderful program — thanks for letting us know about it!

  8. annemarie kenmare says:

    I love your blog.
    having worked with children and youth or many years I know for a fact that many permanent wards and other kids involved with MCFD end up living DTES.
    What percentage of the population there now would you guesstimate grew up with the Ministry for parents? Also in terms of prevention, do you believe as I do that a lot more could be done during period in care, to prevent these kids from growing up to die on the streets or have their own children repeat the same cycle?
    I have witnessed first hand the ministry encouraging youth to go out on their own only to end up lost forever to addiction.
    Thank you

  9. Mike Stewart says:

    What a great idea!

    Hockey players are an influential group in small hinterland towns where a lot of the residents of the DTE come from!

    Keep up the good work!

  10. Monica says:

    What a great blog. I hope this will help the public learn more about the DTES and get
    motivated to help these people out instead of casting them out. Thank you for your time and effort in starting this. Please don’t be afraid to post the graphic, as it is what the public needs to see: reality.

    Maybe it would help if you had more input from the DTES community, in effort to make this blog stronger.

    Also, great idea to get hockey players involved; athletes are expected to be the healthier group in society, so plotting them as role models to kids is a great tactic!

    Keep up the good work, both in blogging and on the streets 🙂

  11. vancouverite says:

    I’m disappointed to see the red herring of gateway drugs here… OF COURSE addicts start with booze or pot – who doesn’t? But correlation is not causation, and this argument has been dead for a long time. Society needs to stop talking about booze and pot in the same category as heroin and meth, then we’ll start focusing on the real threats.

  12. systemic thinking says:

    I applaud your ability to move beyond black and white thinking in terms of finding solutions to drug problems and drug epidemics. You are absolutely right about an ounce of prevention. I hope you can move beyond seeing prevention as only “stopping people from starting”. Your view of addiction starts at the individual, when often addiction is a problem with the ways we relate to each other. Often these addictions, as Janice commented, are the result of trauma and pain from ones history. Abuse in families, intimate violence, or violence experienced on the streets are all the real root. The drugs are just medicine to hide the pain and avoid the problem. If you want to get into some real prevention, how about addressing the violence of the Canadian state against first-nations folks. They are disproportionately more likely to become addicted, live in the DTES, and experience violence. The police often enact violence in communities where people are racialized as a way of defending a state that has no legitimate title in this place. Get to the root of the problem. Arrest the bankers and the landlords, the profiteers, the Prime Minister. They made this problem. I hope someday you’ll find the real roots.

  13. CM says:

    It is reassuring to know that there are truly good cops & men in the world who are moved to make a difference after being touched by the hopelessness for change in the East Side. When I read about what you face on these streets day after day I can only imagine how easy it might be to “shut off” the ability to see addicts as fellow human beings and instead as something less. To those who have guarded against hardening their hearts and giving up on the down and outs, who have, instead of throwing up their arms decided that there IS a way to make a difference – thank you! Thank you for caring enough to establish a program that demonstrates more than a heart to police, but to actually change the world for the better. To establish such a program as the Odd Squad reflects, to me, a conscious effort to remain connected to humanity and not allow the dismissal of the less fortunate as sub-human beings incapable of change. I applaud these men (and women) for caring and for allowing the stories of the heartache of those on the street to be used for good.

  14. sandra gagnon says:

    I’ve met many officers since my sister: Janet Gail Henry went missing and I got a lot of support from every one I spoke to especially the missing women task force. But one Officer who I won’t name said that the women could’nt get dates anyway. He mentioned it to a reporter that told me. I was saddenned by that.

  15. Skylar says:

    I just love your blog and look forward to it everytime I hear there is a new one out! I work in the DTES as a support worker and I find myself looking to your blog for inspiration and guidence. I think that your attitude and way of thinking about these vulnerable people down here, is spot on. They all have childhoods, memories and stories that got them to who they are today. Judgement is the last thing that they need.

    I think sometimes police officer’s can get a bad repuation but your blog has helped me see another side. That at the end of the day you just want to do your part and get home safe. I totally get that.

    thanks mr. officer!

  16. IamWhateverYouThinkIam says:

    I smoked weed for a few years in my early teens, which I hated, until I found alcohol at around 18 yrs of age. I’m 43 now and have not had a drink in 1 year. I don’t attend anonymous groups, read self-help books, or otherwise participate in anything that will perpetuate the cycle of shame (read blame) that caused the need to drink in the first place.

    I was an abused child. It was pounded into me that it was MY personal failures that caused the abuse, and certainly not the abusers own twisted projections that took a stellar mind (mine) and warped it to the point that I became paralyzed within myself. I was saddled with the unwanted role of family scapegoat. Blamed and held responsible for the family’s problems, always at the ready to do my duty to deflect the spotlight off any given member at any given time. Big role for a little child to play – which – by the way – I only found out was abnormal a short time ago. When I turned 18 the scapegoat role didn’t automatically disappear, it didn’t turn to me and say, “you’re an adult now, you don’t have to be defensive and angry anymore, or believe you’re a worthless piece of s*%@ to appease your twisted family”. Nope, didn’t get that enlightenment on my 18th, and although I was angry, more like rage-filled, I thought it was normal. Very few people would come near me, and if they did, I drove them off. It was my job as a child to deflect for the family, the family didn’t “need” me anymore, so the scapegoat role manifested into me making sure no one knew who I was – which as far as I could tell – was a failure. I was desperate for companionship, love, attention, friends, invitations, college, A JOB. I saw other people had these things and I was clueless as to how to get them too. I was absolutely dumbfounded by the situation I was in. Why didn’t I get help? I thought it was normal. It’s as plain as that. I had been programmed to believe that a downward spiral was my only calling in life despite any aspirations I may have held. My love as a child was so pure and trusting that I BELIEVED every single humiliating word and act against me was NORMAL. It was seared and sealed into every cell and became the core of my being. All of this resulted in a petty criminal record, poor work record, welfare & food bank use, drinking, chronic depression, anxiety, rageful episodes, no friends (except the bar and that was iffy at best), weight loss & gain, insomnia, and sheer mind-numbing loneliness. Until just recently I was diagnosed with ADD and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which brings me to my point. I had for years walked in and out of doctors & therapists offices and anonymous groups trying to get help. I’ve dealt with indifference from the professionals to the nut cases of the anonymous groups until finally someone listened to me. LISTENED, shut their mouth, didn’t say a word and just listened. The moment I heard about scapegoating and PTSD the desire to drink vanished as did the desire to keep going back to my family like a whipped dog. I had an answer, the right answer. Why on earth hadn’t anyone mentioned these life altering facts to me prior to now? I had kept saying what the problem was over and over again, yet focus on the drinking seemed to be the priority of the professionals and the nut jobs at the anonymous groups. What I had to say about it made no difference. Is there an agenda out there amongst some of the “do-gooders”? Probably and yes.

    Whether some people can believe it or not, some of the strongest people ever to walk this earth inhabit the skids everywhere. We shouldered beyond our years when we didn’t have a choice, and like I pointed out earlier, the designated role doesn’t die because a child turns 18. The very idea that we now have “choices” at 18 is absurd. Eighteen years of being brainwashed to accept the will of others imposed on us whenever and however, sees to that.

    In all the years of mental health appointments and anonymous meetings why had I never been told about PTSD? Why was the focus always about blaming me? Maybe the next time someone’s shaking their head in disbelief asking themselves how a person could shoot up, drink, or risk getting in a car, perhaps they should ask this, are these down and outers getting the RIGHT INFORMATION to take the bull by the horns? I only know from my experience and the answer was no. The day time talk show blame the victim mentality is an abhorrent hindrance and does nothing but “elevate” the speaker of such inconsequential drivel. And anyone whom is already down and out with limited inner resources is going to fall for it time and time again. The wounded in the skids everywhere need the truth, not just partial truths, or pathetic self-help slogans, and ridiculous gratitude lists. They need to know, and LEARN TO BELIEVE, that the abuse heaped on them when they were small and had no choice WAS NOT THEIR FAULT. Then, and only then, can any meaningful responsibility be taken to become what they never thought they could be; useful to themselves and to others.

  17. Ed says:

    He’s right. I retired from a large metropolitan police department after nearly 30-years. Straight out of the academy I knew the solution to the drug problem was to lock them up and throw away the key. The only reason drugs were still a problem is because the system just hadn’t been hard enough yet.

    And, the system did harden. The harder it became, the more valuable the drugs became, and the more crime resulted. The abuse and addiction rates remained unchanged from the days before prohibition. Slowly I realized that drug traffikers, drug cartels and drug crime were products of the drug laws…. not the drugs. These maladies didn’t exist in the times before criminalization. It’s the inevitable result of turning a substance with the value of table salt into something worth far more than gold.

    If we were going to to arrest and jail our way out of the problem, that would have occurred decades ago. Abuse and addiction is a constant; it exists unchanged regardless of the law or penalties.

  18. Vancouver Cop Watch says:

    People only have choice when they have opportunity.

    In the DTES no one has the opportunity to make better choices.

    It’s either sell sex,drugs, or starve for the day.

    Now where’s the choice in that???


    • Raingurl says:

      No one starves in DTES. There’s enough food handed out everyday and probably leftovers for your little dog too.

    • Janice says:

      There are always choices, for everyone poor or rich, no one is holding a gun to anyones head and saying do these drugs. It is a personal choice, has nothing to do with opportunity. There is help out there if you want the help, no one can be forced to ask for help, another choice. Many don’t want the help. Getting off of drugs is not an easy or pleasant thing. There is sometimes great pain getting off of drugs, so they say it is easier to do more drugs, than suffer the pain. It is a revolving door. No easy answer.

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