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.
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.