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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36 Responses to She made her decision, and it was the wrong one

  1. Raingurl says:

    On Christmas Eve I picked a girl up off the sidewalk after she fell. We tried to get her home, even offered her money and flagged down a taxi. She said no, she had to get back to work. You can’t help anyone that wont help themselves. She has little kids. If it was ten years earlier her DNA probably would have showed up in POCO.

  2. Helen W says:

    Where are her family? Is it possible for you to contact them and tell them where they can find her? I realize you can’t be an intermediary for everyone in need that you meet. I also realize that her family may be one of the reasons she has run away. Is there any one person she would trust, that she told you about?

  3. Mosko says:

    No problem – she still has her Human Rights to make decisions in her own worst interests.

    That’s the mantra of The Charter. The Charter of Rights now trumps all common sense in dealing with users and dealers and criminals in general.

    I know it’s considered heresy to suggest a little common sense in relation to The Charter, but when the BNA Act was in place there was the ability to control things, not just capitulate to the lowest common denominator and any special interest group with a stake in keeping the status quo..

    • Helen W says:

      We have a Charter of Rights but no corresponding Charter of Responsibilities. It doesn’t take a lot of common sense to see where that leads.

  4. Steve (not the cop) says:

    “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 agree.
    Of course, we must never think that it’s ‘too late’ for anyone out there, but when they can still feel, it’s usually a sign that they are closer to accepting help than are those who don’t feel.
    Just last night, I was talking with a 13 year heroin addict in her late 20s who told me about her father telling her to not bother visiting them over the recent long weekend, as her presence would just ruin the weekend. This girl is always quite tough and resilient… but on this night, her eyes were watery as she told me about her father’s rejection of her. Although what she was experiencing was quite painful, it was good to see that she is still able to feel.

    I wish your story would have (temporarily) ended with you stating that you gave this young girl your card and told her to not be shy to call you anytime (as you’ve done with others, I believe). Because, though this time she could not summon the courage to get away from the cesspool that wants to swallow her up, she will definitely remember your caring. But is her knowing that you care enough on its own? Having the option to call surely one of the only people who has shown her caring and compassion would be that much better.

  5. Ricardo says:

    Was the shift in the blog purposeful? I miss when it was an insight to the lives of the officers, like that video of the police dog playing games in the mostly empty building. There’s no scarcity of this angle out there.

    • Raingurl says:

      I like the shift in the blog. It helps the status quo (maybe) understand what it’s like to be a resident of the “Dark Side of Vancouver”.

  6. Sean says:

    Hi Steve,
    I hope you run into her again soon, keep an eye out for her. Maybe if you try to jam her up everytime you see her it might give you the opportunities to help her before it is too late… Good luck, I hope this has a happy ending.

  7. A says:

    Your stories inspire me to work on the DTES as a police officer. As I’m still finishing school and getting life experience, I’m eager to apply to Vancouver Police.

  8. Sue says:

    People don’t realise that addiction can happen regardless of race, creed or class. Hey at least they used condoms! I read the link also. My belief from the addicts I know is that addiction starts in childhood usually with sexual abuse. Yes not everyone who is sexually abused becomes an addict and yes some addicts have not been sexually abused. To prevent addiction we need better mental health services. Oh, by the way, since “they” decided to discontinue oxy, London Ont is now a Heroin centre.

    • Steve (not the cop) says:

      To prevent addiction, we need better parents.
      Unfortunately, the problems which lead to addiction and other forms of self-destruction are often cyclical…

      • pigeon says:

        So since we can’t wish for better parents, what’s the solution?

        BTW, does Steve the cop ever post in here? I wanted to ask him a question.

        • Steve says:

          Ask away…

          • Raingurl says:

            I’ve been guiding people to this blog. One neighbour/transit buddy has a 14 year old who may benefit from reading this blog post. Hopefully scared straight works, eh?! I also told my 19 year old daughter and her 20 something BF about this post as well and how this girl was born to a West Van family and STILL ended up smoking a crack pipe in the dirty DTES. Thanks for your blog. It helps me take things one day at a time. 🙂 *hugs*

          • pigeon says:

            Hey, Steve.
            I understand that it’s now the position of the VPD to encourage use at Insite and to discourage drug use on the street.
            When you’re on the DTES, do you ever tell people not to use on the street? Are people ever anxious and on the lookout for police, and in a rush to inject?

            Are you aware that being in a rush to inject makes people more likely to use/share dirty needles, etc. and increase chances of HIV spreading?

      • JustSayin says:

        Parents sometimes play a role, but to prevent addiction, people need to to take responsibility for the actions they take to shape their lives. At some point we need to step out of victim mode and stop blaming others (whether it’s parents, government, society, etc.) and ask ourselves: What can *I* do to create a better life for myself?

      • Janice says:

        I don’t think you can blame the parents in every case. Everyone is different, I have worked many years with drug and alcohol addicits and some of those people come from very good solid homes. Believe it or not. It is about the choices that are made for whatever reason. The addicts are not just made up of lower class people. They come from all walks of life. They made their choce to do drugs and it is their choice to get off of them or not.

        • elee says:

          Parents sometimes play a role?
          And your definition of “good solid homes” is… ?

          I think its the parent’s responsibility to raise their child to make healthy choices for themselves so that when they are faced with drugs by peer pressure or curiosity or whatever other circumstances bring people to face drugs, they have the mental capacity to make smart, educated decisions.

          • Steve (not the cop) says:

            I agree, Elee…

            I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding as to the role the parents play. The common perspective seems to be that if there is no obvious abuse (be it physical, sexual, or psychological), then all is well; then it must be a “good, solid home”.
            But to view it this way is to view just the mere surface.

            Gabor Maté (a doctor in the DTES) writes in his book ‘In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts – Close Encounters with Addiction’:
            “Once more, neglect does not need to be intentional or overt: parental stress and depression during the child’s early years will have the same effect, owing to the lack of attunement that follows… people can develop addictions without having been abused or neglected… Also at risk are kids who fall under negative peer influence during the vulnerable teen years. In such cases, however, there is usually a disruption in the parent-child relationship before the peer effect can assert itself.”

            A given family may well appear perfectly fine to all observers… the children are well fed, well clothed; they seem ‘well-adjusted’, the parents regularly say how much they love the children… But even when this is the case, sometimes the parental love doesn’t reach the child. The love from the parent may well exist, and be genuine. But if it is not absorbed by the child, there is a problem.
            We see flagrant examples of this when two children from the same family take radically different paths – one becomes a doctor while the other becomes an addict on the street. “But they were both raised in the same family with the same love”, the majority say. “There must have always been something wrong with the one who ended up on the street.”
            But it is more likely that the “something wrong” was within the family dynamic. Just because two children – even twins – are from the same family does not mean that they posses the same emotional and psychological needs. It is the parents’ job to recognize the specific needs of each child within the family dynamic. When the parents fail to do this, and ‘treat both kids the same’, the results can be disastrous.
            And the child cannot be blamed when this occurs – it is up to the parent, as the mature adult, to make damned sure that the love gets through to each child, and that their emotional and psychological needs are met.

            Indeed, personal responsibility is a good thing to enact. But how exactly does one acquire such responsibility? If it has not been nurtured within the family unit, then where is it to come from? It cannot simply be magically summoned at will, whenever it is needed. It is a product of nurturing and of the child’s evolution within the family.

            The importance of parents – and parenting – in the life of a growing child is extreme. It has far more of an influence (positive and/or negative) than most people seem to realize.

          • Janice says:

            When I said that some of the street people come from good solid homes” you can’t grasp that one? It means that the homes that some of these souls come from are from families that are very involved with their kids, they show love and are interested in what their kids are doing, there is no abuse going on, shelter food and education are provided. family involvement etc etc.Not all drug addicts and alcoholics come from disfunctional homes! A good solid home is some of what I have just mentioned. Family love and support an eagerness to love their children and do for them what it needed to become healthy, happy and successful!! It comes down to choices, some kids and adults are just not able to cope with life, they hide their feelings for whatever reason. It doesn’t mean that all druggies come from broken , unstable, abusive, unloved families.

          • Janice says:

            Not all children are born with inner strength, some crumble easily under pressure, no matter what the parents have taught them, everyone is different and handles things differently. Why do do many teens commit suicide, I am sure in many cases they have been taught everything possible. It’s pressures they just can’t cope with, It comes from within. Some things cannot be taught they have to be lived and learned.It’s all about choices!!!

        • JustSayin says:

          elee and Steve (not the cop) – If we accept your philosophy (parents are the cause of their children’s addiction) – who gets the credit when children from dysfunctional homes (e.g. addicted parents) grow up with no addiction issues?

          • Steve (not the cop) says:

            JustSayin’ – Whomever stood in as substitutes for the parents.
            In the scenario you describe – ‘dysfunctional’ (your generic word, not mine) home, but children turn out ok… there is someone – be it a grandparent, aunt/uncle/cousin, teacher, youth worker, guidance counsellor, etc., etc. who reached the child – who touched the child – when the parents did not.

            Perhaps you’d like to answer my previous question of where the personal responsibility is supposed to come from when it is not nurtured in the home by the parents?
            If no-one else (see list above) manages to reach the child (or child turned adult), where are they to find this personal responsibility you call for them to have?

            Janice: Read my previous post.

          • JustSayin says:

            Not a problem Steve (not the cop). I came from a generic dysfunctional family that included an absent father and alcoholic mother. My three siblings and I suffered from neglect, and from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. I did my first drugs (acid) and ‘gave up’ my virginity at 12 (which was well tainted by several pedaphiles by that time). My life was a mess until I hit 17, when I moved from my small northern home town to … downtown Vancouver – all by myself. I was considering prostitution as a viable occupation – but instead (thank goodness) I turned to religion and landed a job as a photocopier operator instead. The religion only stuck for a year – but it was long enough for me to give my head a shake and take a good hard look at the direction my life was going. I cleaned up my life. I can’t say all the decisions I have made in my life were good, but I’m doing just fine.

            There WERE people who loved me when I was young. My grandparents. Aunts, Uncles and cousins. There were a couple of teachers who truly cared. They all touched my heart, but my quest in life was ‘sex, drugs and rock n’ roll’ – and being a determined teenager – that was what I achieved.

            Of my three siblings – only one ended up an addict. He doesn’t live in the DTES – but his life is so similar that he may as well. The other two, like me, created successful lives. We all have children (non-addicts) own our own homes, have successful careers, and in the not-too-distant future, all three of us will collect the nice pensions we’ve worked 25+ years to build.

            My mother gets no credit for her role – except perhaps that none of us wanted to be like her. I never blamed my Dad – I know he loved us, but there were circumstances that prevented his involvement. And while I appreciate the love and kindness that the other people in my life provided – my siblings and I take full credit for the failures and successes that we have achieved.

            People can only feel empowered to change their lives if they are willing and able to take responsibility for the part they played in getting there in the first place.

  9. Robert Lewis says:

    This is not a comment but a thanks for all your good work and a suggestion to watch a video by a terrorism expert called Marc Goodman. He suggests policing is likely to get harder with all the innovations in high technology being employed by terrorists.!

    On a micro level, your blog tells us of the horrors wreaked upon gullible young people by Drug Lords far away with the cooperation of our local criminal organizations.

    Goodman show us the macro threat imposed by organized terrorists. Cyber war is upon us, if Goodman is correct.
    It is all enough to make us all paranoid.

  10. Robert Lewis says:

    This girl’s story is told over and over again with new faces and names involved. Unfortunately, the message does not get heard by these girls very often and they go ahead and destroy their lives. They are impressionable, lost and lonely and mistake the ‘kindness’ offered by some strangers as an act of love when they are given their first hit of heroin. It helps take away the sadness and anxiety at first. Soon you are addicted, not enjoying the high anymore but compulsively seeking out the drug and resorting to crime and prostitution to support your terrible addiction. How does a lone policeman intervene and help so damaged an individual that might be on the run from abuse at home or bullying at school?

    My neighbor’s daughter (14 years old) has taken to stay out for days at a time, ostensibly partying with girl friends. Her mother lacks the skills to help her daughter. Where can the mother turn for help because this girl is beginning the same trajectory as many of the individual tragedies that you write about in this blog. Home is the first line of defense and it looks pretty weak in this case.

    Maybe, if she gets off Facebook and posting pictures of her adventures on the dark side, her mother can introduce her to your blog and her likely future life.

  11. Janice says:

    This is a sad story. If you see her again maybe give her your card so she can call you. Maybe you have given her enough to make her think, she is not too far gone yet. This story broke my heart, it shows just how easy it is to go down the wrong path. No one wakes up and says well, today I am going to become a drug addict! There usually is a reason for turning to drugs in the first place. I would say mostly out of desperation and feeling like there is no other way for most. It’s a quick fix to kill the pain, whatever that pain might be. I am not a religious person, but I will pray for this young girl to find her way out. Power to you Steve!!!

  12. Julia says:

    Hi Steve — I’m a grad student studying the history of the prosecution of marginalized demographics in the Vancouver area, so your blog is of great interest to me. I have substantial respect for the VPD and I have enjoyed your previous entries. I have some concerns, though, about the ethics of your blog. I wanted to offer you some food for thought so the best interests of everyone involved might be continually preserved.

    My objection to this entry is twofold. First: there are a multitude of identifying details for this young woman; you have included her age, appearance, area of upbringing, drugs of choice, where she is (was) staying, and the circumstances under which she was staying there. I am very concerned that this entry has added an additional layer of risk to her situation; she may now be targeted should the wrong persons read this entry, particularly if you did not obtain her permission to post these details and/or if you did not change identifying details. If you did obtain permission and/or change identifying details, a line at the bottom of the entry indicating as much might protect you from criticism from police watch groups, or put the minds of folks like myself at ease.

    Secondly, and perhaps more vaguely: As someone who carries forth a social justice blog herself, there are some rules that I believe all bloggers must bear in mind when telling the stories of others. It is, in my frame of reference, inappropriate to use the experiences of others to advance one’s own personal goals without their permission. It may be that this young woman’s story demonstrates the diverse circumstances under which people find themselves on the DTES, but that does not mean it’s appropriate for someone such as yourself to explicate her vulnerability on a public forum without her knowledge.

    I understand that your intention is not to use this young woman, and her experiences, for the furthering of your goals, but I fear it may be the result. Please consider for a moment a vulnerable moment in your life, and consider whether you would be okay with someone else posting this moment, thinly veiled, on the internet. I further urge you to consider the criticisms raised to VPD productions such as The Beat and Through a Blue Lens about whether or not these programs are further exploitative to an already vulnerable population.

    I do think it’s important to bring the humanity of the DTES to the public in a meaningful and accessible way, and I think your blog begins this process. I hope that as it develops and evolves, it takes into account these issues, so that the people you encounter remain safe, sovereign, and respected individuals.

    Thank you for your time, and for your care for the residents of the DTES.

    • Russ says:

      Julia – it is academics such as yourself who have no idea of what goes on in the real world or the impact of forcing your view on other that has exacerbated the situation in the DTES. Steve is doing more to help these people then any research paper could ever do.

  13. Cynthia says:

    Thank you Steve for the hard work you do, risking heartache every day as you do your best to care for these thrown away people. You represent the best of us and show your hope and idealism by daring to set foot out there every day.

  14. Beelzebub says:

    Get a grip Julia. Keep up the admirable work Steve.

  15. Jay says:

    The girl made her choice be that as it may was the wrong one. Who is to blame for her and people in her situation starting on this downward spiral is an interesting question but pointless as there are too many variables. Who is to blame for her still being there is also an interesting question. The thing is she came to a crossroad and she made a choice and it was her choice. Sadly you can’t help someone who isn’t ready or doesn’t want your help.
    Steve you’re a good man and I have nothing but admiration for you and the effort you put in your community. Who knows what the next person may decide.

  16. Bob says:

    Sometimes the best you can hope to accomplish in a shift down there is not to leave these people any worse off than you found them.

  17. Raingurl says:

    I’ve been trying to read at least one story a day about the missing women. This girl should be doing the same. It really keeps a person in check if you can realize what will happen if (and when) you sway too far east……….Today I read about Andrea Joesbury and a poem her grandfather wrote. I’ve read the “Hope in Shadows” book as well.