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 Balmoral Hotel. Despite its regal name, the Balmoral is quite possibly 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 Balmoral 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.