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Being an Addict and Working the Streets on Skid Row

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Section: Ideas

September 28, 2011

Being an Addict and Working the Streets on Skid Row

A dispatch from the In our Own Voices writing project

by Diane, DTES Power of Women Group

Photo: Tre Lan

VANCOUVER—When I was about 15 years old I ran away from my parent’s home in Burnaby. My parents were alcoholics and there was a lot of abusive behaviour and yelling in our home.

This is common in a lot of Native homes, but I think this is because our parents are mimicking the behaviors of abuse that they learned in residential schools. Residential schools were a terrible nightmare. White people were in charge of the schools and their main purpose was to ‘beat the Indian out of us’. It was a means of controlling Native people and trying to subordinate us to White society. Young Native people were ripped from their homes, beaten when we spoke our own languages, and denied the right to our history, our culture, and the safety and wisdom of our families. My dad used to get beat up badly in the residential school that he was in, and so he behaved the same with us.

One night my sister and I decided we had had enough of our parents’ drinking and fighting. We jumped out of the window and took nothing except the clothes on our back. I remember thinking: “What are we going to do and where are we going to go?” We hitchhiked all the way from Burnaby to Main and Hastings, the heart of the Downtown East Side (DTES).

Once we got to Main and Hastings, we ran into two older guys who allowed us to stay with them and introduced us to pot and alcohol. But of course, we could not stay with them for free. We had to have sex with these two men. They would get us drunk and then force themselves on us. Although they took advantage of us sexually, we stayed with the two men, because we felt it was safer than the alternative of being alone on the streets or back in our parents’ abusive home. As with many other women fleeing parental or partner violence, my sister and I became re-victimized as women without homes and vulnerable in our relationships with men.

The police were often looking for us because we were reported as missing by our family. Until we became legally recognized as adults, the police would track us down and drag us back home, where we would get locked into our rooms. Because the abuse at home did not stop, we kept running away. The police never asked us why we kept running away; they just keep dragging us back to the same situation that we were running from.

At the age of 16, I started hooking (working on the street as a sex worker) in the DTES. I learned how to talk to guys, how to ask for money, and how much to charge. But I did not know much about safety—such as using condoms to protect against STIs and pregnancy. I had four abortions while working on the street. Working the street was also very dangerous because you never knew if you would come back alive. According to a 2001 PACE report, one-third of surveyed women in the survival sex-trade in the DTES said they had survived an attack on their life. A guy could beat you, rape you, or murder you. I feel lucky that I wasn’t one of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims, though I know that I easily could have been. I remember hearing that he was driving around the area where I was working. I knew three of the women who were murdered on his farm.

One night a guy picked me up in his van. He grabbed me by my hair while I was in the backseat and tried to rape me. I was screaming so loudly that someone walking by knocked at the van door. The guy opened the back door, pushed me out, and drove away. I never reported this incident because I was too scared and believed that the violence committed against me was my own fault. Also, I do not trust the police. They judge those of us who live in the DTES, particularly the working girls. My friend who once tried to report an incident was told by the police: “You are a hooker. What do you expect?” Just like many other people in our society, the police stigmatize women in the sex trade, which is exactly why men prey on street-level sex workers as targets for violence and know that their crimes will either not get reported or not be taken seriously.

But working the street was the only way to make enough money to support myself and to get my own place, away from those two men. I was also addicted to drugs by then, which I did to forget the violence of my parent’s home and the pain of the streets. I started by snorting cocaine. Then I started smoking crack in a pipe. Doing drugs is fun at first; it helps ease the everyday pain of just wanting to end your life. But over time, I started to realize how dangerous it was—three of my personal friends overdosed and died. Over 4,700 injection drug users live in this neighbourhood, and until recently, overdose deaths here outstripped all other North American cities.

It is not just the probability of overdosing that worried me, but also the risks associated with the street-level drug trade. People are often trying to steal your drugs. If you have a drug debt with your dealer, they show no mercy. Women have all of the hair on their heads shaved off, are kidnapped and tortured for days, or are pushed out of their windows. I knew a woman who was raped all night by several different men because she owed money to the drug dealers.

After 15 years, I realized I wanted a better life for myself and I believed that I deserved it. Even though I had a drug habit and needed money to survive, I decided to get out of the sex-trade. My boyfriend at the time helped me realize that I could get other work and take better care of myself. So I started volunteering and working on furthering my skills. I am proud of myself now.

I really wish my life had turned out differently, but I had few options back then. So that no one else has to go through what I had to go through, I believe there should be housing available for young girls so they do not end up homeless or in an unsafe housing situation. If I had a younger sister, I would do everything possible to prevent her from entering the sex-trade. I believe it is important for young girls to know that the street is disappointing and dangerous.

The government should make it easier to get on welfare and raise the welfare rates so women do not have to work the streets to survive. Welfare for a single person without disability is $610, made up of $375 for rent and $235 for support. Even in the DTES, average rents in slum buildings are above $450, forcing people to rent in unsanitary housing and leaving us hardly enough money for food. Our society should also make it easier for people who live in the DTES to work because no one is willing to hire people who have the DTES as their address or who have no address at all. Finally, I think people should have more understanding and compassion towards us. We should not be judged for who we are or what we do for trying to support ourselves when no one else even seems to cares whether we live or die.

Diane (not her real name) lives in the Downtown East Side and is happy to have a life where she can start over. She wishes others could do. She likes the DTES Power of Women Group.

This story was originally published on the Vancouver Media Co-op as part of the Downtown Eastside Power of Women “In Our Own Voices” writing project. For more information and to read more stories, please visit http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/author/dtes-power-women-group

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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