VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Rashmi's choice: life or the street
18-year-old veteran of sex trade tells how she battles desperately to kick drugs
June 17, 2005
EDMONTON - "Action plan for January 9, 2005: Stay off all drugs."
Rashmi underlines "off" twice in a purplish-blue ink. Her hand is steady today, her writing impeccably neat.
CREDIT: Shaughn Butts, The Journal
A prostitute works the corner of 95th Street and 109th Avenue one evening this week.
"Drugs haven't helped me in any good ways," she says in her journal. "Now that I have experience with the struggles it makes me stronger, and I can learn from my mistakes. I have what it takes. Life's what I make of it!"
Rashmi is 17 as she writes, not far from her recent 18th birthday. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. She's used drugs for half her life. She's sold sex for a third of it. She's been beaten and cut, and done the same to others. She's lived in too many places to remember, and is estranged from her family.
These are some of her struggles.
In the months since her journal entry, three women who worked on the street with Rashmi have turned up dead. She was friends with two of them, Samantha Berg and Charlene Gauld, and knew the third, Ellie May Meyer. All of them were likely killed.
That's the fate of at least 10 other prostitutes over the past 16 years.
Rashmi fears being killed. Almost every woman working on Edmonton streets these days does.
Yet while one killer or several prey on them, more women now stand by street corners, waiting for a stranger to stop and invite them into their car. Their struggles are many -- addictions, mental illness, poverty, housing, little education, few job skills -- and keep most from escaping the street.
Dawn Hodgins, a former prostitute of 10 years, knows what they face.
"This desperation that is out there right now, I have never seen anything like that," she says from an office on 118th Avenue dedicated to helping prostitutes.
"For the money, for the next john, for the next hoot, for life-sustaining stuff like food, the desperation seems so much greater," Hodgins says.
Rashmi is trying, desperately, to escape. The petite girl with long dark hair and eyes like a doe knows her triggers, and writes them in her journal.
"1. Downtown -- I know the streets, and some people on the streets know me. Drug-using friends may be there.
2. iHuman (Youth Society) -- If I go, maybe only with sober friends.
3. Arguments -- When other people argue it may be best to not involve myself in it.
4. Depression -- Make a list of what makes me unhappy."
Her action plan on this Friday, June 17, remains the same. Stay off all drugs.
Edmonton's strolls have changed greatly since the 1970s. About 1,000 people, mostly women, worked the street then. They gathered in small groups on Jasper and 100th Avenues, between 95th and 105th Streets.
Different classes of prostitutes formed. The most attractive women worked the best corners, while the plain lookers and those heavily using drugs worked the "low track." Gays and transsexuals had their areas, too.
There was an order to the street, say women who worked then. Prostitutes looked out for each other, Carol-Lynn Strachan says.
"There were tons of us out there," says Strachan, now an escort. "We would buddy up. Have someone take down the licence plate. You then do the same for them."
This routine didn't eliminate the danger that inevitably comes with having sex with strangers for money --assaults, robberies and murder. But it did make it tougher for predators.
Changes to federal solicitation laws transformed the stroll in Edmonton as well as in other Canadian cities. Ignoring recommendations by a parliamentary committee that called for setting clearer rules to allow prostitutes to do their work, Ottawa instead passed a communication law in 1985.
Having sex for money is legal in Canada. The communication law, though, makes it illegal to discuss the deal in public. The law is now under review.
John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, has studied prostitution extensively. His research shows violence against prostitutes has vastly increased since the law's passage. The 27 murder charges against British Columbia pig farmer Robert Pickton are the most disturbing example. Dozens of Vancouver prostitutes remain on the RCMP's missing-persons list.
RCMP in Alberta have their own list. Project Kare was created in October 2003 to investigate the homicides and disappearances of people who lead "high-risk lifestyles" in the Prairies, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The list dates back to the 1930s and includes 41 homicides and 31 missing-persons cases.
There is little order on the street today, police say.
Some experts estimate 80 per cent of the sex trade has moved inside, to escort agencies and massage parlors. While fewer women work on the streets compared with the 1970s, those who do are spread out across more neighbourhoods, making them more vulnerable to predators, Strachan says.
According to the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton, 19 Edmonton communities encounter street prostitution. While 118th Avenue around 95th Street is thought of as the main strip, a police sting in April showed prostitutes working the avenue between 34th and 97th Streets, on 107th Avenue between 101st and 127th Streets, on Stony Plain Road from 149th and 163rd Streets and even in one of Edmonton's most desirable and richest neighbourhoods, Glenora. Women were arrested on 124th Street, working between Jasper Avenue and 118th Avenue.
DISPERSAL A PROBLEM FOR POLICE
Staff Sgt. Brian Nowlan says this dispersal of prostitution is an immense problem for police. Whereas prostitutes once worked in small groups, blocks often now separate them.
"Back in the '70s, we had the classic stroll," Nowlan says. "We didn't receive any complaints. It was obvious for the business people working downtown, but there were no communities, no residential areas, affected by it.
"Today, it's spreading out across 118th Avenue and that's basically city-wide." Beyond the avenue and main traffic routes, it extends to adjoining streets and alleys, he says.
"That's affecting these communities. Kids come running home with used condoms in their hands, showing mom and dad. It's become a real concern.
"This generates a lot of complaints to police and we're forced to try and put more resources to combat this."
It's February, in the week Rashmi turns 18. We're driving to the group home she's staying at, for now. Not many days have passed since the funeral of her friend Samantha Berg.
The pair met in a safe house for underage prostitutes. Berg was found dead, frozen and barefoot, in an Edmonton trucking yard on Jan. 25. Edmonton police still await news from the medical examiner on the 19-year-old's suspicious death, but signs point to homicide.
Berg was a single mother, working as prostitute to feed her drug addiction. When she was convicted of breaking the communication law in Calgary last August, the judge issued her this warning: "I am telling you that you should not be tempted to get back into this business.
"If you read the newspapers or watch the television, you understand that they are finding dead prostitutes all over this province," the judge said. "So you get on with your life in a constructive way."
Berg's death wears on Rashmi. She fears being next, but has a lifetime of pain to overcome.
In the car, she begins to share memories of her childhood. Its troubles are the reason why she doesn't want her last name published.
PARENTS ARE IMMIGRANTS
Her parents are immigrants to Canada -- her father Somali, her mother Sri Lankan. Uncles of hers once owned the York Hotel, a shabby hangout on 96th Street and 104th Avenue. The hotel became her day care.
She talks of her dad dropping her off there when he couldn't look after her. "Some of the things I've seen there, I will never forget. Why would you bring your daughter there?"
She first tried a roach when she was nine years old. She remembers being sexually abused from age seven to 11. She is just beginning to deal with and talk about those memories.
Rashmi began using speed at 12. It was a natural to try after helping fix the drug for a relative.
Rashmi was taken to a group home that year, which essentially began her life on the street. Twelve was when she turned her first trick, performing oral sex on a man in a casino.
"I've just got to find a different way of living life," she says in April as we sit on couches in an addictions treatment centre, Poundmaker's Lodge, in St. Albert.
It's one of those perfect spring days outside. Sunny and too warm to wear a jacket.
"I've been doing this since I was 12. I have an addiction to money that is stronger than drugs."
'I've learned to accept death'
Charlene Gauld was waiting to get into a methadone program when an oilfield maintenance worker found her body burned in the woods near Camrose on April 16. Rashmi cried when she heard the news, but only for a little while.
"I've learned to accept death."
Dawn Hodgins doesn't understand why prostitutes have to accept death. When she worked the street, she hung with a group of 15 girls. Through drug overdoses, suicide, accidents or assaults, 10 died in a year and half. Another woman died later.
"Sometimes I hear things like, 'Well, that's part of the job -- the bad dates and the murders, that's all part of the job,' " Hodgins says.
"If it's part of the job then these girls deserve worker's compensation or danger pay. If that's fine, then it should be even a bigger travesty when they get murdered on the job."
Hodgins works with Kate Quinn at the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation. The growing number of women taking to the street alarms Quinn.
When the foundation began in 1992, estimates put street prostitutes near 1,000, including children, Quinn says. Those numbers dropped to 300 ten years later. They are edging back up again, however.
Last year's count turned up about 500 street prostitutes, says Kourch Chan of Crossroads outreach program. The growth of methamphetamine is part of the reason, police say. Heroin is also resurging on Edmonton's streets.
The answer to the growing numbers and dangers of the street is "the million-dollar question," Staff Sgt. Nowlan says. "There's an awful lot of ideas floating around out there. What the solution is, we don't know that. It's an ongoing problem and it has been for literally hundreds of years."
Quinn says more affordable housing is needed. A study by her organization released this spring shows 13 of 30 street prostitutes interviewed had inadequate, unsafe or no housing. That's 43 per cent of the sampling. She says more transitional housing is needed, too.
One former option remains closed. Crossroads turned an inner-city drug house into a residence for women wanting off the street. Not only did the program offer a place to live, but it helped women with their addictions and other illnesses. During its two years of operation, the program helped 76 prostitutes change their lives. But when government funding ran out last year, the program closed.
No level of government has offered to provide the $350,000 a year needed to restart the program. The duplex remains open, Chan says, but women are now charged rent and the same resources aren't available.
Detectives Jim Morrissey and Jack Kraus think it's an absolute outrage that no one has stepped up to get the Crossroads program going again. The pair work in Nowlan's vice unit. Their job is to talk to prostitutes and help them leave the street. They carry money cards for groceries and offer rides to shelters or home, whatever it takes so the women don't have to sell sex for money.
On a cold February night, they stop a woman waiting for a john on 107th Avenue. She shivers and alcohol is on her breath. She tells them that she needs money for groceries, that she doesn't want to be out here, that she wants her children back from protective care.
In a case like this, Morrissey says they would have taken her to Crossroads, if she agreed to go.
"We can't find a place to put them," he says after they give her a grocery card and take her to her home around the corner. They know she might be back on the street in minutes.
"It all comes down to society," Morrissey says. "People have strange attitudes about the business, about these women."
Rashmi checks out of Poundmaker's Lodge before her treatment ends. Wallis Kendal of iHuman Youth Society has arranged a placement for her in Kelowna, B.C. There, the plan is to have her stay six months, get her high school diploma, a job, an apartment of her own.
When we talk at the lodge, Rashmi is excited about going to Kelowna. She's having suicidal thoughts again, which she began having at 13, and doesn't think she can escape her street life while living in Edmonton.
TOO MANY TRIGGERS
There are too many triggers here. Too many people who know her, who think they know her.
When she goes to Red's at West Edmonton Mall in April for a memorial for Gauld, her eyes dart nervously. She is off drugs now.
Her friends are all at Red's. The triggers and temptation are overwhelming.
"I don't know," she says as she looks around the concert room. Seeing people from her old world of drugs makes her edgy.
Since then, another Edmonton prostitute has been found dead. Rashmi knew of Ellie May Meyer, the 33-year-old street-smart veteran of 118th Avenue discovered slain in a field east of Edmonton.
Rashmi returned from Kelowna 12 days ago. The program isn't the right fit for her. Not now.
"Rashmi is very high risk," Kendal says. "She has a lot of things to sort through."
He has great hopes for Rashmi, who plans to become a property manager. On Tuesday night, he watches as she talks a 15-year-old girl off the street. She wants to mentor others, help them escape the fate she's still trying to escape.
Kendal gave Rashmi her journal on Jan. 7. On the first page he wrote: "Here's for writing! You have a great future. It is now time for you to change your life and stay clean -- you're the best!!"
The next day she writes a note of thanks to Kendal and her New Year's resolutions: "Stay off all the white shit. Get in shape. No more committing of any crimes. Go to school for my GED (general education development). Get a job."
Her action plan continues.
THE SEX TRADE UNCENSORED
In a probing six-part series, Journal crime reporter Renata D'Aliesio writes on the people who sell and buy sex, how the industry works and its local impact.
- Today: Rashmi struggles to escape street life while a serial killer prowls
- Saturday: Johns go to school
- Sunday: The secret life of escorts
- Monday: The lobbying prostitute
- Tuesday: The boom in porn videos
- Wednesday: Life after prostitution
FROM RASHMI'S JOURNAL
"Can you believe I'm 16 days clean, but I admit that I miss bein' a drug fiend
Sketchin' out and always on a mission
Quittin' drugs is a hard decision
to make and an opportunity I have to take
when you know lettin' it take control is a choice I would make
Bein' able to say no will make me stronger
With will-power my clean time will be much longer
Every day I struggle to stay clean but is it gonna pay off when I'm eighteen"
- - -
"After 26 days I threw away
All my clean time yesterday
It was easy to ask for weed money
And spend it on speed ain't it funny
how shit happens so quick
and how come it feels like it ain't what I picked
This isn't what I want
No I don't mean to flaunt
What I got
Looks, money and pot
But it all changes if I smoke grit
It ain't fun no matter how much I keep my lighter lit
But it is addiction when it comes to white shit
Crystal meth and crack for me
Quit smokin' crack and now I feel more free
I'm worth more
Than to abuse the drug I adore"
Ran with fact boxes "The Sex Trade Uncensored" and "From Rashmi's Journal" which have been appended to this story.
© The Edmonton Journal 2005
Updated: August 21, 2016