VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The Damage Done
By: Brian Preston (First published in Vancouver, March 1994)
On one weekend in May, 1993, five Vancouverites died of heroin overdoses, a typical episode in an ugly story. Retraced here are the lives that led to the deaths.
ON A SHEET OF PAPER TACKED BY HIS DESK are the months of the year, each with a number written underneath in pencil. Fourteen for January. Nineteen for March. Twenty-three in June and again in August. Double digits every month. This is coroner Larry Campbell's rough tally of drug deaths in Vancouver for 1993, almost all from heroin or some mixture of heroin and cocaine and alcohol. People die of drug overdoses in our city at the rate of 200 a year. This year, if January is any indication, the number could be higher. They are mostly marginalized, poor, native Indian. They die on the downtown east side. The coroner says if that many people died in car accidents something would be done about it. Because he sees the bodies, he feels something must be done. Perhaps in his mind's eye he sees them collectively, 200 bodies all killed by one cause, every death preventable. The coroner says, "Father, junkie; mother, hype; daughter, addict. These aren't words you see in the same sentence, and yet these people are both of those; they're somebody. I keep repeating myself over and over. People are not throw-offs. No one in our society is a throwaway."
Last May, local media were roused to a brief flicker of interest when five people died on the single weekend following Welfare Wednesday, their deaths blamed on ample street supplies of cheap, potent, near-pure heroin. Every time a person dies from heroin, the coroner's Judgment of Inquiry ends, "I classify this death as an accident." Five people die and that's a story. Five people no longer live, and are grieved and missed, that's another story.
At 1636 East 4th Avenue, just west of Commercial, was a rundown wooden house. Early this year a developer tore it down, but last October Bob and Gwynne were living without heat or electricity. Piles of dank, dark clothes absorbed the light of a single candle, and so on the wall were renderings in felt pen of a prism from a Pink Floyd album, a unicorn, a huge-breasted woman.
Bob, 23, sinewy and pallid, looked like death himself. Gwynne, 16, still possessed some youthful color and baby fat; she wore torn leggings and layers of black and purple lingerie. She asked my opinion: If she quit going to high school, would her welfare be cut off? She and Bob were living here in May when Keith Lightfoot died of a heroin overdose in his bedroom upstairs. He was 38. To them he seemed ancient, sad, beyond hope. "He used to like to write poetry and shit. At least he tried to do something constructive on drugs," Bob said. "But he would take meth and coke and heroin, and he drank, and then he would want to kill someone. I had to baby-sit him, talk him down. I don't mind helping someone not die, but later he wants to kill me. Its' given me this perma-stress syndrome; I want to run through grass nude."
He is given to these non sequiturs and grandiose statements like, "Who can say anything about anything anymore? I'm convinced this world is fuckin' artificial." He was on acid the night Keith died. Gwynne remembered that the day Keith died he brought coffee and his poems to her room. His poetry was "a mixture of Leonard Cohen and..." She couldn't think of whom else. "It was about what somebody would be writing at 35," Bob suggested. "Sort of '70s folk music type stuff." He thought for a minute. "Do you find that people who reach 35 and are still a junkie just go crazy and do it until death? He would get high and complain he was a loser and all his friends were dead."
Gwynne said, "Nobody really seemed to notice Keith's death. A few people said mean things. It was creepy."
When Keith was eight, his father committed suicide. His mother moved Keith and a younger brother and sister to Alberta, where she still lives. She took a low-paying job in a small town and raised the three kids as best she could. His mother says that as a kid Keith "stuck to himself a lot. He sort of packed a chip on his shoulder. His dad died when he was young, and that might have been a lot of his problem." She is asked how she remembers him best. "Actually, I just sit and I cry. The good things happened so long ago that I can't think of too many."
Keith had a cousin in Surrey. They were born within days of each other and hung out together at various stages of their lives. The cousin remembers. "We had some times together, and he taught me how to make music. He could strum chords and write words. A Bob Dylan type of guy. He had some talent. I've got a lot of fond memories, but he seemed to want to write his own death wish." Keith could be likable, even charming; "he could make a good first impression on anybody, but he couldn't stick with it." He couldn't hold a job for long. Even his mother admits he never liked to work. The friendship with his cousin became strained because Keith would phone at 3 in the morning, high, wanting to talk.
His sister remembers similar phone calls, "reaching out for help, yet having to be high or drunk to express it. I don't know if you understand that. We were close, I would say, but not on the communication side of it, the in-depth feelings sort of communicating. He never knew how.
"I was probably 12 when I first knew he was on drugs. Back then I thought it was cool; I always looked up to my brother as a role model. I didn't have a dad, eh? Growing up as kids we were the typical normal family except without a dad. Keith played little league ball and he sang in the choir.
"People turn around and say, Well, I guess it's the life he chose, but I don't think anybody chooses to be a drug addict or an alcoholic. It's a disease, and once you're in it, it's really hard to get out. And the way I look at his death now is he's not hurting anymore. It was really hard for me, but I think that's the best way for me too look at it. He's not hurting, he's with his dad now."
IN HER INFANCY MELISSA ANDREWS WAS FOUND ABANDONED in a shed along the Alaska Highway in northeastern B.C. Her mother was an alcoholic. A nurse in the hospital where Melissa was taken arranged to adopt her; the papers came through when she was 10 months old. She became the fifth child, a native child, in a white farming family.
Her brother says she was diagnosed with symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome "Melissa was strikingly intelligent," he says, "but it was countered by a fierce emotion and passion, hostility and unexplained anger. She was a real handful right from birth." He remembers the kind of normal childhood where "days go by and you play and watch cartoons. She loved the color purple, and anything purple was her favorite automatically. She had a little purple pony she took everywhere. But I wouldn't characterize her as a happy child; she was analyzing everything and always talking more than playing."
The family moved from the farm to Vancouver in 1983. when Melissa was five. Her parents began divorce proceedings when she was 11. At 12, while living with her mother, she began to run away from home to the streets of Vancouver. her mother was beside herself with worry, and the family would spend the night in their cars looking for her. "She runs away and comes back the next day glad to be home, and it just builds, and pretty soon she's a borderline street kid, and there's nothing you can do," her brother says. "By the time she was 13 she was on the street full time and just wouldn't come home. She'd come to visit--she was a very living girl, she would bring us gifts and cards, always phone us from wherever she was." The telephone calls would sometimes lead to meetings, usually for a meal at a McDonald's. She kept nothing of her street life from her brother, telling him of the parties, the drinking, the prostitution. "I remember the first time I saw her after she had been kicked in the head; here's your 13-year-old sister with just a terrible injury on the side of her head, and your stomach just wrenches. You can't even imagine the feeling." He felt helpless, knowing that if he were to reprimand her, "preach" to her, it would only driver her away, make her stop calling, stop wanting to meet with him. "We could tell her, this guy's manipulating you, he's a loser, we're the ones that really love you. But it just doesn't work for a child; they're given money and taken on fast boat rides...It was just so super hard on Mom. A wholesome person cannot compete with the glitter and glitz."
Her brother shows some family photos, apologizing that, typical boy, most of the photos he took as a teenager are of his car rather than his family. "It's corny, but the last thing that I said to her was, 'I love you, Melissa.' I'm glad I wasn't six or eight years younger, when you don't even say that to your mother or father. In the last months of her life, she would phone me two or three times a week, and the conversation was very adult, and she always ended by telling me she loved me. She did that with my younger brother the night before she died. That was the kick for Mom; she had been getting her hopes up that Melissa was finally maturing and realizing that family was important."
There is a photo of Melissa in the last year of her life, dressed to work the streets, in a purple silk shirt and a black suit jacket and skirt, a gray building for a backdrop. It was taken to help police, street and social workers be certain in meetings that they were talking about the same kid. Constable Dave Dickson now keeps the photo in his locker as a momento. Dickson has worked the streets of the downtown east side for 15 years, four as part of the two-man native liaison team. He knew Melissa well. "She had a great outlook and sense of humor. I got real close to her. I chased her off the street every time I saw her. She called herself the Wild Thing, that's what she was known as down here. When she was 12 she had one side of her head shaved, the other side long down here." In the photo her hair is shoulder length, jet black.
For a long time Dickson was under the impression that Melissa had no family in Vancouver, adoptive or otherwise; she kept her background secret, pretending that she had come straight from the north by herself. Her brother agreed to contribute to this story partly to combat that impression, which was reported as fact in the newspapers at the time of her death. It was easy enough to believe. Dickson says, because most of the kids he meets on the downtown east side "don't have anybody, they've lost touch with their family, or their family is just as screwed up as they are. One little girl I knew, the only one she had was her dad, and her dad sexually abused her all her life. She was bawling her eyes out on the street in my arms. She said, 'They won't let me go back to my dad' And I said, 'Well, he's the one that abused you, he's the reason that you're out here,' She says, 'I know, but he's all I've got.' Shit.
How do you fight that?"
He can remember pulling Melissa out of a house on Princess Avenue at the age of 12. "She was living with some guy over there, some idiot found her and took her in. He saw a good thing, I guess." At that time she had already begun working the street. Dickson says it happens like this: Girls as young as 11 or 12 will be asked to spot for older girls, writing down license numbers. "It's only a matter of a week or two weeks before they actually try it themselves. Guy pulls over, and she gives him a blow job, and he gives her 40 bucks, and she's back on the street five minutes later with 40 bucks. Not bad."
Social worker Renye Lebel knew Melissa from her Drake Street office, where for a while Melissa practically lived. After Melissa died, Lebel wanted to write a newspaper piece remembering her that would put a message out to "the pimps, the tricks, the johns," all those men who think that "because these girls are out there, they enjoy sex. It's not true." Many of the street kids Lebel works with (when I spoke to her she had 17 clients) are running from sexual abuse at home, and some have spoken to her of an odd empowerment: "To actually have the power to make a man have an orgasm, to set the limits of the sex act with their regulars. Because they have been used as children, the sense of control over their own bodies has been taken away from them." These are children often running from themselves, and drug use becomes part of that denial. "Memories come up like crazy when they are sober," Lebel says, meaning long-term sobriety coupled with therapy. "They can't stop crying for days and days. These kids are not afraid of dying at all. They're afraid of living."
Melissa was 15 years old when she died. Dickson says, "She was doing better because she was getting a little older and maturing a little bit, coming downtown less and less. A lot of kids, if they can make it to 18 or 19, at least they know they have a problem. When she did come down, usually an officer would spot her and let me know. This time nobody spotted her.
"When I came on shift, someone said they'd taken a kid up to hospital [where the morgue is located], and I have a problem working when there's a kid up there I might know. So I ran up and took a look, and as soon as I saw her I realized it was Melissa." He formally identified her so her mother wouldn't have to. While there were needle marks of varying ages in her arms, the absence of talc in her lungs--it's used as a filler agent in street heroin--indicated that she was not a regular user. Her death was attributed to morphine poisoning, from heroin, likely in a speedball combination with cocaine. Melissa died in the early afternoon of May 27 in the Sun Ah Hotel on East Pender Street.
THE FLOOR OF THE SUN AH HOTEL IS tucked under a giant rice bowl whose stylized steam serves as the backdrop for the neon letters of the now-empty HO HO Chinese restaurant. Up two flights and through a locked door, past a pay phone that has two numbers scrawled by it ( bus info and Van Detox), past a list of house rules ("No weapons will be tolerated in the building. Examples: guns, knives, baseball bats, etc."), past a black Lab named Trapper gnawing on an orange plastic traffic cone, is the front desk, manned this evening by a guy we'll call Alex--he says he doesn't want his name in no book. I ask to see room 209, where Melissa died. Alex hesitates, then decides that since the room is now occupied by a glue sniffer who's going to be turfed out, it doesn't matter if he shows me. Inside there is nothing but an old kitchen chair, a bed, a sink, a pile of clothing. Three hundred and fifty a month to rent. A piece of unpainted plywood covers a window-like opening in the wall--the old hotel once supplied room and board for Chinese workers who took their meals through this hole.
The workers are long gone, replaced by a collection of down-and-outers who congregate in a kind of community around the front desk, where any cigarette is shared by all. A slow-moving young girl with bread to eat but nothing to put on it canvasses the group for jam or margarine. She combs the ashtray, appraising four butts smoked into the filter. A guy named Scotty offers a swig from the bottle of ginseng brandy under his coat, blames his habit on his Irish heritage and heaves the traffic pylon down the hall for Trapper to chase and fetch. He's looking for one of the hotel's resident cats because he has a mouse cornered in his room.
A girl with half her head shaved and a long, nasty, recently unstitched scar above her earl collapses on the dirty couch after climbing the two flights from the street; she is on a two-hour pass from the hospital. She was raped and beaten by a trick and hit her head on a radiator. Alex, for my benefit, says sternly, "If it isn't an overdose, it's a beating." She ignores him. She says she had an aneurysm and was told at the hospital it was from punching the same dull needle into her arm too often. She gives the bread-eater a loonie for margarine, then disappears with her boyfriend upstairs. Everyone in this passing parade has heard of Melissa, or knew her to see her, and wants more details. When one old guy in the advanced stages of death by alcohol talks about her, Alex whispers, "He thinks she's still alive."
Alex says after Melissa died, the hard-core dealers and troublemakers moved out or were kicked out of the Sun Ah. He says he knows where to find the two young men who gave Melissa her fatal speedball, but telling would only bring him trouble. "Always the white people are the most fucking problems."
IN A BACK BOOTH AT THE OVALTINE CAFE, Dave Dickson sifts through the five coroner's reports; Melissa first, then the others. He stops at the name Morenda Isaac. "Morenda I knew really well, too." He knows her family; mother and daughter used to drink together regularly in the bars along East Hastings Street. "Morenda was just another shitty accident. She was drinking at the time and she snorted it. I don't think she fixed it. I guess the combination..."Morenda died in an apartment a block from Keith Lightfoot; her boyfriend woke at 8 a.m. after an all night drinking binge and realized she was not breathing. Her death was attributed to cocaine and alcohol with acute heroin intoxication as a contributing factor. She was 19 years old. "Last year she gave me a teddy bear for Christmas," Dickson remembers. "A white teddy bear."
Later the same day at DEYAS, the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, a street-front operation and needle exchange that does heroic work on a shoestring budget, director John Turvey checks the same five reports. "I know lots of Isaacs...Lots of Lightfoots...Melissa Andrews, that was a shame." He stops at Debbie McMath. "I've known her since she was 14. She had so much energy, incredible optimism--she was spectacular. Whether she was a pain in the butt or whether she was some glowing little missile in the universe, she was spectacular." Debbie McMath was two days short of her 30th birthday; her life ended 18 hours before Melissa's, in the washroom of a restaurant a mere half-block from the Sun Ah Hotel. The autopsy revealed all the signed of chronic IV drug use--needle tracks in her arms and legs, inflammation from talc in the lungs, and hepatitis. Turvey remembers writing a letter of complaint against the restaurant: McMath died at 6 p.m., but to avoid disrupting business, the manager locked the bathroom door and waited until closing time, 11 p.m., before notifying police. By then rigo mortis had set in.
Turvey doesn't recognize the fifth name, Allan Babiy, 41, killed by a combination of methadone and cocaine in a rooming house on Alexander Street that has since been renovated. No one else I spoke to knew him either, and his next of kin, a brother from out of town, refused to talk to me when I called. Rumor has it that Babiy was university educated and once held down a good job.
John Turvey is a former heroin user. Asked what the high feels like, he responds, "It wasn't the high, it was the absence of pain. It's just, 'I don't hurt anymore.' So many addictive people spend their life just coping with chronic trauma and chronic pain. People have unresolved traumas and they get addicted, and they can't get the money to pay for the drugs, so they end up on the street and part of the criminal subculture.
"Most likely 70 or 80 percent of these people could be diverted by rational approaches to addiction. Aggressive methadone maintenance programs allow people access to narcotics other than the 100 block East fucking Hastings."
He goes on: "Maybe we should stop criminalizing people who for whatever reason find they're prone to needing a support or a crutch in life. Certainly there is an element who are criminals, and I'm not a wuss. Do the crime, do the time. All I'm saying is there's a lot of people out here that aren't very good criminals and really don't want to be there, and most of them would be a hell of a lot more productive and might even contribute something to society if we would just give them the option of accessing the drugs away from the criminal subculture.
"All our programs to deal with addiction fixate on abstention. Why don't we fixate on, You're an addict, let's figure out how you can manage your addiction and get a job and get on with your life?"
According to a survey by the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control, the needle exchange in Vancouver is the most cost effective in North America. Last year they handed out 745,000 on a budget of about $500,000. They save lives: Turvey says the HIV infection rate among addicts is 2.5 percent compared to six percent in Toronto and 18 in Montreal.
Turvey offers a newsletter citing 40 cities, most of them European, that have committed to a more enlightened approach to heroin use, bringing addicts into care by making the drug or its synthetic substitute, methadone, available to them. Certainly the current approach, the revolving door of the criminal justice, helps no one. A front line cop like Dave Dickson talks of the absurdity of "arresting the same people over and over again." But if you can refer them someplace and get them some help, that way we get them off the street, and it's far more cost effective too.
"The population down here on the east side is largely native, and they're such easy prey," Dickson says. "They're born victims. The landmark seems to be the Sunrise Hotel. You go up north and talk to people, and they all know the Sunrise; that's where they are suppose to meet their brother or their uncle."
THE SUNRISE HOTEL ANCHORS THE NORTHWEST corner of the 100 block East fucking Hastings that John Turvey spoke of as the supply point for Vancouver's dispossessed and drug dependent. To get through the door into the hotel pub, you must first run a gauntlet of tense, tough men asking, "Are you looking?" To score drugs, they mean. Even when a police squad car is stopped at the light 15 feet away, they still ask.
Inside the pub are the victims, they prey on. A guy with one eye swollen shut is dancing to a band playing 'We're Here For A Good Time, Not a Long Time.' At a nearby table, eight members of a family are drinking together. One tells me where they're from, and I say, "That's a beautiful place. Why would you leave there to come here?" I'm told, "We were put in foster families." Oh. A few more members of the family arrive, and since my table is needed to accommodate everyone, I am invited to join them. They have a brother named Brian, as am I, and they tell me his Indian name, which means "he has a generous heart." I am introduced around the table by that name.
Later, after we have crossed the street to drink at the Columbia Hotel, one of the women orders a double gin and tonic and points to a loner sitting in the corner. "He'll pay." He has been buying her drinks for three years, ever since he got out of jail for killing his brother. She accepts his drink but, sensing violence in him, not his company. When he and I cross paths in the washroom, he shares his troubles: unforgiven by his family, judging himself unworthy of this woman's goodness, he buys her drinks while leaving her unbothered, as a form of penance.
Someone comes by our table with news of the death of a friend. One of the women says to me, "Native people are dying, Brian. It's not right." Later, this same woman will squeeze my hand tight while telling me how an older sister died while being raped and tortured by drunken sailors. Tearful from the telling, she suddenly begins to vomit a fluid the color of milk all over the empty seat next to her. I go to look for a paper towel, to put distance between myself and her pain, which has staggered me, and in the washroom find two men exchanging a needle. They look at me without anger, as if to say, This is our affair; respect it and leave it alone.
Enough reporting. Enough voyeurism. But there's got to be a better way than leaving it to the criminal subculture to offer people release from their pain.
Updated: August 21, 2016