'Nothing's changed' in Vancouver's drug-plagued Downtown Eastside

Lori Culbert , Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, February 25, 2008

VANCOUVER - Cheryl Paul smiles in the cool February night air outside Pigeon Park, where Vancouver's addicted, homeless and mentally ill often congregate with their curious collections of personal possessions.

"I used to be homeless, on the streets, using heroin and cocaine," says Paul, 29, reeling off a list of unspeakable abuse she says she has suffered.

"I've been beaten. I've had guns held to my head. I've been sodomized by baseball bats. I've been raped. I've been through lots of hell."

But six months ago, Paul says, she got off heroin and stopped selling sex. Her friendly young face, dotted with sores, beams with pride as she explains she now has a small room in a dirty single-room-occupancy hotel, panhandles to make money, and has reduced her drug addiction to a maintenance dose of methadone, and smoking crack.

"Cheryl is our success story," Bernie Williams, a community activist who knows these streets well, says as she hugs the thin young woman.

Success is a relative thing in the Downtown Eastside.

While Williams is proud of Paul's accomplishments, she says the environment in which her milestones were achieved is getting more dangerous for women.

Williams, a director of the United Native Nations and a former coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, insists that very little has changed since the February 2002 arrest of serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton, charged with murdering 26 women who disappeared off Downtown Eastside streets.

His high-profile first trial, which ended in December with a conviction for six of those murders, resulted in international media attention on Canada's poorest neighbourhood.

And while the negative publicity over the last six years may have sparked governments to make some improvements in the Downtown Eastside, women's lives continue to be in danger, advocates say.

"Nothing's changed. It's gotten worse and worse and worse," Williams says as she and friend Gladys Radek take a Vancouver Sun reporter and photographer on a night-time tour of the Downtown Eastside.

Williams stops in front of Pigeon Park, a stark place of concrete, wooden benches and mayhem. Dozens of people are spreading out belongings and hawking items on a rare rain-free winter evening.

Among them is Paul, a friendly woman born on Vancouver Island, whose life story reads like that of so many other vulnerable people in this troubled area: She says her mother was an addict, she was abused as a child, and she sold sex for seven years to support her drug addictions.

She moved to Vancouver in 2005, following a boyfriend here.

"I was working the streets to support both our habits, and he was stealing. But he left me and I've been by myself ever since. I hit rock bottom."

Naked and alone, she overdosed on heroin in the Carnegie Centre bathroom. She was hospitalized for four days, and was discharged with referrals for drug counselling.

"I was so down and out down here, I thought it was time to quit. I had double pneumonia. I got eaten alive by bedbugs in the alleys," Paul said.

She was accepted to the NAOMI (North American Opiate Medication Initiative) Project, which gave out free prescription heroin with the goal of reducing the harm associated with addiction.

She found a tiny room at the Stanley Hotel, and today is on methadone in her fourth attempt at kicking heroin.

"This time it's been the most successful. I'm proud of myself. I have a place to live. I did it myself."

But she still worries about the violence on the streets, and says some of her friends have disappeared.

Paul learned about loss as a teen. When she lived in Campbell River, she babysat the infant daughter of Marnie Frey.

Frey eventually moved to the Downtown Eastside. Pickton has been convicted of killing her.

"Marnie was always about, at our friend's place. She'd bring over her daughter. All of a sudden she didn't come around anymore. We were all worried," Paul said. "She was gone."

That's a fate Paul doesn't want to meet herself.

Like Frey, three of Williams' friends are on a police poster of 65 women who disappeared from the neighbourhood from 1978 to 2001: Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Dawn Crey.

Pickton was convicted of killing Papin and Wolfe, who vanished in 1999; DNA belonging to Crey, who went missing in 2000, was found on Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm, but he was never charged in her case.

Williams fondly recalls "partying" with Papin, an outgoing, street-smart woman. "She was an incredible woman. Short, but a real ball of fire," Williams said.

"Police said since Willie Pickton was arrested, there was no more women missing [from Vancouver]," Williams said. "That's not true."

When asked for proof, she points to bulletin boards at resource centres covered with notices about women who haven't been seen by their friends or relatives.

The Sun saw clogged bulletin boards at WISH (Women's Information Safe House), the Salvation Army and the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.

Cynthia Low, administrative coordinator at the Women's Centre, argues that sex-trade workers in Metro Vancouver are continuing to meet terrible fates, just as they did in the 1980s and 1990s. If you don't believe the posters papering the notice boards, she says, consider that prostitutes in recent years have disappeared, and some confirmed murdered, in other areas of Canada, including northern B.C., Edmonton and Niagara Falls, Ont.

"Even if you look nationally, internationally, sex-trade workers are targeted because they are vulnerable," says Low, who has been advocating for women here for 16 years.

There are also fears that growing poverty here is forcing more women into the survival sex trade, to support drug habits or children or to pay the bills.

While she praises efforts by Vancouver police in recent years to reach out to those in the Downtown Eastside, Low argues police, politicians and society generally do not have increasing safety for sex-trade workers as a priority.

Sgt. Ron Fairweather has been credited for turning the Vancouver police missing-persons unit from a dysfunctional office that largely ignored families reporting disappearing sex-trade workers in the late 1990s, to one filled with dedicated officers who track down the missing.

He says all 2,893 missing person reports the VPD received in 2007 were resolved, except for one file that was transferred to homicide because investigators believe the man is dead.

Fairweather cautions that some of the missing-people posters in the Downtown Eastside could be posted by worried relatives when a person isn't actually missing, and others could be out of date.

He acknowledges Vancouver streets may be no safer for sex-trade workers today, as their occupation continues to be a "risky, risky activity." However, he insists all missing-persons reports received by his office are followed up immediately.

"Long gone [is] the neanderthal way of thinking, the way things were in the past," he says.

VPD's missing-persons unit also solved all of its 4,004 files in 2006, Fairweather said.

There remain 20 outstanding missing-person files dating from 2002, when Pickton was arrested, to 2005. About eight of those are women but the majority aren't from the Downtown Eastside, Fairweather said.

One who was from the neighbourhood, Candace Giebel, is on some of the posters on the bulletin boards. But Fairweather says Giebel is believed to have left the country with Henry Peters, who is also listed missing.

Another poster in the Downtown Eastside says Michelle Delorme, 21, has been missing since January 2005, something that worried her sister Nicole for three years. The RCMP said they were notified the Burnaby woman was missing in March 2007 but did not put out a news release until two weeks ago - and 24 hours later she was located, alive.

Family members of the 26 women Pickton is accused of killing have long complained police were slow to respond when they reported their relatives missing.

Cpl. Alexandra Mulvihill, who speaks for the Burnaby RCMP, says there is no policy on when a missing person bulletin is issued, noting officers must balance a woman's safety with her right to privacy, and without inundating the public with bulletins.

In Delorme's case, police waited to ask for the public's help until they got evidence she might still be alive, Mulvihill said.

Jamie Lee Hamilton, a former Downtown Eastside sex-trade worker who is now a community activist, recently made a list of about 20 women she believes were involved in the sex trade, and who have been murdered or disappeared from Metro Vancouver since Pickton's arrest in 2002.

The list, compiled over the last six months with the assistance of a Simon Fraser University student, proves that violence against sex-trade workers did not dissipate once the Port Coquitlam pig farm was removed from the streets, Hamilton argues.

"We're trying to draw attention to the violence continuing," said Hamilton, who is more critical than some of the police response to sex-trade workers going missing.

She says the violence cuts across generations.

Hamilton runs a program with Vancouver Native Health for young people who were sexually exploited.

"One of the missing women, Michelle Gurney, her niece is in my program," Hamilton says.

Gurney, who disappeared in 1998, is on the poster of 65 missing women, but Pickton has not been charged in her case.

Hamilton's list includes Ramona Shuler of Fort Nelson, who was 36 when she was last seen in 2003. Several other women whose names are on the list are still profiled on various websites dedicated to women who have disappeared, but RCMP spokeswoman Const. Annie Linteau said they no longer show as missing in the police computer system.

The list also includes women whose disappearances or murders remain unsolved: Danielle Larue, missing from Vancouver since 2002; Michelle Choiniere, of Surrey, whose skeletal remains were found last year; and Margaret Redford, whose body was found in an Aldergrove creek in 2006.

Davey Butorac, an Aldergrove man, was charged last month with the murders of two Surrey sex-trade workers, and is a suspect in Redford's death.

Linteau said the Missing Women Task Force investigates those whose names appear on the missing women poster, who all went missing before 2002. Women who have disappeared since Pickton's arrest are investigated by police forces where they are reported missing.

Hamilton and others argue there is anecdotal evidence that the number of women who are vulnerable on the streets is on the rise.

During The Sun's walking tour, dozens of people were sleeping on the streets - in sleeping bags, tents or lean-tos made of cardboard or plastic.

In Blood Alley, between Cordova and Water streets, rats scurried past a dozen people slumbering on the pavement.

Near a cluster of tents, under an overhang across from the Army & Navy department store, a young woman used a car's side mirror to apply lipstick as she gyrated on the sidewalk, bumming smokes.

"These are women who are mentally challenged," said Williams, who walks through the Downtown Eastside, checking bars and alleys for women in trouble, nearly every night.

"They remind me of Sereena Abotsway. Vulnerable women are being preyed on down here."

Abotsway, a well-known character in the area, was described by her foster mother as having the mind of a child. Pickton was convicted of her murder.

In the city-run Evelyne Saller Centre, about 50 people are watching TV on a cold February evening. In the back are six showers where the homeless can wash, delouse, and have their jackets and shoes sprayed to kill bedbugs. Seventy-three people had showers the day The Sun visited, a relatively slow day, according to the staff.

Employees use seven washing machines and dryers to do 85 to 100 loads of laundry daily in the winter, 130 to 140 loads in the summer - a big increase over the past few years.

Darlene Rowley, an attractive, outgoing woman, has spent time living and working the streets of the Downtown Eastside, a place she describes as rough and abusive. She has struggled for years with a drug addiction - her ups and downs are captured by the Vancouver police "Odd Squad" in its Blue Lens films -  but she has been clean about four weeks and is trying to kick the habit for good this time.

During her first meeting with The Sun, she was in severe withdrawal and her eyelids were so heavy that just a thin strip of her green eyes peeked out. Her finger moved slowly across the 65 faces staring back at her from the police's missing women poster, and she painfully pointed to five she recognized.

"I remember Sarah, when she went," Rowley said of Sarah deVries, who vanished in 1998. "Everyone was upset. It was a big deal. She was a pretty girl. She dressed nice. ... I just remember her always being happy-go-lucky, smiling."

Pickton is charged with murdering deVries.

Rowley's eyes stop on the next face she recalls: Sheila Egan, who disappeared in 1998. Pickton has not been charged in her case.

Rowley and Egan lived in the same Downtown Eastside hotel. Rowley has fond memories of Egan's crazy sense of humour, but also recalls picking up her freckle-faced, blond-haired friend when she was dope-sick, nursing her back to health with food and small doses of heroin.

"She was a really nice girl and we'd phone her mom to tell her Sheila was okay," Rowley said.

But eventually Egan wasn't okay, and Rowley, 43, wonders why she is still here and her friend is not.

"It makes me sad because it could very well be me ... because of the predicaments I put myself in, because of my lifestyle. It's crazy. It's the chances I took," she said. "I'm lucky that I didn't go missing. It could have been me."

Wednesday: Rowley tries to stay clean in detox. Critics say there aren't enough resources to help women when they want to get off drugs.

 Vancouver Sun

Odds stacked against women trying to recover - Part Two



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016