I was walking with a coworker. Perfumed, polished, our business casual slacks sharply snapping; our long, luxurious hair flouncing in the sunshine in downtown Vancouver. We encountered a crusty, dirty punk girl who, in a surly voice, asked if we had any change to spare. I paused to dig up some quarters from my pocket, while both women watched me critically. The coworker wondered why I was wasting my time and money on this eyesore, and the girl sitting on the spit- and gum-caked sidewalk was taking stock of my appearance, writing me off as rich yuppy scum. I cringed under their mutual scrutiny as I placed fifty cents in the grimy hand. As my coworker and I continued on with our walk, she haughtily informed me that she “won’t give money to people like that girl”, who are there because of their “stupid choices”. She explained that if drug addicts, street people and the like were to simply make different choices they could do better for themselves; they were in their predicaments because of their own doing. Certain that her affluent place in life was a result of her superior decision making, she was clueless that I was sifting through memories of being a young, crusty, dirty, little street-punk girl in another time and place.
I left home when I was 13 years old and never returned. I spent 7 months on the streets during the coldest prairie winter months before being apprehended and placed in the Canadian foster/group home care system. I had run away from the wealthiest neighbourhood in my city, from a home with cupboards full of food, luxury cars in the garage, and continuous abuse that made life on the streets worth the sacrifice of those comforts. At home I had been threatened with foster care, I had been fed myths about what foster care would look like, as if it were a system of torture, shackles, and dark closets. With my limited knowledge, running away seemed to be my only option besides suicide.
Street cuisine featured blended sugar and butter packets for breakfast and scrapings that people left on their plates in shopping centre food courts for lunch and dinner. I slept in concrete stairwells, apartment building lobbies or laundry rooms, and on anyone’s floor who would let me spend a night. I stole things sometimes, mostly candy and books. I learned how to deal with sadness and hunger by chain smoking; cigarettes were easier to get as a panhandler than enough money for food. Besides, I was a kid — kids don’t generally spend what money they have on healthy food. Sure, I spent money on drugs and cigarettes, much to the dismay of those who criticize beggars for spending money on such things. Those of us who lived on the streets begging for change from strangers were not there because it was a comfortable, easy-living lifestyle for the lazy, we were there because we were escaping something more painful, or because we were wounded, or, in many cases, because there was mental illness or personal dysfunction making it a challenge to function in the “normal” world. Anyone who thinks people choose this lifestyle out of simple laziness do not understand how challenging it is to survive on the streets, or how very uncomfortable that lifestyle is.
Life on the streets for youngsters is full of a variety of perils. Dodging authorities, violence from other street people or criminals, and the clutches of predators are all part of daily life for both male and female street kids. I scrambled to evade a female gang (the girlfriends of a notorious male gang) who intended to do me some serious harm with knives. I took a very hard punch to the face from an enormous punk rock girl who spent weeks hunting me down, and a terrifying group of skinhead girls wanted to leave Doc Marten treads in my head, all of which required constant fear and vigilance to avoid.
The sexual predators that I personally encountered were an eclectic bunch. Numerous were the people looking to take advantage of a dirty, hungry, lonely street kid short on options. There was the wholesome and safe-looking couple who found me shivering outside on a cold winter night. With great “generosity” they offered to let me sleep on the couch in their hotel room, only to use me as an awkward, squirming audience to their sex life until I scrambled out of there, tired and desperate for somewhere to sleep. There was the wealthy restaurant owner who, after watching me hungrily slurp down the cheapest bowl of soup on the menu, sat too close beside me and, with a greedy wink, handed me his business card with a whispered promise of money should I want to meet his friends. There were pimps who seemed, under the grimy circumstances, like jolly, charismatic, sparkly beacons of opportunity to somewhere new; fatherly men with big, warm hugs and promises of cross-Canada travel for young girls like myself. I had a close call with such a pimp, who was arrested just days before I was meant to pile into a pimp bus packed with young girls to be shipped to Vancouver’s pedophile meat market.
At the end of the seventh month, a “friend” of mine told me about this great gang who had been admiring me and wanted to share lots of free alcohol with me. Now, looking back, we can clearly see what a dangerous, crazy choice it was to agree to go along with this; at the time, I was a starving, lonely, depressed and lost child, willing to walk into the jaws of destruction if it meant any escape from the monotonous hell that I was living. I agreed to meet them at 11 pm in a mall where street kids hung out. That evening, a friend who was concerned about how malnourished and unhealthy I’d become cornered me. She kept me in place until the police she’d secretly called arrived to haul me off to a juvenile detention centre. That happened at 10:45 pm. I missed imminent destruction of my life by 15 minutes. This intervention and the arrest of the pimp were the two most magnificent strokes of luck in my life that I could ever have asked for.
Years later, when I moved to Vancouver, I saw the reality of the life that I would’ve lived had I boarded that pimp’s bus or met with the gangsters. The young prostitutes brought in from other Canadian cities to Vancouver live a life of extreme violence from pimps and from johns. They suffer heroin addiction, HIV, and other diseases and health problems. In high statistical likelihood, most of Vancouver’s young prostitutes die early deaths either by murder, disease, or overdose.
Sometimes, when I’m in the company of my well-to-do friends who’ve never tried to survive in these dangerous, impoverished realms of society, I have to stomach their ignorant opinions that street people, prostitutes, battered-down junkies, the “dregs”, are undeserving of handouts because they are there as a consequence of their own poor choices. This may be literally true; however, people who are on the streets needing help and handouts are often suffering from something either medical or psychological that has caused their decision-making faculties to malfunction. As for the sneering, surly demeanour often displayed by people asking for spare change, I suspect that if I’d learned to put on that look I may have appeared less approachable to the various predators who saw in me a target for exploitation (the female police officer who was with me as I was processed into the detention centre said that I seemed to be “too nice” for this scene). Not showering for 7 months offered me some protection from random rapes and molestations due to my stink and lack of sex appeal, but the determined predators could see beyond this protective mechanism. That surliness I didn’t get the hang of often goes had in hand with poor personal hygiene as an effective self-defence technique.
I made my way out of that life because of publicly funded Canadian social programs. The foster care system was far from perfect, but I lucked out once again and was placed with a woman who genuinely cared about me and did what she could to help me get my life in order. I attended a program geared to rehabilitate former street kids into mainstream society. They placed me in work experience at a cool instrument store tuning guitars for a summer, which led to self-confidence and networking opportunities that led to further jobs in the music industry. As my self confidence and work experiences unfolded, my innate networking skills led me to a good number of job opportunities as I worked my way into the dot-com boom as a well-paid, highly skilled internet marketer, despite my past, and lack of education.
Alas, funding to that street kid rehabilitation program was cut years ago; it no longer functions, along with similar programs aimed at offering a helping hand to Canadian street youth. Consequently, the young people on the street need some pocket change more than ever before. People who are up shit creek, living on the streets, are rarely there because of such simplistic reasons as poor decision making, but regardless, once in, there are many ways for them to become forever lost in the dangerous labyrinths of society that most people in North America have no idea exist. I was lucky; two of those tunnels in that labyrinth closed to me just in time and I was able to get out, unscathed.
Now I shower regularly, own a home, have been married for a decade and am the mother of 3 children. I did not escape the life of a junkie prostitute because of any great decisions or choices that I could proudly take credit for. I escaped two very close calls because of massive strokes of luck, and a social system that provided a helping hand as I crawled my way back into the mainstream world. We really can’t know what it’s like to live as others do unless we have been there, and just as we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, similarly, we shouldn’t judge a woman by her great hair and business casual wear.
- In this era of Googlability, the author may be contacted anonymously via Emma: email@example.com.
This was written in the spirit of gratitude to the many people who spared some change out of their pockets in my time of great need.
Image by Flickr user Orbmiser, used under a Creative Commons license.