June 14, 2007
Dead end kids
By JON WILLING & KENNETH JACKSON, SUN MEDIA
A memorial mural to slain street kid Steven “Cactus” Beriault is displayed on the wall of an underpass at the intersection on Rideau St. and Sussex Dr. yesterday. Beriault died after being knifed in the underpass a year ago today, and friends say his slaying has had a major impact on their lives. (Sean Kilpatrick/SUN)
Steven "Cactus" Beriault’s death could have easily been forgotten. He was a vagrant who was knifed in an underpass considered an intimidating route between Wellington and Rideau streets in downtown Ottawa.
To the world outside the street community, he was simply one of them.
Those kids hassling you for a few cents.
Those kids sprawled out on the shadowed grade.
Those kids huddled together sharing a joint.
In a year when a father killed his wife and three children and a young couple were gunned down in a car outside a shopping plaza, the Cactus murder on June 14, 2006 might be low on the list of homicides Ottawa residents remember.
But not everyone forgets. They want to know why a young person dies for no reason.
They also don’t forget when someone is killed in such a public place — a place that doubles as a home for the young homeless.
That’s why, over the many days following Beriault’s death, youths mourned the mischievous 21-year-old who was an eccentric soldier in the street trenches. They remembered a young man defending his turf.
At the time, it became high profile. Politicians, fresh off the blocks in a city election campaign, took notice. Some were quick to use Beriault’s death as a jumping-off point for their crime platforms. One candidate held a press conference not far from where the homeless kids sleep every night.
So what has happened in the year since Beriault died?
Friends of Beriault argue nothing has changed since his untimely death.
They say the politicians did nothing to prevent a similar incident.
Consequently, they took it upon themselves to secure their living environment.
Street kids say they changed their routines.
No longer were they sleeping alone, or in twos or threes.
They were sleeping together in large packs, always trying to find a friend who had a couch or maybe a spot on the hardwood floor.
"Politicians were very anti-homeless and took advantage of the situation. When the campaigns ended we never heard from them again," Brittany Mandel says.
"They didn’t change anything, we changed. People were sleeping in larger groups."
Mandel, 17, knew Beriault and says they were best of friends.
Losing him was too much. A few months after his death she lifted herself out of the streets and is now volunteering to help street kids.
"It was absolutely devastating," she says. "He was the ultimate, always smiling, always happy.
"If you were sad, he’d be like, ‘Come on smile, come on’. "
Street kids have taken it to another level. Outsiders are not welcome and have to be vouched for. If they don’t know you, they won’t talk to you.
If you are a new street kid, they’ll take you in and offer protection. It just might take a few days before you become part of the gang.
Mandel believes losing Beriault, as tough as it was, happened for a reason.
"Everyone that really knew Cactus got their life together. I don’t want to say it was a good thing that he died but I think it was meant to be," she says.
"He knew he was going to die that night. He was saying his goodbyes before he died. He felt it."
Beriault’s death also touched older volunteers who spend hours each week trying to help street youths.
"Cactus’ death was a very big event on the street," Judi Tedlie says, explaining that it has been "the worst thing that has happened" since she began volunteering with Operation Go Home in early 2006. "It was very sad. It was just unbelievable."
While Coun. Georges Bedard, whose ward covers much of the downtown streets where the youths live, agrees more needs to be done for the kids, he’s impressed with what’s trying to be accomplished. It has been an ongoing process that wasn’t necessarily prompted by Beriault’s death, Bedard says.
The city is working closely with Operation Go Home and Byward Market ambassadors to inform street youth about the various services available to them. The area business association is also stepping up and offering youths opportunities to make money by helping complete various maintenance projects.
Just last month, the Young Men’s Emergency and Transitional Housing Program launched downtown. The program is filled to capacity.
If there’s anyone who can gauge the past year on the streets, it’s Kim Chadsey, the executive director of Operation Go Home.
Recently, she was warmed by a new hope that Ottawa residents are finally at the point of taking homelessness seriously. She can’t explain her source of optimism, only that "it’s just a good feeling."
Today, Beriault’s nickname is attached to the drop-in centre at Operation Go Home, a reminder of how dangerous the street can be, an inspiration for a life far from vagrancy.
To those kids, he’s impossible to forget.