Father Emmett “Pops” Johns – The founder of Le Bon Dieu dans la rue turns 80 today!

Father Emmett "Pops" Johns – The founder of Le Bon Dieu dans la rue turns 80 today!

    MONTREAL, April 3 /CNW Telbec/ – Father Emmett "Pops" Johns, president
and founder of Le Bon Dieu dans la rue, is celebrating his 80th birthday
today. To mark this milestone, the organization unveiled a zinc plaque bearing
his handprints on the façade of the Chez Pops Day Centre, located at 1662
Ontario Street East.
    With this gesture, the organization is paying tribute to the person who
made Dans la rue a reality, by venturing into the streets one night in
December 1988 with a second-hand van, which he bought with a personal loan for
$10,000, to offer "help without judgement" to Montreal’s street kids.
    "We are the organization that we are because Father went into the night
and gave us our raison d’etre," said Aki Tchitacov, executive director of Dans
la rue.

    An impact on tens of thousands of lives

    "When I think back to the first nights I spent on the Van, never could I
have imagined that Le Bon Dieu dans la rue would be what it is today. Thanks
to the support of thousands of volunteers and donors, we have had an impact on
tens of thousands of young lives – and we continue to reach out to more and
more every day," said Father Johns.
    In addition to the "Winnebago"-style Van, which offers up hot dogs and
caring support to over 50,000 young visitors every year, Le Bon Dieu dans la
rue, or "Dans la rue" for short, has broadened its services over the past
two decades to include the Bunker emergency shelter, which opened in 1993 with
20 beds for youths aged 12 to 19, and the Chez Pops Day Centre, which was
launched in November 1997.
    The Day Centre provides a wide range of activities to street kids,
including an alternative high school, a cafeteria, employment and
socioeconomic integration programs, on-site psychologist and nurse
appointments, services for young parents, tutoring, a front-line outreach team
and music, art and computer rooms.

    His true calling

    Born in Plateau Mont-Royal in 1928, Emmett Johns was ordained as a
Catholic priest in 1952, after earning his bachelor’s degree in theology from
the Université de Montréal. Before founding Le Bon Dieu dans la rue in 1988,
he was a parish assistant with various communities in Montreal and the pastor
of Saint Johns Fisher in Pointe-Claire (1974-1986) and Resurrection of Our
Lord in Lachine (1986-1988). He was also a chaplain for various organizations
dedicated to helping young girls in crisis as well as the Douglas Hospital.
    Over the years, Father Johns’ achievements have been recognized by a
number of prestigious institutions. He is a Member of the Order of Canada
(1999), an inductee into the Académie des Grands Montréalais (2002), a
recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002) and a Grand
Officier of the Ordre National du Québec (2003). He has received honorary
doctorates from Concordia University, McGill University, Saint Paul University
and the Université du Québec à Montréal. And a 2004 Léger Marketing poll
ranked Father Johns fifth on the list of the most admired Quebecers of all

    Growing obligations

    It costs more than $3 million a year to keep all of Dans la rue’s
services – including the Van, the Bunker and the Chez Pops Day Centre – up and
running. In order to meet these obligations, the organization launched a
$2.5-million giving campaign in December 2007. To contribute, please call
(514-526-5222), write (Dans la rue, 895 De La Gauchetière Street West, N-90,
Suite 220, Montreal, Quebec H3B 5K3) or visit us online (www.danslarue.org).

    About Dans la rue

    Founded in December 1988, Dans la rue is a community-based charitable
organization that works with street kids and youths at risk in the Montreal
area. Based on the "help without judgement" philosophy of founder Father
Emmett "Pops" Johns, the organization offers food, shelter and friendship to
homeless youths, as well as the resources and services required to help them
get off the street. Dans la rue also runs a number of prevention programs
designed to educate young people about the risks and consequences associated
with living in the streets. Dans la rue has a team of more than 65 full-time
employees and 135 dedicated volunteers who work with street kids to give them
what they need to take charge of their lives.


Vancouver street kids turn to meth

Vancouver street kids turn to meth
About 75 per cent of local street youth use crystal methamphetamine, a ‘highly alarming’ study finds
Darah Hansen, Vancouver Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 01, 2008

VANCOUVER – Injection drug use is on the rise among street youth in Vancouver, fuelled by alarming rates of crystal methamphetamine use, a new study has found.

The federally funded study, authored by medical researchers with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, found that crystal meth users surveyed were four times more likely to inject drugs, compared to drug users who didn’t use crystal meth.

It’s the first time a large-scale survey of crystal meth use among street youth has been undertaken in Canada. And researchers were shocked by some of its findings, particularly around the sheer prevalence of the drug.

About 75 per cent of participating street youth reported crystal meth use – a number one of the study authors described as "highly alarming."

"I don’t think anybody knew it was that pervasive in that population," said Dr. Evan Wood.

"We’re dealing with a crystal methamphetamine epidemic here."

By comparison, only about 15 per cent of addicts on Vancouver’s drug-hardened Downtown Eastside reported crystal meth use.

According to Wood, the study raises serious concerns that this highly addictive and dangerous street drug is creating a whole new generation of injection drug users. With it comes widespread health care implications linked to increased drug overdoses and HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infection rates.

Already both HIV and hep C have been detected among local street youth, said Wood.

The study findings also raise questions around crystal meth injection rates among  youth outside the street culture, given the widespread prevalence of the drug in small towns and suburban neighbourhoods across the country.

Nearly 500 Vancouver street youth between the ages of 14 and 26 years took part in the study, which spanned September 2005 to October 2006. Most of the participants said they were either living on the streets or spent a significant portion of their day out on the streets.

"They are people living on the margins of society," said Wood.

The findings will be published this May in the Australia-based journal, The Drug and Alcohol Review.

Among other critical findings, the study found that 95 per cent of the youth who reported crystal meth use said it was "very easy" to obtain the drug, while the remaining five per cent said it was "easy" to get.

"It’s out there," said Wood.

Eighty per cent of first-time crystal meth users said they were given the drug as a "gift" at a party with friends, and most were sober when they used it.

The study also found that 25 per cent of first-time crystal meth users injected the drug, while the majority either smoked, snorted or swallowed it.

However, said Wood, the rate of injection goes up steadily among those who continue to use the drug.

"Even when we adjusted for all kinds of variables, there seems to be this link between crystal methamphetamine and injection drug use," Wood said.

Wood said the study did not address why users choose to inject crystal meth. That question will be among the many yet to be answered as researchers continue to probe the issue over the next five years.

"What leads people to pick up a needle and begin injecting is really a mystery," he said. Researchers are hoping the current study results will catch the interest of federal drug policy makers in Canada, whose current focus is on supply reduction.

"I do think we need to really start to consider where we are putting our efforts and our resources," Wood said. "Given what we are facing with drugs in society, we really need to start looking at the scientific evidence and modifying what we are doing to address these issues."

LIFE AND DEATH ON THE STREETS, PART I: Murder victim’s legacy lives on

June 14, 2007

Dead end kids

LIFE AND DEATH ON THE STREETS, PART I: Murder victim’s legacy lives on


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.

You know.

Those kids hassling you for a few cents.

Those kids sprawled out on the shadowed grade.

Those kids huddled together sharing a joint.

Those kids.

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.

Downtown dog ban unfair to street kids, outreach group says

Downtown dog ban unfair to street kids, outreach group says
The Gazette
Published: Thursday, June 07, 2007

Montreal is unfairly targeting young street kids by banning dogs in two downtown parks, says an organization that helps homeless youth, many of whom keep dogs for companionship, security, and warmth in the winter.

But the Ville-Marie borough says the ban isn’t specifically aimed at dogs owned by young punks it also targets downtown residents who let their dogs loose in the two parks: Viger and Emilie-Gamelin.

As of Wednesday, those caught walking their dogs risk fines of $100 to $1,000.

"Young people have a right to exist downtown, too," said Caroline Dufour, director of front-line services at Dans La Rue, an organization that helps street kids. "And they don’t know where else to go.

"If they set up in front of businesses on streets like Ste. Catherine, the merchants won’t be happy. They’re better off letting them stay in the parks."

The borough "is trying to get these young people to go elsewhere, the problem is where?" She said the fear is the city will ban dogs in other downtown parks and squares, as well.

"It’ll end up being a game of musical chairs."

Last fall, groups that work with the homeless were angered by the Ville Marie borough’s decision to close 15 downtown public squares to anyone between midnight and 6 a.m.

Parks were already off limits between those hours.

Ville-Marie borough spokesperson Jacques-Alain Lavallee defended the ban.

"We’re not targeting homeless people," he said.

"We’re responding because a lot of citizens and merchants who said they felt unsafe" in the two parks because of the large number of dogs, with many owners not abiding by a bylaw that requires dogs in parks to be leashed.

Some of those dogs belong to people who live in the area, including the Gay Village, Old Montreal and St. Denis St., he said.

"The number of dogs were steadily increasing and we wanted to act."

The borough said it has no plans to extend the ban, Lavallee said.

If homeless youth end up lounging in front of businesses with their dogs, "we’ll just have to monitor the situation and see what else can be done," Lavallee said.

"Do they have a permit for each of their dogs this will have to be verified by our inspectors or by the police."

Dog owners in Montreal are required to buy dog tags for their pets; those who don’t risk fines of up to $1,000.

Lavallee said the borough didn’t have to pass a new bylaw because a 1999 city bylaw gives it the power to ban dogs in parks.

Dufour, of Dans La Rue, said dogs are important to many street kids

"These are people who are cut off from their families, and they form emotional attachments with their dogs," she said.

Practically, the dogs serve as protection because there is a lot of violence out there; in the winter, they provide warmth, Dufour added.

Money Shots

Money Shots
Richard Burnett

Five original Longshots participants reunite
photo: Liam Maloney, courtesy NFB

The camera zooms in on 19-year-old Montreal street kid Carrie shooting up. Then the documentary cuts to present-day Carrie, 32, who lost custody of her children because of her heroin addiction and an abusive partner. Today Carrie’s clean, has a 9-to-5 job and says happily, "I go to work, come home to sleep, and then I go to work again."

Then Carrie cracks, "It sucks being an adult."

Carrie was one of several Montreal street kids profiled in the award-winning 1994 doc Longshots by Montreal filmmakers David Finch and Maureen Marovitch, who pioneered the "Longshot workshop" to teach video making to street youth. Thirteen years later, Finch and Marovitch revisit the former street kids to help empower a new generation of Montreal street kids in the just-released doc Still Longshots.

Still Longshots follows four at-risk youths aged 19 to 23 taking a similar video-making workshop. Making videos about their lives becomes a creative healing process, especially when they meet and spend a weekend with the former street kids from the original Longshots. What happens next is surprising and disturbing as parallels emerge between the old and new groups. Is there hope for the younger generation?

Find out when Still Longshots premieres

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at the NFB Cinema (1564 St-Denis) on May 18 at 7 p.m. with the filmmakers and some cast members in attendance for a Q&A session. There will also be live music by the band Puff and The Pillpoppers, who recorded the soundtrack. Then Still Longshots airs on Global TV’s Global Currents, March 19 at 7 p.m.

A third of street kids attend school or have a job, survey shows

A third of street kids attend school or have a job, survey shows
Doug Ward, Vancouver Sun
Published: Friday, April 13, 2007

They couch-surf or sleep in stairwells, parking lots, cars and abandoned buildings.

Most ran away from home or were kicked out when they were 13 or 14 years old.

Their early years were marked by mental, physical and sexual violence, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

But one-third of street youth in B.C. are resilient enough to attend school or hold down a legal job, according to a new study conducted by the McCreary Centre Society.

Many of B.C.’s marginalized and street-involved youth are trying to thrive and not just survive, said the McCreary report, titled Against the Odds.

Elizabeth Saewyc, the chief investigator in the study, said the findings run counter to many common perceptions of street youth.

"What surprised me the most about our survey is the real and clear determination of these young people to try for a better life," said Saewyc, a nursing professor at the University of B.C.

"The number of young people who are in school and working at jobs or were trying to get connected with their families was surprising to me.

"It was a hopeful sign."

The study surveyed 762 youth across nine communities in B.C. in late 2006.

Despite living hard times, 83 per cent of those surveyed felt their circumstances were good or fair, while 17 per cent described their lives as poor or awful.

While four per cent expected to still be on the street in five years and nine per cent expected to be dead by then, one-third expected to have a home of their own eventually.

And almost half believed they would have a job.

The study’s key findings include:

– One in three street-involved youth still attended school.

– One in three said they were working at legal jobs.

– A disproportionate number of street youth are aboriginal and that percentage has jumped sharply since 2000, when the McCreary Centre conducted an earlier survey of street youth.

The percentage of aboriginal youth in Vancouver, for example, rose from 37 to 65 per cent and in Prince Rupert from 76 to 88 per cent.

– One in three females and one in 10 males said they were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

The Against the Odds survey also found that B.C. is not attracting a significant number of street youth from outside the province. Eighty-four per cent of youth surveyed grew up in B.C.

"This finding runs counter to the perception that B.C. is a mecca for travelling homeless teens," said Saewyc.

In 2000, 61 per cent of street youth in Vancouver and 33 per cent in Victoria were from outside B.C.

But in 2006, only 20 per cent of youth in Vancouver and Victoria were from elsewhere in Canada.

While there is more optimism among street youth than might be expected, the lives of these marginalized teens remain troubled, said the report.

Saewyc said most of the youth surveyed did not choose the street life because they were rebellious teens who enjoyed drugs and travel.

"Many young people are choosing to leave home for survival. Unfortunately the street is not the safest place, but it may be safer than home."

Saewyc said two-thirds of those surveyed had been physically abused and more than half of the girls had been sexually abused inside or outside the home.

"Many of the youth said they were on the street because they felt more accepted there."

The report found that:

– Over a third of street youth reported that they had engaged in prostitution or survival sex.

– More than one in four had been exposed to or used alcohol or marijuana before the age of 11 and often before becoming street-involved.

– Fifteen per cent of males and 30 per cent of females reported they had made one or more suicide attempts in the previous 12 months.

– Forty per cent reported they had lived in foster care or a group home at some point in their life.

– Thirty-three per cent were couch-surfing and 31 per cent had no source of income.

Refuge for street kids fights for its life in inner city

Refuge for street kids fights for its life in inner city
All-ages Edmonton nightclub faces eviction
Elise Stolte, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Thursday, February 15, 2007

EDMONTON – A fledgling all-ages music venue in the rough heart of downtown is literally struggling to keep its doors open.

The landlord changed the locks two weeks ago, but the managers are still planning a nine-day series of benefit concerts starting Friday to either bring the site up to standard or find another venue.

"One way or another, we have to make it work," said Scott Ennis, who’s living in the building at the moment. He has 38 local bands booked, with more to be announced.
Scott Ennis manages the Studio, an all-ages nightclub that is holding a series of benefit concerts to help them renovate their inner-city site or, alternatively, find a new venue.

The Studio is on 105th Avenue at 95th Street, near where the downtown LRT line rises to ground level.

A ratty cardboard sign pinned up beneath the barred windows is the only hint the building is anything but a warehouse. It smells like stale beer from the bottle depot on the ground floor and sits across the street from a scrapyard.

The Studio hosts touring punk, rock and alternative acts such as Montreal bands the Matadors and the Sainte Catherines, and a wealth of startup bands seeking a stage and an audience.

Street kids come in to volunteer, getting away from the drugs and the cold for a couple of hours.

But the club doesn’t have a licence and the landlord doesn’t want trouble. The club’s eviction notice is dated Feb. 23.

"It’s nothing against them, but I don’t feel safe," said Harjinder Johal, who owns the warehouse and other Edmonton properties. "I’m a family man, a businessman, I don’t want to get stuck with the law. I don’t want this kind of thing in my building."

The Studio started renting the space 12 years ago, when a group of friends needed a place to jam.

Four years ago, one of them passed out with a cigarette and lit the room on fire. Fire crews put it out, and members of the group redid the room with an imposing 55-square-metre stage, graffiti art, couches and a row of arcade games.

They don’t sell alcohol, have a no-tolerance policy for hard drugs, welcome band members as young as 13, and are now booking up to 100 local bands a month. "We’re slowly becoming legitimate," said Ennis, who went to city planners last week to apply for a permit.

They need a business and a nightclub licence, said city technical adviser Dale Borecki.

But Johal isn’t willing to wait. The group is behind on the rent, which is $800 a month, and while the landlord hasn’t been to any of the shows, he said he originally rented the warehouse to a small group of friends and doesn’t want something this big in the same building as his bottle depot.

"I am in a cash business," Johal said. "We hand out a lot of cash, and once something happens … this is very scary."

The Studio does attract people off the street — people like Wayne Hebner, 22, who stopped by last week to help prepare for the benefit concert.

Hebner came to Alberta last year "to follow the oil dream," he said. But he didn’t have friends or the right training, so he lived on the streets for four months and got involved with drugs.

Then one night he heard the music through an open window, came inside and started to help out. Now he lives in Castle Downs with a friend he met at the Studio and has a casual job putting up drywall.

"I was into everything. Crystal meth, that was my favourite," he said. "The Studio got me out of that scene. It gives me something to be involved in. I love this place."

Many street kids beg to come in and help clean up after the shows, just to warm up, Ennis said. He lets them in when he can, and has 15 volunteer security guards on busy concert nights to keep things safe.

The venue seems safe, said Lee Lacey, a mother of three from Stony Plain. She books underage bands to play at the venue, including her 17-year-old son’s band, Missing in Action. When she comes, she has no problem bringing her two youngest boys, 12 and 9, to play the arcade games.

"It’s really well run, not just a garage-band kind of place," she said.

"I feel totally safe going outside there, and that’s the oddest thing (considering the location). It’s just a great place for kids to hang out, kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to shows like this.

"It would be tragic if these kids don’t have a place."



For a video tour of the Studio, go to Journal Videos at http://www.edmontonjournal.com

Street kids get a temporary haven

Street kids get a temporary haven

Drop-in centre at St. John’s Kitchen gives young people place to eat, shower

The drop-in centre helps about 20 people a night, says Sandy Bell, executive director of Reaching Our Outdoor Friends.

KITCHENER (Dec 13, 2006)

Almost a year after fire destroyed their downtown Kitchener refuge, street kids have found another place where they can eat, shower and do laundry.

Five nights a week, they use a drop-in support service provided by Reaching Our Outdoor Friends — known as ROOF — at St. John’s Kitchen at 97 Victoria St. N. near Weber Street West.

Sandy Bell, ROOF executive director, said the drop-in helps about 20 people from the ages of 12 to 25 most nights.

"It’s fantastic for us because we can give them a hot meal (and) they can also get food hampers," she said. "They also have a place where they can get cleaned up and do their laundry."

Before finding space at St. John’s, ROOF operated a drop-in centre at Trinity United Church. That space is now being used to provide food and beds for the Out of the Cold program for homeless people.

Bell said homeless street kids sometimes sleep at Out of the Cold church shelters.

She said ROOF is trying to get a demolition permit from Kitchener to tear down the gutted remains of the former headquarters at 242 Queen St. S. near Courtland Avenue.

Agency officials are undecided about future use of the site but an announcement is expected soon from ROOF’s board of directors.

Until ROOF finds a new home, staff will continue to work out of office space in the Betty Thompson Youth Centre at 41 Weber St. W.

Meanwhile, St. John’s Kitchen is open every day and is operated by the Working Centre.

Joe Mancini, the Working Centre co-ordinator, said the ROOF drop-in is a temporary use that is well supervised by ROOF staff.

Daily meals and support services provided for older, low-income people are finished by 2 p.m. every day and the drop-in is a completely separate service.

Mancini said ROOF does great work with young street people "and they deserve to have a proper facility where they can provide that service."

ROOF received an insurance payout on its building and about $75,000 in community donations after the Dec. 28 blaze, which was deliberately set.

Five young people faced charges after the fire, including one who was sent to prison for 33 months.

Nicole: ‘I’m out here for a reason; I’m not regretting it any more’

Nicole: ‘I’m out here for a reason; I’m not regretting it any more’ Nicole turned 18 panhandling on Toronto’s streets. Leaving home meant hard knocks and hunger at first, but she is determined to pull through.
Photo: Richard Peachey
Photo: Richard Peachey

I grew up in a small town. My mom and dad split up when my sister was just a baby. When I was a kid, money was tight. I don’t remember my mom having a job. She used to volunteer at our school – stuff like that. For clothes we would go to shelters or second-hand stores. It was a rough time. But my mom and I were close. I remember saying: ‘I don’t want to get old and if I do, I’m not going to leave you.’

School was fun ’til they tried to change me. I was 13 then and when you’re 13 you start doing your own thing and finding out who you are. I was dressing in baggy clothes and getting into trouble at school. My mom had just met my stepdad. He didn’t like me and used to beat me up. He’d say that I was going to get myself into something that I couldn’t get out of. He was the mess that I couldn’t get out of! Once he banged my head again and again on the table. I told my real dad about it but he pretty much said it’s my stepdad’s house and he can do what he wants. It was his word against mine. I felt like I was on my own and I had to take care of myself.

My stepdad kept saying that all my friends were stealing so I must be stealing too. Then I went out and did a stupid thing. I became a tag-along in an auto theft. That was the first and last time I got into trouble with the police. My mom and stepdad came to the police station and said: ‘She can stay in jail and learn a lesson.’ After that it was: ‘You’re going to a foster home. We’re gonna send you away to these places for good.’ My stepdad said: ‘They will beat you and rape you at a foster home and you won’t be able to do anything about it.’

Leaving home
I ran away in July 2002. I didn’t pack a bag or anything. I took only a purse with cigarettes in it. That was all. I stole $40 [Canadian dollars, US$32] from my mom and we spent it on beer that night. I hung out in backyards and in the forest by our town and waited three days for my ride to the city. When I was hungry, I went to my friends’ house when their parents were out and stole some food. The police were looking for me because I was on probation. But I figured if I didn’t run away, I would’ve done something stupid or been sent away. When I got to Toronto, I called my probation officer and said I’d run away because of the situation. She agreed because my dad had called her and told her that my stepdad was beating me, and that’s the reason why I got arrested. If you get hit you should tell someone – you shouldn’t put it off.

My boyfriend Mike gave me a ride to Toronto. I was 15 when I ran away, and Mike was 23. My parents didn’t know about him. In Toronto we crashed at Mike’s friend’s house for three weeks. Every day it was just walking around and stuff, and sleeping a lot. It was summer so it wasn’t that bad. I found out that they play free music outside City Hall, so sometimes I just went there and listened. I didn’t get on welfare for five, maybe six months. And it was hard to get on it because I wasn’t 18, the regular age. They couldn’t understand why I’d be 15 and run away from home.

Special guidelines used for this edition
To protect the integrity of the children in this edition and their stories, we followed guidelines worked out beforehand by street children’s charities. All the children consented to talk with our reporters after being told where and how their stories would be published. Their views have been recorded without censorship. They have been able to withdraw from the project at any point and strike out things they decided not to share with a wider audience.

Names have been routinely changed. Photographs were taken with the active participation of the children. Where sexual exploitation was an important aspect of their testimony or where children were not comfortable being photographed, visual anonymity has been maintained.

It was two years before I saw my mom again. Mike was on welfare. At first the only money I got was from him. I wasn’t worried about what to do the next day or where to sleep because at least I was out of a situation that I wanted to be out of. I had no clothes except for this thin pair of pyjama bottoms and a tank top that I wore for almost a month. I don’t remember eating much and I lost a lot of weight. During the first five months food banks were my best friends. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pain of hunger.

I stopped being shy when I was panhandling. People talked to me and I talked back. Some people would have conversations with me about dropping out of school and why I was on the street. One lady took me to Burger King for food. Once I had to fight for my corner of the street. A guy using a walking frame was yelling at me: ‘You’re taking all my money,’ so another guy who washed windows told him to leave me alone, that I was a girl.

While I was panhandling, Mike sat in Coffee Time – in the smoking area – watching me. I didn’t know he was there until once he came out because somebody was talking to me for a long time. I met some people on the street who were just watching me. This one guy got off the streetcar and said: ‘I live over there. Do you want me to watch you?’ He would just come out every once in a while, see how I was doing, and on the days I had no money he gave me some change. I said to him: ‘There’s nothing that you need to give me. Just watch me and make sure nothing happens. Like, if the police come, tell them: “She’s done nothing wrong.”’

When I first came to Toronto I met a girl who was just getting out of prostitution. I learned from what she told me. She was going through a lot. Many girls told me how hard it is to get out. If you get into the wrong group then maybe you can’t, but if you don’t then you’re pretty much dead.

Cold cash
If you meet a girl on the street and she’s into prostitution, if she’s not trying to get out then she’s gonna try and pull you in. I thought about it plenty of times. In 10 minutes I can have 50 bucks. But it’s 10 minutes of torture, pretty much, because who wants to do that?

Even though it’s hard for me to trust guys, I don’t really feel threatened by them. If I’m in a room by myself and they’re flipping out, then I’m terrified. But if I’m on the street, and I know there’s other people around, and I get confronted by a guy, I’m one hundred per cent – I’m like a bitch. I’ll stand up to them no matter what and I’ll threaten to hit them. And if they hit me I’ll go after them because I’ve been through crap that I don’t want to happen again.

What I think is particularly wrong is how the police don’t treat prostitutes the same when it comes to rape. Rape is rape and everybody – no matter who: even if they were willing [at first] and then they changed their mind and said no – they should still be treated the same. And I know. I’ve talked to these girls.

When it comes to panhandling, us girls might get more money, because people won’t question us as much on [things like]: ‘Oh is it going straight to drugs?’ and stuff. But then people will say: ‘I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you spend a couple of hours with me [for sex].’ People just assume more from us. They just think we’re something totally different.

There’s always that one drug that will pull you in. For me it was ecstasy. It helped relieve me of stress. Makes you happy. Forget about your problems. I was hooked for a couple of months. All my money went straight to that. What’s really, really hard is coming down from it the next day.

When I had a good binge on it and came down I was the biggest bitch alive. Coming down you feel really weak because when you’re high you don’t eat or drink water, so you feel dehydrated. When you come down you think about everything again and remember why you took it in the first place.

I stopped partying and started getting clean after my 18th birthday in July. The main thing I’ve learned since getting clean is that I need my education. It took me two years to go back to school. Even though here at Beat the Street [literacy upgrading for street youth] you don’t get credits or anything, it’s still working towards what I want to learn about. I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was a little kid. I just love working with food; I like to be creative with plates, giving a meal more colour – things like that.

My choice to be with Mike was an opportunity to get out of the situation at home. And afterwards, we just grew together. He helps me a lot and I was helping him with his problems at the time. He had an addiction, so when I first got with him he was just getting clean. He’s been clean for the whole time we’ve been together and that’s going on almost three years. So I guess I was his ground support.

If it wasn’t for Mike I wouldn’t have gotten in to the training programme, because I was pretty much depressed and didn’t want to do anything. You get to the point that you don’t even want to get out of bed. He kept telling me about his situation and what he went through and what he didn’t do. Just knowing his mistakes ahead of time meant I didn’t have to go through all of them myself.

I was feeling guilty for a while after I ran away from home until I spoke with my stepdad. He was like: ‘Oh this is what you wanted and now this is what you get.’ Once I heard that, I thought: ‘Well, I don’t really care’. I’ll admit, if my stepdad wasn’t
there, I’d still be at home. But I’m out here for a reason. I’m not regretting it any more.

I learn from my mistakes. We all know what we have to do to help ourselves. And we need to find the strength inside to ask for help. Go to anyone you trust. Talk about it.

Nicole spoke to Noreen Shanahan, a freelance Toronto writer and community activist.

Street children in Canada
There were 66,532 missing child reports made to Canadian police agencies in 2002, of which 52,390 were classified as runaways. About 75 per cent return to their homes within a week. One study indicated that more than 70 per cent of street youth leave home because of physical or sexual abuse. According to a Canadian Government report, many homeless youths survive on a day-to-day basis by couch surfing or living in overcrowded or unsuitable housing. In Toronto, an estimated 6,000 young people aged between 15 and 24 years stayed in emergency shelters in 1999.

The Canadian Government is trying to help by funding employment training and improving access to shelter and housing.

Nicole has received help from
Evergreen Centre for Street Youth
381 Yonge Street
Toronto, ON M5B 1S1
Tel: +1 416 977 7259
Evergreen provides a drop-in centre and
health and employment services.

Beat the Street
425 Adelaide St W, Suite 701, Toronto
Tel: +1 416 979-3361
Fax: +1 416 979-3292
Email: bts@bts.frontiercollege.ca
Web: www.beat-the-street.org
Beat the Street is an educational service for street youth.