||Nicole turned 18 panhandling on Toronto’s streets. Leaving home meant hard knocks and hunger at first, but she is determined to pull through.
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.’
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.
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
Beat the Street is an educational service for street youth.