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Addicts Tell Kids Not To Do What They Have Done

Pierre Morais (pictured above) is an unusual tour guide. His tourists are underage teens. He leads them through the back alleys of Canada's poorest postal code. The tour features speeches by recovering drug addicts who tell stories of violence, theft, incarceration and despair. Lunch is at an eatery in Vancouver's downtown Eastside.

The service is good. But the set up is unusual. The tourists do the serving. They don aprons and take orders from behind a counter, delivering lunch at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen.

Welcome to the Scared Straight Tour, a journey designed by Morais to confront the travelers with a dose of reality so hard he hopes it will make them re-evaluate the dangers of experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

“There’s a belief that using drugs and drinking is cool. I’d like to make not using drugs and alcohol cool,” Morais says, squinting towards the sky on an unusually clear and warm Tuesday morning in the alley behind the Salvation Army’s Cordova Street clinic.

Very Messed Up

When I met up with the tour last week, I found them at the Salvation Army’s Harbour Light detox and rehab clinic. Thirteen teenagers aged thirteen to eighteen from Canim Lake near 100 Mile in central BC sat in a circle with their two youth counselors, and Morais, listening intently to a slender man with wary eyes and dreadlocks.

I sat down just as the speaker said, “I wrapped them in cellophane and left a little opening for the nose and the mouth. I tied them to the radiator. Then I robbed them. That’s the kind of thing I did to people back then. Anything to get drugs.”

Morais asked him to finish up and turned to a man named David. David wears a large earring and boasts an elaborately tattooed arm. David explained that he was native but was adopted into a wealthy Jewish household in Toronto. His point was that you could go to private school and have all the advantages that money could buy and still get messed up by drugs. His point was that drugs don’t discriminate, that addiction cuts across financial, ethnic and social lines.

David’s story went like this: Didn’t fit in. Tried drinking. Got wasted. Went to school drunk at fourteen. Got in trouble with the law. Things deteriorated. Later on, went to jail. Got out, but his father beat him up and he wandered off again. Wound up in the back of a stolen car, went back to jail. Spent sixteen years there. Got involved in injecting drugs in jail. Fashioned needles for himself out of the inkwell of pens and collapsed a bunch of veins. Got very messed up.

“I jumped out of windows. I didn’t care about my body at all. I broke two vertebrae. I was in a wheelchair for a while. This is how bad I looked.”

He passed around a photograph of himself that showed an emaciated guy with a bad attitude. “I can’t even believe that was me,” he said. He was now in recovery at Salvation Army.

He jammed his pointer towards Cordova. “This shit could be you,” he said, giving the kids a hardball look. “This is real shit. I’ve seen people die. I’ve stabbed people. I’ve shot at people. I’ve been shot at. If you’re blacking out when you’re drinking, you better stop that shit.”

“Alcohol doesn’t care who you are,” the guy in dreads cut in.

Artillery of Food Bags

Morais’s dead serious about prevention. In the hours I spent on the tour, I didn’t see him crack a smile. There was no black humour to lighten up the tragedies of Hastings Street.

Armed with bags of food that Morais provided, the teens walked Main and Hastings with Stan Mingo, a recovered heroin and crack addict who works at the Contact Centre. Stan weighs around 300 pounds and has no teeth. When he was still an active addict, he was the subject of a documentary by photojournalist Christopher North. He now works for Harbour Light.

“Everybody knows Stan and Stan knows everybody,” Morais said. Stan introduced the kids to Amber, a Crystal Meth addict, who explained that on Crystal Meth people pick at themselves and don’t realize they’re mutilating themselves. She had picked at her eyes, she said, until she had made herself blind. She remains addicted.

Walking down the alley behind the Contact Centre, the kids ran into a girl laid out flat on her back, overdosing. She had stopped breathing. She was turning blue.

Two guys from the Contact Centre had put a mask over her nose and were “air bagging her.” This process involved squeezing a bag with a balloon on the end of it to get air into her. Finally, an ambulance came and the paramedics gave her a shot of Narcon, and she revived.

The kids stood off to the side and talked with Morais. They were anxious about the woman.

“There will be fifty ambulance calls today to revive people who are overdosing,” Morais told them, and then he was silent, letting this information settle in.

It was “welfare Wednesday.” People on the streets had cash in their pockets. “Mardi Gras,” he told me later. People have money and they buy drugs. Drug dealers in the area would make $30,000 profit in a six hour shift that day. There would be two million dollars of drugs sold that day in that area, he said.

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