Jack Knox: A street survivor’s perspective

Somewhere between the two extremes — those who want to hug all the messed-up people on the street, and those who would happily hose them into the Inner Harbour — stands Sue McMurter.

On one hand, she is solidly for law and order. She has little patience for the ivory tower lefties on city council, the ones whose view of street life is filtered by ideology, the cop-bashers who don’t understand what the police really do. She is tired of the discarded needles in her Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood, of the stranger’s hand rattling her door at 4 a.m.

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On the other, she calls the conversion of area hotels into temporary housing “a good start.” And long before the province announced $36 million for youth treatment centres this week, McMurter was passionately arguing the urgent need for such facilities, particularly here on Vancouver Island, where none exist. She has nothing but sympathy for people like the young woman she found living in a tent the other day, unaware of the help available to her.

For McMurter, 45, has a rare perspective: Three decades ago, she was a street-entrenched runaway. And she knows that if you want to paint a picture of an individual, you can’t use a broad brush.

Her story goes back to 1989, when the then 14-year-old found herself on Vancouver’s Granville Street after fleeing traumatizing violence. She survived by couch-surfing, panhandling, living in squats with other broken, bullied teens. The streets were full of such kids, gravitating to their own sub-cultures: criminals, punks, goths, racist skinheads, non-racist skinheads….

Knowing that she needed an education, she bounced around a series of schools, where no one paid attention to the honour roll student who would be there for awhile, then be gone.

At 15 she asked about getting government help, but because her family home was in the Fraser Valley she was sent to a welfare office in Aldergrove, where a social worker basically told her to stop whining and go away. Great. Already feeling like she didn’t matter, she had it confirmed by officialdom. “The world’s telling me I’m a complete piece of shit.”

So she stayed on the streets where, because she wasn’t crossing paths with the police or creating problems in school, she was effectively invisible. No one saw that she was anxious and depressed. No one paid attention to the drinking and the drugs.

She avoided some of the traps, though. “Pimps are looking at me and I’m, like, ‘I know what you’re after. Go away.’” She scrambled for jobs where she could find them, even working at a high-end south Granville salon until customers complained she was too young.

It wasn’t until she was 16 and starving that a friend dragged her to the provincial government’s adolescent services unit in search of meal vouchers to a local restaurant. “Where have you been all this time?” asked the man in charge. “I came in here before and you guys sent me away,” she replied.

After that, McMurter was taken into government care, which first meant a room in an infamous flophouse, then — thankfully — a spot in a group home for girls run by a wonderful woman named Lenox who provided structure and, more importantly, caring. McMurter went to alternative school, where she thrived. “I didn’t have the obstacles the other kids had.”

In fact she did so well that she outgrew the group home — which proved to be her downfall. Deemed strong and competent enough to live unsupported, she moved out on her own at age 18. Without the structure provided by Lenox, it was a disaster. She found herself surrounded by addicts. It was 1993, the year the China White heroin wave broke over Vancouver. “B.C. Ambulance personnel were having nervous breakdowns. They were hauling bodies out of dumpsters.” It wasn’t only the street addicts who were dying. There were high school kids, business guys in Armani suits.

“It was not just the Downtown Eastside. The ugliness was absolutely everywhere, and there was a gang turf war exploding.”

Then, far away in Ontario, her grandmother died. “That was a massive hit to me, losing her. My grandma was the one person in the world who loved me, and she was gone.” McMurter was closing in on her 19th birthday, which in those days meant aging out of government care, falling off a cliff. She was scared.

“My whole peer group was going downhill with all the heroin that’s around,” she said. She found herself alone in an East Van slum, no job, no school, nothing. “I felt completely abandoned by the people who were supposed to be taking care of me.”

Back then, when youth in care turned 19 they would get shuttled down the street to the adult welfare office, assigned to a formidable woman who would admonish them to get a job. Blunt advice, but the alternative was the treadmill in which the ambulance sirens began as soon as the welfare cheques were cashed.

McMurter got into program in which street kids got restaurant training while working at a cafe. That went well until her anxiety caught up to her and, instead of helping her work through it, her government-funded employer dumped her. What made things worse was that the job had made her ineligible for social assistance, so, unable to pay her rent, she found herself on the street again. “Thanks, guys.”

She drifted to Denman Island where, while working in a restaurant and living in a tent, she turned 20. Then came a similar job in Invermere, then other towns. She was still self-medicating, but the more she distanced herself from her old life in Vancouver, the more she met new kinds of people, saw more possibilities.

She was 23 and living in Calgary when she got clean.

What was the catalyst? “Just knowing that that there’s more to the world, and being smart enough to know I didn’t want to die in a gutter…. Knowing I was capable of being more than that.”

She focussed on gaining the life she wanted, not quitting the one she wanted to leave. It worked. “I’m someone who came out the other side.”

So now she is married and has a government job — and the perspective that comes with lived experience. The latter allows her to eschew that broad brush being applied to both campers and the used-to-be homeless now living in temporary housing. The actions of some shouldn’t leave them all branded as criminals. Nor are they all little lost lambs.

“The little lost lamb talk has to go away,” she says. Social justice warriors can’t excuse anti-social behaviour. “You can be compassionate and have boundaries at the same time. You can take care of people without letting them burn down your house.”

But you do need to take care of people, which means that it’s not good enough to offer harm-reduction strategies that aren’t accompanied by treatment. “Sure it gives them clean supplies, but where’s the incentive to stop?” So, yes, those youth-treatment beds are desperately needed. So are treatment beds in general. People in need matter, even when made to feel that they don’t.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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