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Those who fight to survive

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The bus shelter is filling with marijuana smoke, with four men passing around the tiny joint in the foggy Osborne Street space.  Hours ago, two of these men accepted food, socks and gloves from the RAY outreach workers.

Now, smoking – or "hooting" – is part of what this rag-tag group of ruffians say keeps them warm on the street.

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For this 17-year-old serial group-home runaway, the 19-year-old drug seller and 49-year-old street veteran, the laws of the street are dictated by substance abuse and violence.  But they say they share their drugs and wiry muscle, and it helps stave off the cold and threats.

They also have dreams – for one teen, an alcohol line, a club, a record label, for their senior mentor, a plane ticket to Jamaica – and common strands that appear in each’s troubled family history.

"If I have a couple of drinks, I’ll stay warmer out there," said the 19-year-old, who tells a reporter later he usually starts drinking by early afternoon after "slanging," – selling drugs – starting in the morning.

Tonight, the 17-year-old will sleep at a group home, while the other two men will couch-surf with friends.

If they’re lucky.  Last night, the pony-tailed 19-year-old used a "flattie" – flat iron screwdriver – to pop open a stairwell where he climbed to the stop floor and then slept. 

The two teens see their families sporadically, and alternate from the fearless bravado of storytelling to the flat-voiced disclosure of growing up in foster care.

The 17-year-old feels urges to light fires, something he says is "addictive."  He says he’s facing arson charges. He jokes about violence against a former friend who gave his name to police. Maybe it’s the mickey he drank tonight that’s talking.

His first night outside was near the River-Osborne Community Centre on a break from his group home.

"If you’re staying outside, it’s f---ing harsh. Like, I went on the run for four days and the first day was the harshest. Like, at six in the morning it started hailing and raining and I was just lying out in the bushes.  I was lying on a blanket as a bed and a piece of cardboard that I put up there so I wouldn’t get rained on or hailed on," he said.

He doesn’t like his new group home because he doesn’t know the people there, and he said he returns to the area known as the Circle to hang out with his friends.

He’ll go back to his group home tonight, or police will find out he’s gone.

Asked if he fears violence, the 17-year-old replies: "I pretty much grew up in violence.

"Like, I was never taught right from wrong. If I hurt someone, I don’t feel bad about it. It sounds weird, I don’t know, my dad, I always used to see him beating up people and I saw him stab one guy in our house when we were all drinking. So it doesn’t really have a bad effect on me."

His 19-year-old friend later explains: "You just try to have a good time."

He said survival can be "tricky," though, if he’s so "juiced" he passes out.

Adds his 17-year-old friend: "You try not to worry about it."

His one dream? "I want to go seem my mom. I’d probably hurt my dad if I see him … she’s the only one who did anything for me when I was in foster care.  Like, tried to get me out of it. So, I don’t know, she’s been taking care of my little brothers and sisters too.  But my dad hasn’t been doing that."

Their mentor rolls a joint on the table of the fast-food joint, using a paper bag to shield his hands.

He says he bands together with three or four friends to collect food from local food banks to share, and his 19-year-old friend said he buys groceries at an Edmonton Street store with proceeds he makes from his daily drug sales.  Recently, he visited with his sisters at a hotel a social service agency paid for.

"We sell drugs, we pan, we do anything we want," said the 49-year-old, initially in the bus shelter.  Later, he expresses anger at the failures of the "welfare system."

"Our world is an entirely different world from yours," the 49-year-old says.  "Life can be a little harsh, but that’s OK. We fight back. We survive. We always survive. I look after my boys."


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