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House of horrors, and needles that changed her life

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I have no other words: the Ross Avenue home where a 30-year-old woman died this week is a total dump.

There’s a toilet seat on the front porch, and an old mattress. I have an empty codeine bottle on my desk that came from a nearby sidewalk, never mind an empty hairspray bottle littering a vacant lot to the east side of the property. The doors are sealed with pieces of plywood, and I debated whether or not the property was vacant before someone yelled at me from behind a closed door.

(He didn’t want to talk to me. Fair enough. The other neighbours had plenty to say about screaming and ongoing violence there, as well as people they’ve seen going in and out of the home with jugs.)

I’ve spent enough time on Ross Avenue that the conditions of some homes don’t surprise me.

Most recently, I spent hours sitting there last summer after Joey Victor McLeod was stabbed in broad daylight in front of playing children, making terrified witnesses under the age of 12.

Spring came again, and so it seemed somehow appropriate to be out there in the sunlight again Wednesday. Some things change with the seasons. Others don’t.

One woman in a nearby Manitoba Housing suite had a cardboard sign on her door telling people a particular man no longer lived there.

Scratching the surface meant finding out she’s the mom of a disabled daughter who moved into the suite and was sick of being harassed by junkies looking to score from a former tenant.

What world is this, these runes scrawled on a piece of pathetic cardboard?

Anyways, cutting across the side yard of 406 and 406 ½ Ross Wednesday afternoon was a small girl in pink and her grandma. Chatting with them was a glimpse into a life I haven’t lived.

Grandma is a mom to seven adult children, who’s adopted her young grand-daughter after her adult daughter got hooked on crack.

Today, her grand-daughter bears the hallmarks of that history: like many FASD kids, she screams and cries unlike other kids. The little girl’s prone to a 10-mile stare at strangers, bubbling saliva on her lips for kicks. Grandma’s no saint. She, too, was immersed in the street lifestyle. That meant needles. That meant drugs. That meant striking her own adult daughter one day as Grandma sat on a toilet and struggled through pangs of withdrawal. One of her low points was panicking as that daughter turned blue before her.

But Grandma’s take on the property, and the empty codeine bottle I picked up in front of her, was fascinating.

She said police warned her about walking across the vacant lot because of the refuse. But she said something I didn’t expect:
"I use that to teach (my grand-daughter)," she said. She said she points out needles and crack cocaine she’s found to her grand-daughter to warn her about evil, and to tell her to stay away from dangerous things. It’s wisdom from garbage. After all, Grandma said she changed her life after a fateful day in a drughouse where she saw children playing with needles. After she mentioned it to one of the kid’s guardians, she got a chilling response: "He said it was their toys," she said.

That haunted her for months, eventually forcing her to pick another path. She still fights the cravings, vanquishing them with prayer.
Sister Maria Vigna, Rossbrook House’s co-executive director, said dilapidated and derelict homes are a scourge on the inner-city neighbourhood.

"That affects not only the aesthetics of a community, it affects the spirit of a community," she said.

Often, I read coverage and commentary that says criminals and drug addicts can’t change, all offenders are bad, that no heart can be redeemed.

In many cases, that could be right, and we count on people like police to protect us from the greatest evils hardened offenders pose.
I believe officers who say it’s a small pool of people who commit the vast majority of serious crimes.

I also know this: no child should have to skirt an empty hairspray bottle and a condom wrapper on their way to school.

But there is wisdom from garbage, I believe, for the lucky ones.

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About Gabrielle Giroday

Gabrielle has handled the police and crime beat for the Winnipeg Free Press since 2009, meaning she’s seen the best and worst humanity has to offer.

Covering the crime beat in a city known for its homicide rate and violent crime can be challenging, but Gabrielle tries to look at the more complex factors that drive violent events. She began the beat after originally joining the Free Press in June 2005.

Her previous experience contributing to the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine, the National Post, Maisonneuve magazine and NOW Magazine. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Queen’s University Feminist Review, and completed a degree there in politics and English. Some of the Toronto native’s favourite adventures include hitchhiking in the Cuban countryside during a stint studying in Havana, and hanging off the back of a jeep climbing the Kanchenjunga mountain in Nepal.

Gabrielle also felt privileged to write about the first-time elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the summer of 2006, and received a grant from the Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian International Development Agency to write about sexual violence there.

She recently went to Cameroon in fall 2010 as part of an expert election monitoring team, on behalf of the Commonwealth.

When she’s not chasing a story, Gabrielle can be found jogging every morning by the Legislature and down Portage Avenue.

She’s always enthusiastic about stories that involve investigating the road less travelled or the opinion less broadcast.

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