When Winnipeggers say they're afraid to go downtown, afraid of belligerent panhandlers and a gauntlet of addicts, they're really talking about William Bear.
Bear, bulked up in layers of clothing underneath a faded flannel jacket, is sitting under a leafless tree in the park at Main Street and Higgins Avenue. He's dopey and drooling from a sniff high.
Dustin Schollenberg and Wraylynn Black, outreach staff with the Downtown BIZ who were checking out the park one afternoon, know Bear well. Schollenberg says the scars from old burns on Bear's face and neck came from the time he lit a cigarette while solvent fumes were coming out of his pores. That could be street lore, though.
According to a court hearing late last month, where he pleaded guilty to carrying a knife tucked into his pants, Bear has been detained for public intoxication 53 times and has acquired a pile of probation and bail violations.
He is trying to get himself into treatment and housing after his old place burned down.
Originally from a huge family in Berens River, Bear says he has lost touch with them.
"They don't care about me," shrugged the 34-year-old.
If Winnipeg has a poverty problem and the downtown has a homeless problem, solvent abusers are the rock-bottom evidence of both.
On the street, sniffers are the lowest of the low, reduced to huffing arguably the most toxic substances for the cheapest, shortest, dirtiest high. They are held in contempt even by other street addicts, even by those who get drunk on mouthwash or hand sanitizer.
Some treatment centres won't take solvent addicts because of the incredible bundle of problems they have -- everything from severe mental illness to the effects of years of traumatic abuse to problems with basic life skills. In a way, sniffing to escape those problems is a logical choice.
"They have suffered terrible, terrible losses," said Margaret Ormond, a nurse practitioner and researcher who has spent years working with Winnipeg's homeless.
"They are very much outside of any group, even street people."
Solvents are a cheap and easy escape from the despair and sheer boredom of street life, creating an initial feeling of euphoria, light-headedness and even hallucinations.
"It's like acid," said Sophie Morris, a mother of several children and a chronic solvent abuser who stays at the Main Street Project.
"Why don't you try it?"
Solvents also reduce feelings of hunger and create a sense of false courage and unusual strength. When people are sniffing, there's little reasoning with them. Encounters can occasionally turn violent on a dime but are normally slow and laborious.
"It gets you out of reality... It gets you in your own little world," said Terry Accobee, as he hung around with friends on a vacant lot near the Main Street Project. He started sniffing at 15. He's now 58.
"It was just people saying 'try it,' but the next thing you know, you're addicted," he said. "If it's there, I'll buy it."
The high lasts only a few minutes before the solvents become a downer. That's when nausea, headaches and dizziness kick in as the solvents slow down the body's central nervous system.
Long-term, solvents kill brain cells, cramp joints and disrupt muscle function, contributing to what many describe as a stiff, shuffling, zombie-like walk. At least, that's the common wisdom. No one has ever done a real scientific study of the long-term effects of sniff on brains, muscles and joints.
Many chronic sniffers have faces that shock -- drooling, with scabs and sores around their mouth and nose.
"It's like watching a flesh-and-blood human decomposing before your eyes," said Sean Goulet, director of the Lighthouse Mission.
Many sniffers use old rags or pieces of sock soaked in paint or lacquer thinner. Or they huff directly from Chubby bottles -- stubby, kid-sized bottles of fruity pop that can be easily hidden in a pocket or up a sleeve so police or Downtown BIZ redshirts don't take the sniff away.
Inside the Chubbies, there are normally a couple of ounces of clear paint thinner or lacquer. Chubbies go for $5 on the street.
It seems counterintuitive, but there is no federal or provincial law that clearly prohibits sniffing or selling sniff. And there is no specialized treatment centre in Manitoba for adult solvent abusers.
In fact, there is no solvent-abuse program for anyone over the age of 25 anywhere in Canada. Many argue typical drug rehab programs don't work for sniffers. As one inner-city expert said, detox programs and addictions counselling tends to be aimed at white, middle-age men, and those programs are generally only 30 or 60 days. Anecdotal evidence suggests that model doesn't work on toxic chemicals that are stored for weeks in fatty tissue, and it doesn't work for people who may be brain-damaged from years of sniffing.
Nearly a decade ago, the government estimated there were 3,500 solvent abusers in Manitoba. It's not clear if the number has changed much since then.
At least one or two Manitobans die every year from solvent-related deaths, many on northern reserves where solvent abuse is an epidemic of its own. According to the Manitoba medical examiner's office, a 13-year-old has been among the victims.
And those are only the recorded deaths. Staff at the Lighthouse Mission say they lose a few people every winter, often to the cold as they try to keep warm in bus shelters.
Brian Sinclair, the wheelchair-bound man who died in a Winnipeg emergency room after a 34-hour wait, was at one time addicted to solvents. In June, 41-year-old Barry Redhead, a longtime downtown solvent abuser who appears to have befriended almost everyone on the streets, was run over by a truck at Main and Higgins while panhandling. It was an event that, as Siloam Mission executive director Floyd Perras said at the time, attracted more attention from the media and the public than Redhead probably had in his lifetime.
The 2011 Street Health Report that looked at the health issues of Winnipeg's homeless people found 6.3 per cent of the 300 people interviewed reported abusing solvents regularly. That might not sound like a lot, but it's three times higher than a similar study in Toronto found.
"There's a lot of stigma attached to sniffing or using solvents and inhalants, meaning the actual number of people using them is likely to be higher than reported," the report acknowledges.
Experts say there are perhaps 100 people in downtown Winnipeg who are persistent solvent abusers. Experts know little about them and how to help, because there's almost no empirical research on sniffers to help guide programs. And sniffers, because of the stigma and even because of the way they smell, are an admitted challenge to every social service agency short of a few soup kitchens, the Main Street Project and a support group run out of the Mount Carmel Clinic.
The Lighthouse Mission's Goulet says he knows 30 to 40 solvent users who visit his Main Street mission regularly. If you serve soup to the long lineup of homeless people one afternoon at his mission, the sharp, rubber-cement smell drifts by with every fourth or fifth person and eventually fills the long, narrow room.
Staff keep an eye out for people trying to sniff subtly, holding a sleeve to their mouth as though warming their hands. Sniffers are allowed to be high when they arrive. They just can't sniff inside.
"They are the most volatile, the most emotionally and physically dysfunctional," Goulet said. "The solvent and the need for it just enraptures everything that person is."
A study underway in Winnipeg of 500 aboriginal homeless people includes about 25 solvent addicts. Similar studies are underway in four other cities as part of the Mental Health Commission of Canada's massive research project on homelessness. Compared to other cities, local researchers say Winnipeg appears on first blush to have a uniquely high number of solvent abusers living on the streets.
Almost everyone agrees there are virtually no programs aimed squarely at sniffers, as though society has made a passive decision that solvent abusers are too far gone to bother, that money is better spent on people who can still be saved.
Solvent addicts downtown are also almost entirely First Nations or Métis, the most visible products of the destruction of the country's first peoples. As one activist said, "No one cares much about sniffing Indians."
It's a vicious circle. The legacy of the residential schools system, years of broken treaties and extreme poverty contribute to this downtown problem. The sight of sniffers on downtown streets reinforces the racism that further diminishes aboriginal people.
Solvent abuse among First Nations people is not a new problem.
A 2003 study found half the youths under 18 on the reserve of Pauingassi abused solvents.
And Canadians were appalled in 1993 when a tribal police officer in Davis Inlet, N.L., made public a video of six Innu children getting high on gasoline in an unheated shack, shouting they wanted to die.
The crisis spawned several youth treatment centres across Canada, including the Whiskey Jack Treatment Centre in Norway House.
But the solvent-abuse epidemic among First Nations youth is largely invisible to Winnipeggers, even though many of those young people eventually migrate from remote reserves to Main Street.
Winnipeg's solvent tragedy walks the downtown streets every day, prompting calls from business leaders, politicians and the public to crack down on vagrants. The voices were especially strong when Air Canada moved its pilots and flight attendants out of downtown hotels, saying, in a thinly veiled reference to native people, the core was too violent.
In addition to the devastating human toll, solvent abusers and other addicts cost taxpayers millions, including for services such as the Downtown BIZ patrols, police and paramedics, the courts and social service agencies like the Main Street Project.
With winter here, the first line of defence is the small handful of shelters such as the Main Street Project and Downtown Biz outreach patrols -- seen by some as an attempt to roust vagrants off the streets and by others as a street-level way to head off disaster.
The outreach workers, who are newly empowered to transport sniffers and alcoholics to the drunk tank at the Main Street Project, hand out mittens and tuques, hot chocolate and doughnuts when it's cold and try to intercept people when a tragedy might occur -- when someone might freeze to death or get in a fight or overdose or get hit by a car.
Downtown BIZ outreach worker Schollenberg tells the story of a man the BIZ patrol knew well who was found on Main Street, almost unconscious because he'd put a doused sniff rag in his mouth. Outreach workers knew that was the man's habit.
"If we didn't get there in time, if we didn't know to check his mouth..."