Meet Roxanne. We first met about 6 months ago via a friend of mine, who was an old school friend of Roxanne’s partner, Michelle. I had met Michelle several times previously and one night she was talking about the film, The Stairs, that Roxanne featured in. So, back in October, four of us went to the opening at TIFF Lightbox to a full house. It was an eye-opening look at the life of drug users in Toronto and how they turned their lives around. Roxanne was one of four people profiled in the film, directed and conceived by the young and talented Hugh Gibson.
Born in Toronto, Roxanne was adopted, as an infant, by a Mennonite family in the Conestoga area (Kitchener). She has two siblings, one also adopted and one the natural child of her parents, both whom she is estranged from. She spoke little about her growing up years when we met for this story, only to say that “it was an unstable and abusive environment’. She left when she was 15 years old and headed to Kitchener where she took on a live-in babysitter job for around 4 months, before heading to the big smoke, Toronto, with nothing.
She knew no one and as she puts it, “was basically on the stroll.” In my naivete, I replied “the stroll?” Then the penny dropped. “Ah, you were a prostitute.” She nodded.
She lived with a number of different girls doing sex trade work downtown, before she sought out a pimp. “So, how does that work?” I asked. “Basically I wanted to find someone who wasn’t going to beat me.” I cringed. I’m imagining a young girl growing up in an abusive environment, looking in front, to the side and behind just to stay alive and at 16, on the stroll in the downtown streets of Toronto. I paused, trying to take it all in. “Wow. So what was the money split?” She laughed. “Oh, there was no split. He would take all the money and just give me what I needed; food, lodging, etc.”
Roxanne worked on the streets from the age of 15 until she was 35 years old. She became wise to the business and how it worked and during this 20 year period, left Toronto and took her trade to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Texas, San Fransisco, LA & New York. “So, you just up and left without knowing anyone in these places?”. “Yeah, but you land, get yourself a hotel room and you know where to find the right people/connections. It’s like any business. I actually enjoyed myself some of the time. One night in Vegas, Quincy Jones paid me $5,000 to be his lucky charm at the Blackjack table. Another time, I did some touring with rap bands like Ice T and Ice Cube as a back up dancer and did some music video work as well. ”
During this period, Roxanne entered a relationship and got pregnant shortly thereafter, giving birth to her first son, Jordan in 1988, at age 21. “You travelled and worked with him while travelling through the US?” “Yep. He went to school in whatever town I was in. He was young and adaptable, like me.”
Roxanne came back to Toronto in 1996 and took to the streets again. This time round, she sought out a decent pimp, and they began a relationship. Shortly after Roxanne was pregnant with her second child, Jamal. She continued to work the streets until 1998, when her best friend, also a sex trade worker, was murdered on Jarvis St. “It was time to make a change of lifestyle. I had 2 kids and the danger of sex trade work on the streets was escalating. Rape was not uncommon, but death? No thanks.”
She stayed with Jamal’s father for a while after leaving the streets and sold her yellow Corvette (a gift from a favorite trick) to enrol in the Assaulted Women’s & Children’s Advocacy and Counselling Course at George Brown College in 2000. When she completed the course, she added and fast-tracked a 2-year Human Resources course into one year, completing in 2003. “My first job was with Voices of Positive Women as a client support worker for women with HIV and then with Turning Point, a youth shelter on Wellesley. “Those struggles were intense. Homeless people, heavy drug use, no decent food to eat etc.”
In the course of her work in agencies of change/help, Roxanne met counsellor and public speaker, Kim, who would become her future partner. “I was always attracted to women, but it wasn’t until I met Kim that I wanted to be in a same sex relationship.” They were together on and off for 9 years, both drug users. “Me, I was a user on and off. I got off them to help Kim, but to no avail. She died of a heroin overdose in 2009. After that, I went full on into abusing drugs of all kinds; mostly Fentanyl, Oxycodone, snorting, smoking, however which way it came to me.”
Her youngest, Jamal, went to live with his father during this time and Jordan was already old enough to be out of the house. “I was working at Toronto North Support Services around then and things took a real dive; the drugs, my lifeplan, my job. Rehab and detox weren’t working. And I was living on my own. Things were grim.”
That changed in 2012, when she started work at Riverdale South Community Health Clinic and met Raffi Balain, a huge advocate of harm reduction. He put her on Suboxone and got her off the drugs. “It really worked. I’ve been clean ever since.” Sadly, Raffi died earlier this year (Feb 17th) of an (accidental) overdose himself. “That killed me. He was such a great man and friend. Many client support workers are users. They have the experience, knowledge, street life & know-how. We’re really the best to help, but our own issues have to be kept in check, despite everyone looking out for one another. I believe Raffi had a speedball (a morphine & cocaine cocktail). It’s brutal. Some of the drugs on the street now are so deadly, as we’ve seen of late. Speedballs, carfentanil (black market Fentanyl from China – nothing like the real drug).”
Today, Roxanne is a happier camper. She has a great relationship with Michelle, now 5 years in, works at SRCHC, has 2 adorable grand-daughters, Katrina and Keaira and 2 sweet (and elderly) dogs, Billy and Jewelz and Pico, the cat. The film tour of The Stairs has given her some notoriety in the community and beyond. It’s been shown in Toronto (at a number of venues), Montreal and Vancouver to rave reviews. “It’s been a great year. And in a few months I’ll be 50. I made it this far and what greater reason to celebrate?” she laughs. “These are the things that make me happy now. And the odd skydiving expedition! It’s the closest thing I get to being really high these days.”
All photos provided by Roxanne, except the main photo and ‘On the job’