Inner City Diary
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I don't want it to be my fault
November 28, 2004
I'm not shy about taking blame when I can see I've done something wrong.

It's not unusual for people to take issue with things I do or say. I live and work in a place where I don't always have the luxury of time to plan my response to every spontaneous combustion of circumstance.

Living in our neighbourhood, working on these streets, folks develop and trust instincts when they don't have time to exercise lengthy analysis. Those instincts have helped me quickly cut through political mumbo-jumbo, assess physical threats, or discern when someone's feeding me a line for a quick buck.   

Despite years of experience, however, I know I can still make mistakes.

But this was a little much.

A few months ago, a woman accused me of forcing her into prostitution. That was a first for me!

I'll tell you what happened so you can assess my guilt or innocence.

I was getting ready to leave the church to meet with someone. A woman I've seen on the street came to the door and struck up a conversation. As she spoke, it became evident that what she really wanted was some money.

It wasn't like I had money to give that I didn't owe elsewhere. But I decided to ask some questions anyway.

When I panhandle a funding agency for a little help in providing a service requested by the community, I usually have to go through a process. Typically the four-page application form requests articulation of goals, objectives, values, partners, and a business plan. Then they want to see my sustainability strategy and how they can evaluate whether their donation was well-spent.

I didn't have one of those forms handy, so my questions for the woman were quite basic, starting with the purpose of her funding application.

After a while, she explained that what she really needed was some money to fill several prescriptions.

Sensing my suspicions, she addressed them directly. "Do you think I'm lying? Just wait here, I'll go get the bottles."

She left the church, returning in a few minutes with an assortment of pill bottles. The labels all bore her name, and she described the purpose of each prescription. The most important, she said, was the pill which would alleviate her anxiety.

I stared at the bottles while listening to her talk, fully aware of the reality of mental illness, but still suspicious of the woman's story.

I considered the likelihood that someone smarter than me probably performed an expert assessment prior to prescribing all those drugs. But I had to weigh that against the knowledge that there are a few doctors who are said to prescribe almost any drug in exchange for financial or sexual kickbacks.

It's not uncommon for people to be abusing combinations of falsely (or mistakenly) prescribed drugs. I had to consider this as an option. I've even seen some people resell their prescriptions, pill by pill, on the street.

Still uncertain as to the legitimacy of her claim, I took another look at the woman. I couldn't escape the thought that the symptoms supposedly addressed by her combination of medications didn't seem to suit the woman in front of me.

Outwardly she displayed an exaggerated anxiety which would lead me to believe her desperate need for anxiety medication. But in her eyes and spirit, she seemed cool and methodical as she tried to coax my charity.

Seemingly sensing my thoughts, she pulled out all the stops. She even admitted what I already knew. "Yes, I work the street. Yes, I've conned people for money. But I really need this $25 for this medication.

"I know the work you do in the community. I can even help you do it 'cause I know what's going on out there."

I made my decision. Believing I was right but knowing there was a chance I could be wrong. I said I would be glad to work with her, and even advocate for help from her worker, but there would be no money changing hands between us.

There were several seconds of silence as she stared at me in disbelief.

Then she hit me with the zinger.

"Fine. But I want you to know one thing. Since you didn't give me the money I need to fill my prescription, I'm going to go onto Ellice Avenue and hook until I get the money that you wouldn't give me."

She continued: "You know how many women have died out there. Just think how you'll feel if something happens to me while I'm out there because you didn't give me what I needed."

How would you have responded to that?

I tried to affirm my care combined with my belief that what she needed would not be addressed by the money for the "anxiety medication." I said I was willing to try to get her some real help. But if she was going to do what she threatened, I knew I couldn't stop her.

She left, and about an hour later I saw her working on Ellice.

We looked at each other silently across the street. Knowing further conversation wouldn't change anything, I prayed she would at least make it home safely.

I didn't want to accept the blame for putting her on the street. But not accepting blame wouldn't diminish the pain if something happened to her.

She continued working Ellice for the remainder of the summer.

I haven't seen her for a while. I found myself praying again this week that she survives long enough to have a chance to get better.
Copyright 2004
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929